The presumed nomination of Donald J. Trump in July at the Republican National Convention will be the most uncharacteristic moment in the history of the modern Republican Party.
For the past 100 years or so the GOP Establishment dominated the nomination process and the conventions, with just two exceptions: Barry Goldwater in 1964 (who contended with New York governor Nelson Rockefeller in the primaries and later “compromise” challenger Pennsylvania governor Bill Scranton at the Cow Palace in San Francisco) and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
However unlike Reagan and Goldwater, Trump may have been entertaining White House visions for almost thirty years before finally pulling the trigger on making a bid.
Trump has likely eyed a presidential run as early as the 1980s and the release of his book, Trump: The Art of the Deal, the year before the 1988 presidential election may have been a way of exploring a run for the Oval Office. Trump had delivered a high profile speech in New Hampshire before their primary and attended the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans and maintained a high profile at the GOP conclave (an interview with Larry King at the Superdome is on YouTube).
Trump more overtly explored a bid for the Reform Party nomination in 1999 and 2000, moving his party registration with the Ross Perot-founded group, before ending his run and decrying Pat Buchanan’s prominent position in the party (an ironic twist in light of Trump’s 2016 rhetoric coming straight out of Buchanan’s protectionist/anti-immigration playbook).
After that Trump would create the public persona of the hardnosed business executive on his popular The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice television shows. Trump’s “You’re Fired!” line became a popular catchphrase and the Trump media brand expanded.
The movement that would actually propel Trump towards the Republican nomination began in April 2009 when the first TEA Party rallies were held. The events were citizen-driven, as opposed to politician-orchestrated and were a counter-attack to the Obama agenda sailing through the Democratic controlled Congress and a rebuke of the feckless Republican political class impotent to stop it.
The billionaire was not there at creation but recognized it as a dynamic political force he could later latch on to (including hiring prominent TEA Party figures) for spectacular political gain. Though Trump invested heavily in politicians on both sides of the aisle, his lack of public office made the TEA Party movement a custom-made vehicle for Trump’s rumored political ambitions.
(As an aside, when the TEA Party movement sought to capitalize on its efforts at organization within the Republican Party in the 2014 elections, Trump donated heavily to PAC’s built by John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to keep TEA Party candidates from winning Republican House and Senate primaries that year – and perhaps foreclosing the possibility of a fresh-faced populist rock star emerging in the 2016 presidential race.)
In fact, the manifestation of the TEA Party movement was not the departure of John Boehner as speaker but Trump’s victory in the GOP presidential primaries.
In 2011 Trump’s presidential exploration began in earnest when he made an unscheduled appearance at the February CPAC conservative conference in Washington, DC. Trump delivered a 15 minute address that was part autobiography while hitting themes that are familiar today- particularly on trade with China and WINNING. Trump’s performance was uncharacteristically wooden with his eyes rarely leaving the prepared script he brought with him to the podium.
His speech marked the first time he trolled a political crowd, mentioning that Ron Paul had zero chance of winning the presidency- leading to a chorus of boos and catcalls from a decidedly Paulista audience. It was a peek at the Trump that would barnstorm the country in 2015 and 2016.
Trump followed that up with an appearance on Good Morning America the next month where he raised questions about the validity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It served as his baptism into the TEA Party movement and he immediately emerged as popular figure with grassroots conservative activists seeking a fearless leader.
For the next few months, the Trump-Obama birth certificate feud would dominate the news and overshadow the president’s declared Republican challengers until Trump exited the stage in May 2011.
Though Trump would end up pulling the plug on a 2012 run, he had laid the foundation and created a constituency for a possible 2016 bid. His test run in consuming all of the media oxygen was also a success. After flirting with a potential endorsement of ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had been singing the real estate mogul’s praises along the campaign trail, Trump ended up backing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at a press conference held at his Las Vegas hotel not long before the Nevada caucuses.
Had Romney won the election, a Trump presidential campaign would have never materialized and the two would have remained good friends with Trump hosting the Romney presidential party at one of his resorts on a regular basis. Instead, Romney’s defeat gave the reality show star one last bite at the presidential apple.
In 2013, a much more polished Trump showed up at CPAC, this time rarely looking at his notes during his talk, which he concluded with the phrase that would define his presidential campaign: Make America Great Again. Trump returned to CPAC in 2014 but it was his 2015 appearance that set the mold for his candidacy, combining his trade and immigration talking points with rhetoric against the failed party establishment.
Just a few weeks before Trump had tapped into the anti-establishment sentiment within the GOP when he engaged in pointed bashing of Romney on Twitter, as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee was contemplating a third run for the White House. After Romney announced he would not be a candidate, Trump spiked the football on Romney in social media, taking credit for having driven him out of the race.
Whether they realized it or not, Trump the political street fighter had put his potential Republican rivals on notice that a Trump presidential candidacy was likely to happen and that it would be a full-contact contest.