We’re quickly learning how Trump’s courtroom self interacts with his political self.

At the end of the summer of 2022, I made a bold prediction. I proclaimed that former President Donald Trump would not win the Republican nomination—that he would not even run a real campaign for president. I based my theory, somewhat hubristically, on the idea that he would not run because he would not win. To wit:

[Trump] may say out loud, “I am a candidate for president,” at some point, but if he does I bet he will find an excuse to pull the plug on such a “candidacy” before the start of the primaries in early 2024 because of his fear of being branded a loser.

Welp, the first primary came and went last week, and Trump beat his final remaining GOP opponent, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, by 11 points in the state deemed her best chance at pulling off an upset of her former boss.

Ah! Well. Nevertheless, as they say.

How did I get this so horribly wrong, aside from an apparently mediocre-at-best acumen for political analysis and total lack of insight into the Republican primary electorate?

As a coastal-based journalist (I live in L.A.), it’s worth considering if I deceived myself about Trump’s power—and in particular his continued hold on power—because of a liberal cocoon I’ve built around myself. But I don’t think that’s the issue: I have attended Trump events and been diagnosing the Republican cult of personality around Trump for nearly a decade. (I have friends and extended family members who vote for Trump—some of whom are deeply in that cult—and so I don’t dismiss its ability to persuade even intelligent and decent people to ride or die for its wannabe dictator.)

Anyway, it’s not really that I thought the most devoted Trump supporters would turn—I just figured the rest of the GOP electorate would be strategic enough to seize an opportunity to be rid of a figure that has wreaked so much damage on the party. Despite this not happening, I still think that several parts of my theory have been mostly borne out by the past year and a half. I figured that members of the political press were overestimating Trump’s political strength for fear of being shown to be wrong about a former president who seemed to have the ability to wriggle out of any and every jam. In doing that, they failed to take into account the several data points showing that things had, in fact, changed.

Trump’s political strength was being vastly exaggerated, I reasoned. Considered in the cold, harsh light of reality, he was one of only a handful of defeated incumbents in the modern history of the presidency—and he lost in 2020 by a historically significant margin in the popular vote. “Trump will be a politically crippled figure heading into the 2024 primary,” I argued back in August 2022. “At his most dangerous, he will be a political albatross hanging around the neck of the Republican Party, tearing it apart.” Three months after I wrote this, the Trump-led GOP crashed and burned in its bid to retake the Senate and barely retook the House of Representatives against an unpopular Democratic president, with the most vocally Trump-backed candidates experiencing the most spectacular failures. Sure, one short week after that election, Trump declared his run for the presidency. But I think it’s fair to say that, at that point, he seemed quite wounded.

My other (correct) premise was that Trump was facing “a series of state and federal criminal investigations” that threatened his very freedom. Trump had “better odds of ending up in an orange jumpsuit or losing his fortune in a lawsuit than returning to the White House.” And I wrote that before the FBI conducted a surprise search of Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago, uncovering scores of classified documents the former president had been illegally hoarding at his house after leaving office. In the interim between then and now, Trump has been charged criminally in four separate jurisdictions, and civilly in New York in a fraud case that could strip him of all of his properties in his home state. Oh, and each of the two times he’s faced a jury over allegations of sexual abuse and defamation by E. Jean Carroll, he’s lost. Last week, a diverse and unanimous jury of New Yorkers ruled that Trump had been malicious in his defamation of Carroll, slapping him with a whopping $83 million in damages. So, he’s already lost a large chunk of his fortune and could, as soon as this week, lose even more of it. He also still has the significant potential to lose his very freedom in the looming criminal trials, which, even though it feels as if they’ve been hanging around forever, have yet to really get started.

Back before any of these cases had even been filed, I assumed that Trump would run only because he felt it would offer him some kind of protection from these myriad legal woes. Now that we have spent 14 months witnessing a candidate who is constantly in court, we’ve confirmed some things about whether the presidential campaign is beneficial to Trump in the courtroom setting, and the result is pretty clear: No, it is not. Judges have the power to restrict Trump’s attempts at attacks on the legal system with gag orders and restrictions on what juries were allowed to hear, I noted as part of my very wrong campaign prediction. Indeed, Trump has been subject to such gag orders, in both the civil and criminal cases, and has even incurred fines for violating them. Last week, his testimony in Carroll’s second defamation case lasted all of three minutes, as his attempts to violate the judge’s decrees about the scope of that testimony were repeatedly shot down by Judge Lewis Kaplan.

More to the point, statements Trump has made as part of his political campaign have killed him in the courtroom. The Carroll jury punished Trump for his outrageous behavior in and out of court by declaring that he owes nearly $100 million, a sum he won’t be able to avoid paying. In winning that massive judgment, Carroll cited Trump’s continued defamation at a May 2023 CNN town hall that was widely hailed in the political press as a domineering performance that all but cemented his front-runner status. Prosecutors have further cited statements Trump made in that town hall as evidence against Trump in his pending criminal cases, and they will seek to use those statements—in all likelihood, successfully—against him at trial. In short, the courtroom has been a hostile environment for Trump, as I predicted, and will remain so for the rest of this year. His political campaign, meanwhile, has only been a millstone for his legal team.

I think I got one other thing right. Back when I made my errant prediction, I saw a desire in some sections of the GOP for something other than Trump, based on a series of polls, focus groups, and donor activities. Ultimately, Trump dominated his rivals in the first two contests in the country, but I think even those states showed an ongoing desire for a non-Trump alternative among a large minority of the GOP. Though he won with more than 50 percent in two very different states—dark red Iowa and shaded-blue New Hampshire—Trump was crushed among independent voters and lost big in areas with the wealthiest and best-educated electorates in both states. A total of 49 percent of the GOP electorate voted against Trump in Iowa and 45 percent against him in New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, 90 percent of those voters said they would be dissatisfied if Trump were the nominee.

So, there is clearly an appetite for a non-Trump alternative in the Republican Party. That appetite, however, was not enough to prevent Trump from getting a stranglehold on the nomination. Which leads to the big things I got wrong.

First, I thought there were financial incentives based on Trump’s legal woes against him running. The opposite ended up being true. As I noted at the time, Trump’s already extensive legal fees were being footed by the Republican National Committee, a situation that would end the moment he declared his candidacy, along with him losing access to his $100 million juggernaut super PAC funding. How could this notorious cheapskate continue to avoid having to personally pay tens of millions of dollars for his high-powered legal teams if he jumped into the race? It turns out, thanks in part to the incompetent and broken Federal Election Commission, he found a way. Trump has used a loophole caused by a 4–2 March decision of the FEC, in which one Biden appointee joined three Trump appointees, to funnel tens of millions of small-donor dollars into his legal defense and that of some of his alleged criminal accomplices. (Ah, well. Nevertheless.)

A second thing that I got dead wrong was that I significantly overestimated the strength and competence of Trump’s opposition within his party, nearly all of whom burned out, ended their failed campaigns, and ultimately endorsed the former president before the start of February. Particularly, I misjudged Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose donor strength and near-Trumplike ability to harness the bizarre whims of the Republican base for media attention seemed promising within a GOP contest in the beginning. I, however, was unaware of his footwear issues, weird pudding fingers, and complete inability to replicate a facsimile of a real human smile, which ultimately resulted in the top Trump rival’s lacking charisma so fully that he never stood a chance.

Third, I thought I could see into Trump’s soul, never a good bet. I believed that he knew, deep down, that he had lost the last election and his ego would not allow him to attempt and fail yet one more time. Instead, it seems as if the fact that he lost last time makes this time impossible to resist. (Again—ah! Well. Nevertheless.)

In the end, I think I very clearly understood the devastating legal situation facing Donald Trump but missed how that would translate when it came time for voters to cast their primary ballots. Instead of turning supporters away from him, each indictment only fueled surges in what had previously been moribund small-dollar donations for the former president, turning the cult hero back into a martyr, and bonding his small but powerful base even more tightly to him. I miscalculated when considering the interplay of Trump’s political and legal campaigns. I thought Trump wanted to win in court and would have to abandon the political side of things because of the inevitable damage it would do to that goal. As demonstrated by months of disastrous and losing appearances in his various legal proceedings, however, Trump doesn’t much care about winning in court. He wants to capture then destroy the legal system itself, through the vote. Given the number of cases against him, can you blame him? (Yes.)

Ultimately, despite my earlier protestations, my myopia on this question maybe is a matter of being trapped in my own bubble, though not in the traditionally defined way. By this I mean: Clearly, a part of me refused to believe that my friends, neighbors, and extended family members could see what this man was promising—rampant and unchecked criminality, more mob violence, coup attempts, weaponizing the military against the American people, trading national security for personal gain, sheer chaos, and violence against marginalized groups and, indeed, journalists like myself—and say, “Yes, more, please.”

What this has led to is the GOP primary electorate delivering a clear win for Trump, even as a wider swath of GOP voters and would-be voters is increasingly hesitant. Even those core supporters seem to have their lingering doubts. According to the New York Times, 1 in 10 Trump voters in Iowa said they might not vote for him if he were convicted of a crime. Whether that actually turns out to be true remains to be seen, but I think we’ve learned plenty about how the legal system, the political campaign, Trump, and his electorate will interact in the coming months. Trump is more and more willing to risk it all for the win, because he has to. Increasing desperation will likely lead to increasing martyrdom—but the people to whom that appeals are contracting, not expanding. And most importantly, the legal system has not bent to Trump’s whims. Now that Trump is the likely nominee, though, the survival of that legal system—and our very democracy—depends on the general electorate continuing to refuse to do the same.

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