Personality trumps policy

Donald Trump will probably be America’s next President. 

It seemed unlikely after his limp campaign launch 15 months ago. Conservative outlets National Review and New York Post called him a busted flush. Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was time to move on. The announcement followed disappointing 2022 midterm results as Trump-backed candidates like Kari Lake and Mehmet Oz fell short.  

But following victory in New Hampshire last week, Trump has been all but crowned the Republican nominee. While commending Nikki Haley’s challenge, party chair Ronna McDaniel said “we need to unite around our eventual nominee, which is going to be Donald Trump.”

BIDEN VS TRUMP RERUN

With no appetite to indulge Biden’s challengers in the DNC, we are all set for a rerun of 2020. And Trump is the favourite. CFR President Richard Haass reflects non-partisan US political sentiment when he says Trump’s odds of returning to the White House are better than even.

Of course, plenty can change before November. But we should not assume Trump will derail himself. His unprecedented legal obstacles are already priced in by most Republicans. He faces a challenge to win over independents but his versatile policy platform will help. And his party will rally around him for the same reason, believing he can be the force to achieve their own disparate goals.

BIDEN HISTORICALLY UNPOPULAR

Trump claims credit for policies that are not his. Biden can’t buy any adulation for those that are. He got US troops out of Afghanistan and the US economy continues to defy expectations. Yet 66 and 67 percent of the US public disapprove of his foreign and economic policy respectively.  

There is little evidence that reception is going to change over the next 10 months. If Biden cannot amplify his achievements, he cannot meaningfully change those poll numbers.   

And that means Trump is moving back into the White House. 

TRUMP’S LEGAL ISSUES

Some analysts cling to the possibility that Trump’s legal issues will thwart his run. The Wall Street Journal advises Haley to stay in the race for this reason: 

If she can remain competitive, there’s an argument for Ms. Haley to stay in the race through the July convention. Mr. Trump faces a treacherous legal road, and one of the cases against him could go to trial. 

Trump is the first former President to face criminal charges. Cases around hush money, election interference and handling of classified documents hang over him. He also faces civil proceedings over fraudulently reporting the value of his properties. 

Republican strategist Ari Fleischer suggests Trump’s own personal freedom hangs on this election. “If convicted, he could be sentenced to prison unless he wins and he uses the levers of justice to reverse or stop it or drop it.” In any normal election, such a predicament would surely derail a candidate. But Trump’s ardent supporters do not care. His ally Marjorie Taylor-Greene said she would “still vote for Trump even if he’s in jail.” 

Foreign policy adviser and diplomat Mitchell Reiss acknowledges the “legal jeopardy is not going to sway his core supporters or most Republicans.” But Mitchell says “it will hurt him with Independents and Democrats who are disappointed with Biden.” 

SWING STATES

Trump’s path to the presidency relies on winning these swing voters in a few key states. How can they vote for such a tainted potential felon? Well he will present it all as a deep state political agenda. And the first case brought against him gives succour to this argument. Legal experts agree the hush money charge is murky and rushed. It helps Trump’s whataboutery. He can ask why prosecutors were less interested in Hunter Biden’s business dealings or “Crooked Hillary’s” own laissez-faire approach to classified documents. As he drags others into the mire, his misdeeds look less exceptional.

COLORADO AND MAINE BALLOT CHALLENGE

If Trump successfully manages this reputational impact, others hold out hope from Colorado and Maine. The states’ supreme courts declared Trump ineligible on the grounds of insurrection and removed him from their primary ballots. Republicans argue it’s all politics but some legal scholars suggest there is a serious case. Attorney and New York Times columnist David French says Trump engaged in legal subterfuge and incited violence in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. French argues he should be disqualified in the same way as someone too young or born outside the US.  

But Reiss doubts it will come to anything. Regardless of the legal merits, he believes the Supreme Court will overrule the states. “If not, then we should expect to see Red states ban Biden from the ballot, creating electoral chaos even before the first votes are cast in November.” 

BIDEN’S AGE AND TRUMP’S RHETORIC

Even as Trump swerves these legal obstacles, he remains an unpopular figure. A better Democratic candidate would beat him just as Ron DeSantis or Haley would be the overwhelming favourite in a race against Biden. Reiss summarises the grave issues Biden faces: 

Biden is already viewed as too old for the job, with a Vice President who is not trusted to step in for him. On top of that, Biden has done a poor job communicating his political victories and overall vision. As South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings once said of the Jimmy Carter White House, “These boys couldn’t sell a ho’ on a troop train.”   

Although Trump would break Biden’s record as the oldest elected President, his vigour belies his age. And this energy makes him a much stronger communicator. His simple and repetitive style cuts through. He also has a looser relationship with the truth. In a recent Fox news interview, he claimed gas prices are up to $8 a gallon. A later fact check found the national average price was in fact $3. But it’s the original sound bite that will linger in American minds. He plays to an audience that Reiss says are in a “peevish mood despite the robust economy.” 

Just as Trump can paint a buoyant economy as a Biden weakness, he will pick on foreign policy that could have come straight from the “America First” playbook. So it is that Reiss says the Afghanistan withdrawal will become: 

part of a larger Trump narrative that the US is no longer respected by our allies or feared by our adversaries, shades off Jimmy Carter circa 1980. 

The recent drone attack on US troops in Jordan plays into this. People no longer fear America. Trump will promise to restore that through strength. 

VERSATILE POLICY

Because Trump sees power through this prism of strength and weakness, he is not ideological in his policy. This will encourage reluctant Republicans to rally around him and mould policy in line with their own aims. Trump’s impromptu China outbursts disguise his administration’s successful reorientation of US policy, which now enjoys bipartisan consensus. 

Former Presidential Advisor Pippa Malmgren once described Trump as the “Uber of politics”. She said he challenges “all the traditional power structures”. Conservative policymakers want to use this destructive tendency to remake strategy in their preferred image.  

Trump can be all things to all people. He is the most socially liberal Republican candidate but has an adoring fan base among evangelicals. He appeals to disenfranchised and impoverished communities with his support for state spending but is also endorsed by techno libertarians like Peter Thiel. 

This flexibility will probably see Trump over the line. Biden is incapable of communicating his achievements and Trump can ride this wave of discontent with his own vague promises. In the race no one wants, Trump will prevail.

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