It’s the season of political comebacks, and don’t think ex-President Donald Trump isn’t watching.
Twice in as many days, in Brazil and Israel, former world leaders who just can’t give up that tantalizing taste of political ambition have moved to the cusp of a return to power. Past scandals, their own legal nightmares and treacherous politics aren’t stopping them from recreating that dream of a past glory. Trump would love to plow a similar furrow.
Both former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and ex-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have shown that time out of power could be a springboard for unlikely political rebounds.
This may be a hopeful sign for Trump, who has leveraged the midterm elections next week as a show of his own power within the Republican Party, anointing a crop of nominees who promote his 2020 election fraud falsehoods.
Trump has left no doubt that he’s itching to mount another presidential campaign – not just because he misses the spotlight. He possibly sees a new White House bid as a shield against possible indictment in several criminal probes.
“I will probably have to do it again,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Texas last month, referring to the possibility of his third presidential campaign, which would be rooted in his still-high popularity in the Republican Party but could founder on his far more uncertain standing among a broader general electorate.
American presidents defeated after only one term have generally faded pretty fast into history. Trump would need to emulate a feat achieved only once before, by President Grover Cleveland, who lost the election of 1888 only to return to the White House after exacting revenge on President Benjamin Harrison after his victory four years later.
The art of the political comeback
Israel’s Netanyahu, one of Trump’s closest friends on the international stage, would love to get the band back together with Trump.
On Tuesday, the former prime minister, first elected in 1996 and who has dominated Israeli politics for much of the last quarter century, was on the verge of a stunning second comeback, as initial exit polls suggested he may have won a narrow majority in yet another election in a nation politically split down the middle.
And on Sunday in Brazil, Lula da Silva, who’s known as “Lula,” narrowly defeated President Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff election. While Trump probably would have preferred the opposite result since Bolsonaro is something of a protégé, the leftist former leader’s win showed that former presidents can have second acts.
Lula da Silva, a former two-term president of Brazil, has, like Trump, had his run-ins with legal authorities. In fact, his long and winding road to a political return detoured through a partial jail term for alleged corruption. The Supreme Court’s annulment of his sentences cleared him to run again.
There had been fears that Bolsonaro would emulate his US alter ego and fellow Covid-19 mask rejectionist by refusing to accept the result of an election that tipped him out of power after only a single term. But while he hasn’t conceded, the man known as “The Trump of the Tropics” says he’ll respect the constitution and hasn’t so far resorted to inciting an insurrection to try to keep his job. But he’s unlikely to go away: He lost the election by the narrowest of margins, his political movement is still strong – and, like Trump, he may be looking to the future.
Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva aren’t the only blasts from the past who’ve tried to pave a way back to power. In Italy, three-time former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is back in parliament after a tax fraud scandal, though his attempt to play kingmaker in coalition talks dissolved after he boasted about his ties with old friend Russian President Vladimir Putin, who just happens to be a hero to Trump as well.
Like Lula da Silva and Bolsonaro, Trump enjoys fervent support from loyalist supporters who aren’t dissuaded by their run-ins with the law.
Lula da Silva emerged from jail as a hero to his followers, one-and-a-half years into a 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering imposed in 2018.
Netanyahu, however, is still embroiled in his corruption trial and faces one charge of bribery and three charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate investigations. He has adopted a distinctly Trumpian approach to his plight – slamming the investigations as a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup” and, like the former US president, has raised doubts about the legitimacy of the judiciary.
As he travels the world, President Joe Biden has been telling allies that “America is back” or, in other words, that the disruptive Trump administration that alienated allies and saw the American president cozy up to dictators, is over.
Yet many foreign diplomats – as they observe the vitriol and division in the United States and Trump’s strength with his base, not to mention the state-level candidates he’s elevated this year who could oversee the 2024 election – wonder how long they can bank on the more traditional, multilateral brand of stable US leadership Biden is trying to restore. Even if Trump doesn’t run in 2024, the power of his movement is so strong in the GOP that a possible future Republican president would likely share his populist, nationalist, “America First” instincts.
The comeback that failed
Still, the comeback trail is not always kind to populist leaders who have fallen from power. Ex-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just saw his attempt to win back 10 Downing Street foiled after the short, but disastrous premiership of his successor Liz Truss.
Johnson – once referred to as “Britain Trump” by the former US president – last month failed to persuade sufficient Conservative MPs to reelect him as their leader and, therefore under the British system, as prime minister.
The chaos, scandals and mismanagement of Johnson’s premiership featured partying in Downing Street when the rest of the country was being told to observe strict Covid-19 protocols. Conservative MPs opted instead for former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, who has only been in power for a week but is already finding out what many observers believe to be the case – that the Conservative Party is ungovernable.
Johnson, like Trump, isn’t ready to cede the limelight. On Tuesday, he told Sky News that he planned to attend the COP27 climate summit in Egypt later this month. He made the announcement after Sunak said he wouldn’t attend owing to the demands of salvaging the British economy. But on Wednesday, the sitting prime minister tweeted that he would indeed go to the conference – amid suggestions he didn’t want to be overshadowed by one of his predecessors.
Johnson, unlike Trump, did not get defeated in a general election. Instead, his colleagues decided he was an electoral liability, which is very different from how the GOP has treated Trump.
Johnson still believes he has a mandate to rule, given the landslide election win he masterminded in December 2019 – and it’s a safe bet he’d be ready to pounce if Sunak founders.
Johnson’s hero is Winston Churchill, the original political comeback kid who endured years in the political wilderness before his country turned to him for leadership in its darkest hour in World War II.
After his shock defeat in the 1945 election, the great Briton didn’t go away either: He returned to 10 Downing Street as prime minister six years later.