Tis the season for political comebacks, and don’t think former President Donald Trump isn’t watching.
Twice in as many days, in Brazil and Israel, former world leaders who cannot give up that tantalizing taste of political ambition have teetered on the cusp of a return to power. Past scandals, their own legal nightmares and treacherous politics do not stop them from recreating this dream of a past glory. Trump would love to plow a similar furrow.
Both former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have shown that time without power could be a springboard for unlikely political rebounds.
That may be a hopeful sign for Trump, who has used next week’s midterm elections as a show of his own power within the Republican Party, rallying a host of candidates touting his 2020 election-fraud hoaxes .
Trump has left no doubt that he is eager to mount another presidential campaign, not just to lose focus. Perhaps he sees a new offer from the White House as a shield against possible indictment in various criminal investigations.
“I’ll 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 build on his still-high popularity in the Republican Party, but his much more uncertain position could be founded among a wider general electorate.
American presidents defeated after a single term have generally faded into history rather quickly. Trump should emulate a feat accomplished only once before, by President Grover Cleveland, who lost the 1888 election only to return to the White House after exacting revenge on President Benjamin Harrison following his victory four years later.
Israel’s Netanyahu, one of Trump’s closest friends on the international stage, would like to reunite the band with Trump.
On Tuesday, the former prime minister, first elected in 1996 and who has dominated Israeli politics for much of the past quarter century, was about to an impressive second comeback, as initial exit polls suggested he might have won a narrow majority in another election in a nation politically divided down the middle.
And on Sunday in Brazil, Lula da Silva, who is known as “Lula,” narrowly defeated President Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff. Although Trump probably would have preferred the opposite result, since Bolsonaro is something of a protégé, the former leftist leader’s victory 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. Indeed, his long and tortuous road to a political comeback was derailed by a partial prison sentence for alleged corruption. The annulment of his convictions by the Supreme Court allowed him to appear again.
There had been fears that Bolsonaro would emulate his American alter ego and fellow Covid-19 mask rejecter by refusing to accept the result of an election that left him out of power after one term But while he has not conceded, the man known as “The Trump of the Tropics” says he will respect the constitution and has so far not 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 going strong, and like Trump, he may be looking to the future.
Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva are not the only blasts from the past who have tried to pave the way to return to power. In Italy, three-time former president Silvio Berlusconi has returned to parliament after a tax fraud scandal, although his bid to play kingmaker in coalition talks collapsed after he boasted of his links to old friend Russian President Vladimir Putin, who happens to be. a hero to Trump too.
Like Lula da Silva and Bolsonaro, Trump enjoys fervent support from loyalist supporters undeterred by his run-ins with the law.
Lula da Silva emerged from prison a hero to his supporters, a year and a half after a 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering imposed in 2018.
Netanyahu, however, is still embroiled in his corruption trial and faces one count of bribery and three counts of fraud and breach of trust in three separate investigations. He has taken a distinctly Trumpian approach to his predicament, calling the investigations a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup” and, like the former US president, has cast doubt on 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 US president cozying up to dictators, is over.
Yet many foreign diplomats, as they watch the vitriol and division in the U.S. and Trump’s strength with his base, not to mention the statewide candidates he has elevated this year who could oversee the 2024 election, they wonder how long they can count on the most traditional and multilateral brand of stable leadership in the United States that 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 potential future Republican president would likely share his populist, nationalist, “America First” instincts.
Still, the road back isn’t always kind to ousted populist leaders. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just seen his bid to reclaim Number 10 Downing Street foiled after the short but disastrous premiership of his successor Liz Truss.
Johnson, who the former US president once referred to as “Trump Britain”, last month failed to convince enough Tory MPs to re-elect him as leader and therefore, under the British system, as prime minister.
The chaos, scandals and mismanagement of Johnson’s prime minister included a party in Downing Street as the rest of the country was told to observe strict Covid-19 protocols. Conservative MPs opted instead for former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who has only been in office for a week but is already discovering what many observers believe is the case: that the Conservative Party is ungovernable.
Johnson, like Trump, is not ready to cede the limelight. On Tuesday, he told Sky News he planned to attend the COP27 climate summit in Egypt later this month. He made the announcement after Sunak said he would not attend because of demands to save Britain’s economy, although there have been reports in recent days that he may change his mind.
Johnson, unlike Trump, was not defeated in the general election. Instead, his colleagues decided it was an electoral liability, which is very different from how the GOP has treated Trump.
Johnson still believes he has a mandate to govern, given his election victory in December 2019, and it’s a safe bet he’d be willing to jump in if Sunak’s 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 to lead in the darkest hour of World War II.
After his shock defeat in the 1945 election, the Great Briton didn’t go away either: he returned to No. 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister six years later.