Leonard Pitts: How can we miss Trump when he won’t go away?

For the Republicans, Trump is like a no-good man they cannot resist

(Andrew Harnik | AP) Former President Donald Trump waves after announcing he is running for president for the third time at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

“Here you come again, just when I’ve begun to get myself together...”

— Dolly Parton

He’s back.

Granted, he never really left. Unlike other former presidents, Donald Trump didn’t disappear from the daily news cycle once he departed the White House. Thanks to his legal troubles, the hearings into the Jan. 6 insurrection and his diarrheic spewing in speeches and online, he has remained a constant presence.

In fact, there was a temptation to lead this column not with the above epigraph, but with a more-obscure lyric from one Dan Hicks: “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?”

In the end, though, it’s Parton’s weary resignation at the return of a no-good man she cannot resist that best sums up the Republican Party’s plight after Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he will be running again in 2024. The declaration came somewhere in the middle of a long and notably lethargic speech at Mar-a-Lago where, like some geriatric rock band on a reunion tour, he trotted out all the old hits: immigrants, crime, blood on the streets, the “China virus,” fake news and, of course, woe is me. “I’m a victim,” he whined.

Trump’s return comes at an inauspicious time for Republicans. If they had not quite, as Parton sings, finally begun to get themselves together, some were at least recognizing the need to do so after the “red wave” that wasn’t. It was their third consecutive election pratfall, a record of ineptitude that induced at least some on the right to say what was once heretical: it is time to dump Trump.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears called him “a liability.”

Former Labor Department official Gavin J. Smith said Republicans “are growing sick and tired” of him.

Then there’s the shellacking Trump took from formerly friendly media. The New York Post dubbed him “Trumpty Dumpty.” The Wall Street Journal declared him “the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.”

It’s a brutal reception that has inspired some observers to downplay Trump’s chances of success in 2024. Former Vice President Mike Pence said on Fox “News” that, “The American people want a new style of leadership.” Former House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “He’s not going to be the nominee . . .”

One is reminded of that other time we were assured, in voices of pontifical certainty, that Trump could not succeed.

And yet, he did.

We would be wise, then, not to put too much stock in voices of pontifical certainty — or to underestimate the sheer cravenness of GOP leadership. Would any of us be shocked to hear the same people denigrating his name now chanting it two years hence? There is certainly precedent. Rep. Kevin McCarthy is but one of many who bent the knee to Trump after denouncing him.

They are malleable as clay because Trump’s hold on GOP voters is hard as iron. He is viewed favorably — still! — by 80 percent, according to the authoritative FiveThirtyEight blog. Small wonder. He is the living embodiment of their politics — i.e., the politics of white grievance, of history-and-demographics-done-us-wrong.

This country has no organizing principle more powerful. It has already turned Americans against democracy itself.

To understand that is to know better than to count Trump out. Because his voters are like the lovestruck woman of the song. She knows she ought not fall back in love with a no-good man, but she cannot help herself: he fulfills her needs. “Here you come again,” sings Parton.

“And here I go.”

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com