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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Don’t Write Him Off Yet

In 2016, pundits and pollsters underestimated Donald Trump’s chances, resulting in a shocking upset. They should be careful not to make the same mistake twice.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump announced his plan to run for president in 2024 in a lengthy speech at Mar-a-Lago that lacked much of the razzle-dazzle of his original escalator-side announcement in 2015. And the consensus seems to be that the 45th president of the United States is off to a bad start. He has committed a sin of his own coinage—that is, being low energy.

Axios, MSNBC, and Huffington Post all ran headlines describing the speech as lacking Trump’s iconic verve, and even his former deputy press secretary agreed, tweeting: “This is one of the most low-energy, uninspiring speeches I’ve ever heard from Trump. Even the crowd seems bored. Not exactly what you want when announcing a presidential run.”

The liberal press seems to be going out of its way to cast Trumpism as dead, with the New York Times alert reading, “Donald Trump announced a 2024 run for president, ignoring GOP warnings that his influence is harming the party.”NPR was less subtle, announcing Trump’s run with a tweet so slanted that conservatives made “defund NPR” trend on Twitter.

But conservative press also downplayed the announcement, with Trump’s hometown conservative daily, the New York Post, simply running a banner on the front page: “Florida Man Makes Announcement, Page 26.” (I guess New York isn’t claiming him anymore.)

Pundits seem to think that Donald Trump will struggle to win a Republican primary race —especially if he goes up against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has been distinguishing himself as Trump’s, well, Apprentice.

Pundit Flip-flop

But I’ve observed some inconsistency here in the pundits’ calls. Throughout 2020, commonly accepted pundit logic was that if Donald Trump stuck to the teleprompter and avoided some of his more inflammatory takes, he could defeat Joe Biden.

An August 2020 New York Times headline asked: Is Teleprompter Trump effective? The author argued that it was his public persona, not his policies, that put off traditional Republican and independent voters. To have a shot at winning, he simply needed to reel in his more bombastic, theatrical side.

Now, however, the press seems to be damning him for doing exactly what it previously identified as his best strategy. On Tuesday night, Donald Trump largely stayed away from the culture wars—probably a good move given that anti-trans laws, threats to ban abortion nationally, and election denialism didn’t play well in last week’s congressional battles—even if the culture wars did win hearts and minds in local school board races.

Instead, Trump touched on topics that really resonated with voters in 2016, but which the mainstream media never paid much attention to or credited for his success. For example, he backed a more traditionally left approach to trade that criticized neolibral policies like NAFTA that were pushed by both corporate parties, and articulated a protectionist, American-first approach that sees endless wars as coming at a direct cost to the well-being of Americans at home.

And yet, despite toning down his rhetoric and playing the hits, both right and left seem to have decided that Trump is on the outs.

Trump’s Path to Victory

Now, the polls say something different. A Morning Consult poll from this week put Trump ahead of DeSantis 47 percent to 33 percent. And while DeSantis has been gaining in these polls, he also has yet to weather the national spotlight for any prolonged period of time the way Trump has. Remember, there was a time early in 2019 when even Kamala Harris’s poll numbers and fundraising seemed to suggest she was a good idea. And we all know what happened once we got to know her a little better.

My point here is this: pundits have gotten this Trump thing wrong before. And personally, I’m wary of narratives that paint a Trump failure as inevitable.

My former colleague at Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson, was one of the few to not only predict a Trump win, but to understand his strengths. He pointed out that in a Trump/Hillary matchup, Trump could accurately attack her from both the left and the right. He wrote:

“As the candidate who thundered against the Iraq War at the Republican debate, he can taunt Clinton over her support for it. He will paint her as a member of the corrupt political establishment, and will even offer proof: ‘Well, I know you can buy politicians, because I bought Senator Clinton. I gave her money, she came to my wedding.’”

Now, as a former president, Trump will have a harder time positioning himself as an outsider. Certainly, he wasted no time filling his cabinet with Wall Street picks and selling out Main Street as soon as he was elected.

But he’s arguably still more of a Washington outsider than Ron DeSantis, who was first elected to congress in 2012. And the Republican establishment’s choice to distance itself from Trump certainly gives the former president cause to credibly argue that he has been rejected by the swamp. 

In 2016, Trump said he knew Hillary was for sale because he had “bought” her. And now, Trump is dabbling in a similar claim about DeSantis, claiming credit for his very political existence. Before the midterms, Trump said DeSantis “was not going to be able to even be a factor in [his first Senate] race” until Trump “got him the nomination.” “Then he ran and he wasn’t supposed to be able to win,” Trump said. “I did two rallies, we had 52,000 people [at] each one and he won.”

And Trump is not entirely wrong about his continued influence in the Republican party. Claims of Trump having lost his touch in the endorsement process are somewhat overstated. Some of his candidates lost big in important senate & gubernatorial battles, but his batting average overall isn’t bad: 232 wins and 22 losses is pretty good, as he noted in his announcement speech (even if it pales in comparison to his 98 percent success rate in the primaries). All the articles that argue Trump candidates performed poorly make their case by only looking at competitive races—an important but not wholly representative subset.

Source: The Washington Post

Even if you think Trump’s endorsement record is damning, I’m not sure the outcome of midterms supports a claim that Trump has totally bad instincts. He was right to have exercised restraint post-Dobbs, recognizing that the decision overturning Roe was a dog-catches-car situation that could threaten Republican prospects.

And again, he chose not to mention abortion in last night’s speech. Compare Trump’s restraint to DeSantis, who in June, post-Dobbs, tweeted that “the prayers of millions upon millions of Americans” had been answered by the ruling.

Now, all this isn’t to say that I think Trump will win again. But I am concerned that some of the coverage takes the tone of wishcasting rather than reality. Both Republicans and Democrats are desperate to put Trump in the rearview mirror. But acting like his failure is a fait accompli is exactly what got him elected in the first place. 

The end of Robinson’s prescient 2016 article contains a warning:

“Donald Trump is one of the most formidable opponents in the history of American politics. He is sharp, shameless, and likable. If he is going to be the nominee, Democrats need to think very seriously about how to defeat him. If they don’t, he will be the President of the United States.”

Does DeSantis differ so much from all the candidates in the 2016 Republican primary that succumbed to Trump’s appeal? Will he become Ron De-Sanctimonus? Or has he learned, from watching Trump these past six years, to avoid direct confrontation? Is teleprompter Trump poised to be more successful than the off-the-cuff candidate that ensorcelled the American media? Or will Americans miss the carnival Trump used to put on? Can he do it again without Twitter, and without the media hanging on his every word? Only time will tell. But I’m not jumping to any conclusions.

NOTE: This article is adapted from Briahna Joy Gray’s “Radar” monologue on The Hill’s “Rising.”

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