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Defying the historical model for failed, one-term presidents

Failed, one-term presidents are usually rushed off the public stage by their parties. With Trump, it's clearly ... different.
Image: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Trump speaks at a town hall event in Appleton
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wisconsin, March 30, 2016.MARK KAUZLARICH / Reuters

It seemed odd last month when some Republican legislators in Ohio launched an effort to designate June 14 as "Donald J. Trump Day" in the Buckeye State. Proponents of the measure defended its merits by insisting that Trump is "one of the greatest presidents in American history."

It seemed equally odd this week when a Republican legislator in South Carolina announced an even stranger kind of proposal. State Rep. R.J. May wants South Carolina to allow Trump to be buried on the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia if the former president is banned from being buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

But if you saw the clip of the golden Trump statue at CPAC, you know "odd" isn't a strong enough adjective.

When Donald Trump breaks his post-presidency silence with a speech on Sunday, he'll do it in the presence of something he has almost certainly always dreamed of—an enormous golden statue of himself. Bloomberg News reporter William Turton shared footage of the golden Trump being wheeled into Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday. The statue appears to depict Trump wearing flip-flops and star-spangled boxer shorts and wielding a fairy godmother's magic wand. In the video, Trump fans can be heard in the background incorrectly describing the eyesore as "awesome" and "so cool."

Watching the video of the golden statue being wheeled through a CPAC hallway, it was hard not to wonder how many attendees are familiar with the Biblical story of the golden calf, those who worshipped it, and how the story in the Book of Exodus ended.

Nevertheless, as literal idolization of Trump takes a creepy turn, it also got me thinking about the historical model for failed, one-term presidents.

Over the last century, only five presidents have lost after one term (or less): Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. As I noted on Twitter the other day, for nearly all of the members of this ignominious club, after their defeats, their parties had no interest in treating them as conquering heroes worthy of celebration.

On the contrary, partisans were eager to see them exit the stage. Once these presidents had been rejected by voters, parties had every incentive to move on quickly.

But after Trump lost by 7 million votes, Republicans responded ... differently. On Capitol Hill, most of the GOP rallied to defend him from an article of impeachment. Away from DC, the former president's GOP detractors were condemned and, in many instances, formally censured.

And that was before we saw a literal golden Trump idol at CPAC.

Worship of Ronald Reagan was often over the top in Republican circles, but he was at least a popular two-term president. Trump lost after one failed term. He was impeached twice. He's widely unpopular. He's currently facing multiple criminal investigations.

There's no modern precedent for anything like this, though as Jon Chait explained well this morning, the cultish behavior is driven in part by GOP conspiracy theories that the former president didn't really lose.

"Trump's notion of 'winning' used to mean supporting a candidate who would actually prevail and take office," Chait wrote. "Now it means refusing to concede he ever lost."