On Trump and the Elusive Fantasy of a 2024 Election Game-Changer

On the long list of humiliating things that Donald Trump’s political backers have done over the years in the name of demonstrating their fealty to the Boss, showing up at his New York hush-money trial dressed like Trump hardly rates. Still, it was one of those only-in-2024 moments to see the indicted ex-President head into court this week, flanked by an array of Republican Mini-Mes—including aspiring Vice-Presidential candidates such as North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and the Ohio Senator J. D. Vance—attired in Trump’s trademark outfit of dark-blue jacket, white shirt, and over-long red tie. Several of them even shot a fund-raising video inside the dingy courthouse with Lara Trump, who, as the newly installed co-chair of the Republican National Committee, has vowed to spend “every single penny” of the Party’s money to reëlect her father-in-law. On Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson appeared outside the Manhattan courthouse to blast the trial as a “ridiculous” political proceeding staged by a “corrupt” legal system. On Thursday, another eleven Republican members of Congress arrived in court, where they could be observed, in uniform, standing behind the only former American President ever to be put on trial as he criticized the criminal case against him as a “sham” and a “scam” that “should not happen.” So many of them came to New York to preen for the cameras, in fact, that they temporarily left House Republicans in Washington without a functional majority, and a House committee vote to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt had to be postponed until Thursday evening. The photo op, as the old saying would have it, must go on. Mitt Romney, a rare anti-Trump holdout in the Senate, was left marvelling to reporters on Capitol Hill about the “demeaning” and “embarrassing” scene.

Sigh. Even in this age of “LOL, nothing matters,” these images of Trump and his apprentices bear remembering, as a visual marker of how far the G.O.P. has gone down what Mona Charen so aptly called in an essay this week “the steep staircase of Republican decline.” Inside the courtroom, Trump has alternately snoozed, glared, and cursed during testimony about the hundred and thirty thousand dollars he allegedly paid before the 2016 election to cover up a tryst with the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. Many of the witnesses have portrayed Trump in less-than-flattering terms, from details of the “brief”—per Daniels—sexual encounter in a Lake Tahoe hotel room to Trump’s fears about what would happen to his campaign if the public heard her “catastrophic” story, as his ex-fixer, Michael Cohen, put it. None of the courtroom happenings have been televised, but Trump’s daily parade in and out of court accompanied by his posse of politicos has been.

For Trump, the visual is always the thing and this week’s spectacle bears all the hallmarks of his orchestration—See, these guys will follow me anywhere. The message is that there is no detail too base, embarrassing, or grotesque to shake their faith. They are his shock troops, his red-tied, white-shirted Praetorian Guard. Matt Gaetz, the pouf-haired Floridian who has styled himself as Trump’s main chaos agent in the Republican-controlled House, all but called them an actual posse in a social-media post from the courthouse. “Standing back and standing by, Mr. President,” he wrote to accompany a photo of himself and the others as they stood behind Trump—a self-conscious invocation of Trump’s fall 2020 message to the Proud Boys, the white-supremacist militia that, a few months later, would lead the rioters storming the Capitol on Trump’s behalf. Gaetz and the others are playing 2024 like a bad sequel of the last election: call it the Revenge of the White Shirts.

The most urgent questions raised in this year’s Presidential campaign, however, do not concern what new indignities Republican politicians such as Gaetz will bear with in order to ingratiate themselves with Trump. There is no floor for the Party’s ambitious next generation—we get it. See the recent video of Marco Rubio, now hoping to be Trump’s Veep, crying foul when confronted by ABC’s Jonathan Karl with his own 2016 speech decrying Trump as a “con artist.” Or re-read Vance on Trump in 2016, when he called the Republican candidate “Opioid of the Masses.” “My god what an idiot,” Vance tweeted of Trump back then—quite the contrast with his breathless posts from the courtroom this week, bemoaning the attempted “psychological torture” and extolling the “great spirits” of the ex-President he now calls a friend.

Considering the praise they are now willing to lavish on a man who could as easily land in prison as in the White House, it doesn’t take much to imagine the epic sucking-up these guys will be willing to do if Trump actually does manage to win back the Presidency.

Much harder to predict is whether even a conviction in this case might finally move the largely immovable American electorate. Polls hint that the answer is just maybe yes, at least among a small percentage of Republicans who do not identify as part of the Party’s most fervently pro-Trump MAGA base. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll on the eve of the New York trial, for example, twenty-four per cent of Republicans, including thirteen per cent of Trump supporters, said that they would not support him in November if he was convicted of a felony. But, with the trial finishing its fifth week and rapidly moving toward a verdict, experience strongly suggests that some skepticism is in order. The story of the past eight years is littered with examples of Republicans accepting the previously unimaginable from Trump. Why should this time be any different?

For now, the rematch between Trump and Joe Biden is stuck in a near-dead heat. Few external events short of Trump being declared a criminal felon have had discernible impact in months: Biden’s feisty State of the Union address; this week’s record-breaking highs in the stock market; Trump and the gang already signalling that they will not recognize the results of the election unless he wins—none of it has boosted Biden’s numbers at the polls, which currently have him as the most unpopular incumbent seeking reëlection in modern history. (And that includes Trump in 2020.)

This week, in search of something that will shake up the race, Biden offered to debate Trump on national television—in a “Make my day, pal” video challenge that Trump quickly accepted. They soon agreed to two dates, the first on June 27th, when they will face off on CNN at the network’s headquarters, in Atlanta. The debate will be the earliest in history for an election year, coming weeks before either party formally nominates its Presidential candidate. Traditionally, it’s the candidate with the most to gain who is the most eager to debate. But, in this case, both Biden and Trump have plausible claims for wanting to engage.

As the incumbent at a time when Americans could not be more sclerotic about the country’s present—and future—Biden urgently wants to change the race from a referendum on him to a reminder of all the chaos and craziness that would accompany another Trump Presidency. He is not wrong in thinking that Trump has always been the Biden campaign’s most effective surrogate. At the same time, Trump has long argued and actually seems to believe that his opponent is something akin to a blithering idiot, not to mention “the WORST debater I have ever faced.” Of course, he will seize on any debate missteps by Biden as evidence.

Will any of it matter? It’s one of the many oddities of this election year that both candidates currently appear too weak to win, with high unfavorables and highly unclear paths to victory, and yet win one of them must. So I wouldn’t rule anything out. Maybe Trump will be convicted and Republicans will turn against him en masse. Maybe Biden will stumble onstage in a way that simply cannot be recovered from. But don’t count on it. Political reality in 2024 is the grim math of an evenly divided country, when the prospect of an election game-changer just might be the most seductive campaign mirage of them all. ♦

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