Before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump’s political advisors were thinking about the president’s re-election bid and noticed a curious commonality among incumbent presidents who didn’t get re-elected: they all faced challengers from within their own party.
Five U.S. presidents since 1900 have lost their bids for a second term. William Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton. While each election is determined by unique factors, all five of these failed incumbents dealt with internal party fights or serious primary challenges.
Intraparty conflicts consumed these failed campaigns through much of the election year. This major distraction didn’t allow them to run a campaign against their general election opponent until late summer. It wasn’t necessarily why they lost, but it was a key issue the Trump team wanted to avoid.
A primary challenger didn’t need to be that successful to cause a great deal of damage. Pat Buchanan entered the 1992 presidential primary race just ten weeks prior to the New Hampshire primary. He got 38 percent in the New Hampshire primary, which was the biggest percentage he got in any of the primaries he competed in. President George H. W. Bush didn’t lose a single primary, but the fact that Buchanan and other challengers received significant support showed Bush’s weakness and forced him to worry more about the challenge from his right than from the opponent to his left.
Buchanan only received 18 delegates out of 2,209, but his brief campaign resonated with party voters. When he gave a rousing speech at the GOP convention in Houston about a great battle of values in the country, the crowd loved it and the speech dominated media coverage. The Trump team didn’t want something similar to happen again.
The team was eager to start the general election campaign early, so they had to make sure there was no drama at the convention. To do so, they had to make sure there were no pathways to the convention for the very small but committed NeverTrump contingent in the GOP. That way, they could make sure that the convention was unified.
In 2016, Trump won the primary battle by securing 44.9 percent of the vote, a plurality. Even after securing the nomination, he faced incredibly strong intraparty opposition, much of it from the establishment and elected Republicans. Unlike so many Republican politicians who claim they will govern as conservative during Republican primaries but move to the left for the general campaign and in office, Trump honored his stated commitment to conservative policies. He appointed conservative judges and justices, exited from the Paris climate accord, led a massive deregulatory effort, got the economy roaring, didn’t start any new wars, and aggressively defended American interests abroad. His actions earned the support of the party’s voters.
Despite these policy accomplishments, or in some cases because of them, powerful elements of the Republican Party and conservative media establishment continued to resist his presidency. These groups were eager to fight him for control over the party.
The Trump campaign didn’t fear a grassroots revolt à la Buchanan. His campaign staff knew that Trump had won over the support of Republican voters. They were worried about the GOP establishment backing a primary effort against Trump. It was almost the opposite scenario to Bush’s challenge by Buchanan, when party elites were completely unified behind Bush but the base was less pleased.
Organizing the Party
Bill Stepien and Justin Clark proposed the Trump campaign set up a “Delegates and Party Organization” (DPO) department with dedicated staff and resources all devoted to ensuring that there were no primary challenges and that convention delegates were supportive of Trump. Launched at the end of December 2018, it was the first department headquartered over at the campaign’s offices in the Rosslyn area of Arlington, Virginia. Veteran political operative Nick Trainer ran the effort. He had three regional deputies who divided up the 50 states and six territories and districts that had primaries or caucuses to send delegates to the Republican National Convention. The Republican nomination path includes all states, no matter how Republican or Democratic they may vote in the general. And since the goal was to present a completely unified convention, each one mattered.
A friendly state GOP chairman would make the process much easier, so helping elect Trump-friendly chairmen was an early priority. It got going right away in January 2019 when Massachusetts Republicans picked their new leader. Charlie Baker, Republican governor of Massachusetts, strongly disliked Trump. He announced he had voted for no one for president in 2016. Trump supporters were making noise about demanding respect from him. His hand-selected candidate was the current chairman.
The DPO group worked to make sure former state representative Jim Lyons was elected state party chair. Lyons ended his speech to the convention saying he would make Massachusetts great again, a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan. “In rebuke to Charlie Baker, state GOP picks conservative to lead party,” the Boston Globe announced. Winning that fight meant the Trump team had the ability to work with Lyons and the executive committee to change the rules of the state party with respect to delegate allocation.
Previously, if a Republican candidate got a certain percentage of the vote in the Massachusetts primary, he or she would get a certain percentage of delegates. The rules were changed so that instead of delegates being allocated according to the percentage of the vote a candidate received, candidates could only get a delegate if they got more than 50 percent of the vote. And delegates to the national convention had to be approved by the winning campaign.
Monitoring and engaging state chairman races was the first phase of the operation. The Trump team managed to get 40 Trump-supportive state chairmen elected or re-elected. The team worked with chairmen or legal counsel in each state, looking for someone with respect in the party to make the argument for Trump to others. The field staff went to every single one of the meetings where changes were discussed. Sometimes the most important role they served was simply to verify to the gathered that the Trump campaign supported the changes.
They also developed primary ballot access plans and established delegate selection processes.
No candidate or issue was too small. When a national committeeman opening appeared in Maine, the team worked to make sure the 2016 Trump state chairman Josh Tardy was elected. They whipped the vote, calling people to encourage them to vote for Tardy. He didn’t have real opposition, but the team took the effort seriously enough that they weren’t willing to court any risks.
They helped elect three new national committee members and re-elect two loyal national committee members.
The DPO team was so thorough that the leaders of the effort were getting briefed on who had won a “basic political operating unit” election in Minnesota, the term for the state party’s lowest level of political organization.
Before the DPO crew got involved, candidates who wanted to get on the ballot as a presidential candidate in Florida only needed to get 125 signatures from each congressional district in the state or attend what was called a Sunshine Summit and pay a $25,000 ballot access fee. The DPO team got rid of the former pathway and added a new one that said the incumbent president automatically qualified for the ballot.
Rules for delegate selection were changed. For instance, in Kentucky a rule was changed to say that “no person who did not support the Republican Presidential nominee during the most recent Presidential Election shall be elected to be a Delegate or Alternate to the District, State, or National Conventions, respectively.” It allowed the elimination of a whole class of people from the process who were NeverTrump.
The team didn’t work too much on the issue of when primaries were scheduled, but in one case they did. Washington, D.C., the base of the establishment, was a place they worried might flex its muscles against Trump. Usually, the D.C. contest was in March, but the group worked to delay it to May so that it would be at the tail end of the primary season, at a time when no incipient primary challengers could begin their rise.
They knew that when they succeeded with the effort, it would never be read about. They didn’t care. They wanted to guarantee the convention would be a four-day pep rally for Donald Trump.
It was a lot of work. Trainer and his three regional directors traveled to every state and territory. They met with chairs and executive committees. They attended every convention and picked captains for district conventions. Their first step was to understand the process in each state, then make recommendations on how to improve processes, and then help implement them.
They never wanted to be seen as the guys from D.C. who were big-footing people. They’d make suggestions, but if they got pushback, they didn’t force the issue. They estimated they got 70 percent of what they wanted, simply by building relationships and leveraging their new connections.
By late summer of 2019, most of the rules had been changed. The Republican National Committee had a deadline of October 1 for when each state had to submit its delegate selection plan, and then it was locked in stone.
Throughout the summer of 2019, former Ohio governor John Kasich was asked by the press to run for president. Both he and Maryland governor Larry Hogan had been rattling their sabers a bit, with Hogan even making a trip to New Hampshire. Kasich eventually said, “There is no path right now for me” [to run for president], and “I don’t see a way to get there.”
The DPO team loved it. If he knew what they were doing, they thought, he would really know that there was no pathway.
A year after the Trump team had started forming relationships with New Hampshire’s state officials, the preparations started to bear fruit. Those officials notified the Trump team whenever Joe Walsh, a one-term former congressman who had launched a quixotic bid for the presidency, or some other wannabe candidate called and asked about delegate selection. The Trump team wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
Even though no solid candidates were making noise about running, Trainer and his team knew that, as Buchanan had done, someone could announce late. They wanted to make sure that even if an establishment favorite such as former presidential nominee Mitt Romney decided to cause a stink, it would be irrelevant.
The only two states that could have been a problem were Iowa and New Hampshire. From the campaign’s perspective, they knew any changes to the rules in those states would be high-profile and might risk the secrecy of the operation. So they decided to campaign fully in those two states and achieve decisive wins in their contests. There was a giant deployment leading up to the Iowa caucuses, with the vice president and president holding rallies. They engaged with local field people and worked with the state party chair to make sure the caucuses were well-staffed. They even did a digital push in Iowa.
Former Massachusetts governor and Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate Bill Weld managed to win one delegate in Iowa, but in the end it didn’t count. In Iowa, a delegate has to be nominated on the floor of the convention to be bound to that person. The Weld delegate became a Trump delegate once the convention opened.
And when Weld didn’t get a single delegate out of New Hampshire, the team knew their work had been worth it. They had known they would have to be perfect. Losing just five delegates to Bill Weld would have sparked a media frenzy. “The amount of think pieces that would have been done on what the Weld delegates would be doing on the floor would have been quite amazing,” joked Trainer.
The entire effort cost only about $1.2 million. By comparison, the operation just to get former New Jersey governor Chris Christie on the ballot in 2016 cost a million dollars. It was clear the DPO team had done their work fending off even a whiff of a primary challenge. The Trump campaign would not be distracted by intraparty squabbles lasting through the summer. The small investment of money and large investment of time had paid off.
The lack of intraparty squabbles wasn’t just because of Trump’s power as a candidate or his campaign’s successful DPO operation. The hysterical Left helped unify Republican voters. And despite Trump’s winning both the nomination and the presidency, much of the initial resistance to Trump from the Republican Party establishment dissipated as scandals swirling around Trump proved to be manufactured by Democrats and the media.
When Hillary Clinton, other Democrats, and the media pushed the Russia lies her campaign had secretly funded, many Republican officeholders either believed them or declined to fight back against them. The Russia collusion hoax had been invented by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, fed to compliant reporters, and weaponized by Obama’s Department of Justice. Following her loss, Clinton hoped that the campaign operation could become a bigger story and began pushing the narrative that the election had been stolen from her by collusion between Trump and Russia . . ..
Unlike the Republican establishment that had preceded him, Trump made it clear in his State of the Union speech that, while a thrice-married New York celebrity was an unlikely champion of conservatism, he was proud of the policy actions he had taken to promote conservative values. He was also proud of conservative culture and grassroots heroes, a rare trait among Washington Republicans.
Rush Limbaugh, the beloved radio host, had received applause when he entered the gallery and sat next to Melania Trump. Now, Trump delivered the news that in recognition of his charity work and the inspiration he had provided millions of listeners over the years, Rush would be receiving the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And he’d be receiving it right then, with Melania Trump presenting the honor in the gallery. It was a remarkable moment, and Rush was overcome with emotion.
Democratic presidents are very good at awarding the folk heroes of their constituents, regardless of whether they work in Hollywood or politics. Obama had given the Presidential Medal of Freedom to such politically polarizing figures as Ted Kennedy and Gloria Steinem.
But Republicans had for years internalized that they were second-class citizens, people whose folk heroes did not deserve recognition.
Rush Limbaugh was indisputably the best radio show host in history, something even liberals in the medium admit. He had popularized conservatism throughout the 1990s and greatly expanded its reach. Of course Limbaugh deserved an award. But no other Republican president would have done it. And it electrified both the room and the people watching at home.
Trump used the State of the Union address to highlight his commitment to social conservatives. He had fought for the pro-life movement and wanted the American people to know.
Trump was the last person anyone in the Republican Party had expected to be a pro-life leader. In fact, much of the opposition to him in the 2016 primary was due to concern he wouldn’t be. He had rarely talked about the issue except to say, as he did on “Meet the Press” in 1999, “I am very pro-choice.”
The pro-life movement pledged its support, however reluctantly. In return it got a leader who put up a better fight during debates against abortion than any other presidential nominee in history. In the final debate against Hillary Clinton, Trump left her struggling to respond when he said of her opposition to any restriction on abortion, “Well, I think it’s terrible. If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.”
Trump continued, “Now, you can say that that’s OK and Hillary can say that that’s OK. But it’s not OK with me, because based on what she’s saying, and based on where she’s going, and where she’s been, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month on the final day. And that’s not acceptable.”
As improbable as it had once seemed, by the 2020 State of the Union address Trump had proven himself to be a thoroughly pro-life president. He had taken swift and decisive action to limit access to abortion, preventing tax dollars from funding abortions overseas and allowing states to cut federal funds to Planned Parenthood.
“Now I realize he’s maybe the only person that could actually accomplish what we needed to accomplish, meaning the work that he’s doing now. He’s maybe the only one who’d have the backbone to do it,” Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a 2019 interview.
Another decisive issue that separated Trump from the Republican establishment in 2016 was border security. Despite pledging to protect the border, Republicans often lost the courage of their convictions once they made it to Washington. The Republican establishment was at best mealymouthed when it came to fighting illegal immigration, and at worst two-faced.
Trump blew all that up by running aggressively on the border issue, pledging to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out. Trump ended up building over 450 miles of border wall, leading to a decline of illegal crossings in those areas of 90 percent. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized over two million pounds of fentanyl, heroin, meth, and other narcotics. He entered into an agreement with Mexico to have asylum seekers wait safely there for their asylum hearings to gain entry to the United States.
For the first time in decades, the border seemed to be getting under control.
Finally, Trump ended his address by underlining his commitment to a realist foreign policy after two decades of adventurism and interventionism—another area in which he had challenged the Republican Party and won.
When Trump ran for president, he scandalized the foreign policy establishment by speaking against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the military alliance that was set up after World War II and had expanded to 30 European and North American countries. He kept the rhetoric up throughout the 2016 campaign, saying on July 20, 2016, in an interview with the New York Times at the Republican National Convention, “If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich . . . we have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.”
Now, at the State of the Union, Trump drew attention to the efforts he had made in getting NATO members to live up to their commitments. “We are also getting our allies, finally, to help pay their fair share,” he bragged. “I have raised contributions from other NATO members by more than $400 billion, and the number of Allies meeting their minimum obligations has more than doubled.”
But crucially, Trump’s opposition to the failed foreign policy thinking of the previous decades didn’t mean he opposed using military force when necessary.
In fact, just three months prior to the State of the Union, Trump had approved a military operation to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the nom de guerre for the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. When Trump took office, ISIS held over 20,000 square miles of territory. Three years later, the caliphate was destroyed, and al-Baghdadi was dead.
During his speech, Trump introduced Carl and Marcia Mueller, parents of a humanitarian aid worker named Kayla who went to Syria to care for civilians there. She was kidnapped, tortured, enslaved, and raped by al-Baghdadi himself.
After more than 500 days in captivity, al-Baghdadi murdered her. The elite special forces who carried out the operation nicknamed their mission “Task Force 814,” a reference to Kayla’s birthday. “America’s warriors never forgot Kayla—and neither will we,” Trump said as the chamber applauded the Muellers. Her parents held up a picture while others in the gallery comforted them.
When Trump talked about ending wars, he focused on the costs borne by American troops. During his speech, he highlighted an army staff sergeant named Christopher Hake who had written a letter to his one-year-old son Gage on his second deployment in 2008. But on Easter Sunday that year, Hake was killed by a roadside bomb. Trump recognized Gage and his mother Kelli as she choked back tears.
The terrorist who provided the deadly roadside bombs that killed Hake and so many other U.S. soldiers was an Iranian general named Qasem Soleimani. A month prior to the State of the Union, Trump had authorized a precision strike to kill Soleimani.
“Our message to the terrorists is clear. You will never escape American justice. If you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life,” Trump said. Trump reiterated his desire to end the Afghanistan war, saying it was “not our function to serve other nations as law enforcement agencies. These are war fighters that we have—the best in the world—and they either want to fight to win or not fight at all.”
He mentioned the heavy burden placed on U.S. families by troops’ serving in America’s longest war in Afghanistan. He featured Amy Williams and her children Elliana and Rowan. He highlighted her full-time work and heavy volunteer schedule while her husband, Sergeant First Class Townsend Williams, was on his fourth deployment. “[Y]our family’s sacrifice makes it possible for all of our families to live in safety and in peace, and we want to thank you,” Trump said. “But, Amy, there is one more thing. Tonight, we have a very special surprise. I am thrilled to inform you that your husband is back from deployment. He is here with us tonight and we couldn’t keep him waiting any longer.”
The chamber nearly erupted in jubilation as onlookers watched, breaking out into lengthy chants of “USA! USA!”
With that, Trump ended his speech with a rousing and unifying call:
We are Americans. We are pioneers. We are the pathfinders. We settled the New World, we built the modern world, and we changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God. America is the place where anything can happen. America is the place where anyone can rise. And here, on this land, on this soil, on this continent, the most incredible dreams come true. This nation is our canvas, and this country is our masterpiece. We look at tomorrow and see unlimited frontiers just waiting to be explored. Our brightest discoveries are not yet known. Our most thrilling stories are not yet told. Our grandest journeys are not yet made. The American Age, the American Epic, the American adventure has only just begun.
Our spirit is still young, the sun is still rising, God’s grace is still shining, and, my fellow Americans, the best is yet to come. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America.
Thank you very much.
With the Russia collusion hoax and the failed impeachment in the rearview mirror, Trump was back on track for victory in November, and all the Democrats in the chamber that evening knew it. Trump had solidified his grip over the Republican Party, had ushered in a record-breaking economy, and had a long record of achievement that he could boast of. Trump offered a compelling vision of the American future based in civic pride and shared identity, while Democrats were more intent on denigrating the nation’s past. He had grown his support and looked robust and dynamic. Immediately after it ended, Pelosi’s anger and frustration boiled over. She stood up and began tearing the pages of his speech in half, the first time a Speaker of the House had so visibly violated norms of respect toward the president.
Trump’s opponents would need a miracle to stop him. He was at the peak of his powers and was leading the country to new heights. But Democrats would soon get their lucky break when news of a novel coronavirus reached American shores. It was a crisis that they wouldn’t let go to waste.