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Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Rebecca Blackwell
VOICES
Larry Donnelly Brace yourselves for the return of Trump - but is he still relevant?
Our columnist looks at the return of the brash politician and asks if he can really pull off another White House win.

“IN ORDER TO make America great and glorious again, I am tonight announcing my candidacy for President of the United States.”

So said the 45th president, Donald Trump, on 15 November, as he declared that he would make a bid to also become the nation’s 47th commander-in-chief.

It had been well heralded in advance. He actually wanted to make it official when addressing the crowd at an election eve rally for JD Vance, the US Senator to be from Ohio who Trump backed enthusiastically in a campaign that stands as his single major success in the midterms. Fearing that this might distract attention and hurt the chances of Vance and other Republicans, his closest advisers miraculously managed to talk him out of doing so.

Jumping the gun

Instead, he announced the date he would announce. Even that statement, which was effectively a compromise, may have damaged his party colleagues. For as polling data has consistently suggested, the crucial cadre of floating voters who decide tight elections in the US has pivoted against Trump.

The mere prospect of his entering the fray almost certainly gave some of them who were leaning toward GOP aspirants in the midterms enough cause to cast ballots for Democrats.

After the “red wave” that had been anticipated did not wash over America, lots of high-profile Republicans have wagged the finger of blame at the erstwhile president and his controversial persona. Rather than a referendum on inflation, violent crime and the elderly, unpopular President Joe Biden, they believe contests across the country morphed into a thumbs up or down on Donald Trump.

Politically astute conservatives know that they are in bother when this is how things are framed. Since 2016 – and it is worth repeating that Trump’s vanquishing of 16 objectively better-qualified foes in the presidential primary and then of Hillary Clinton was an extraordinary feat that year – the results haven’t been all that good.

The numbers

In 2018, Democrats gained 41 seats in the US House of Representatives. In 2020, although Republicans fared well at state and local levels, Democrats held their House majority and took control of the Senate. Most damningly, in the words of one local right-wing operative, Trump “completely f**ked us up” in Georgia by questioning the validity of the state’s election procedures and alleging that citizens’ votes wouldn’t be counted properly.

Thus, Democrats narrowly prevailed in both Senate run-offs in the theretofore solidly red state. In addition to these setbacks, there was January 6th.

At the moment, fewer than 40% of the American people view Trump favourably. He has plummeted in the post-midterm polls; several show him behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Rupert Murdoch has abandoned him. Wealthy donors are gravitating toward DeSantis. The so-called “very big announcement” didn’t attract the attention or generate the buzz one might have expected. And there is legal trouble swirling all around the ex-New Yorker, now Floridian.

There are abundant signals that Donald Trump is yesterday’s man. At this juncture, I tend to agree that he is.

But observers caution that the intertwined “Trump lost the midterms” and “Trump is finished” narratives are either premature or flat out wrong. Their admonitions are not without merit and justify consideration on a couple of fronts.

First, and here is where I think some watchers of and participants in the arena may be misapprehending the state of play, is the potency of Trumpism. To his credit, Trump recognised that the fundamentally optimistic, sunny brand of conservatism once embraced by leading Republicans, such as Ronald Reagan, John McCain and Mitt Romney, was a dead letter, politically speaking. Moreover, their interventionist, pro-free trade, pro-immigration bent was not in sync with the sentiments of the grassroots.

Trump’s consequent ideologically impure sloganeering – “Make America Great Again” and “America First” – is far more about rewinding the clock of history than the fulfilment of the policy goals of right of centre think tanks in Washington, DC or the editorial board of National Review. His rhetoric and messaging have helped to make his party the home of working class white women and men, who have an arguably disproportionate electoral say owing to constitutional design and have also delivered millions of Latino (as well as Asian American) voters to the GOP. It is a winning formula, albeit an unlikely one.

Governor DeSantis will surely be prodded in the direction of the Lincoln Project by the media and a small, but vocal, minority in his party. Yet if the Yale and Harvard educated lawyer mistakes the disenchantment with Trump, the deeply flawed person, for a repudiation of Trumpism, he will lose. His road to victory is Trumpism without Trump. If he deviates from what is now dogma as primary season approaches, it won’t pay off.

‘Rabid disciples’

Second, Trump enjoys the fervent support of downright rabid disciples who comprise a sizeable chunk of those who will determine who the Republican presidential nominee is in 2024. They do not care what Trump says or does, or indeed what criminal offences he may be charged with or convicted of. They will vote for him regardless.

They are similarly indifferent to opinion surveys indicating that he will not defeat President Biden, or whoever the Democrats choose as their standard bearer and that he will be a drag on Republicans further down the ballot paper. They are prepared to walk off the political cliff with their hero.

Two questions arise in this context. Exactly how many primary voters fall into this category? My guess is between 30 and 40 per cent. Trump has an enviable starting position. Next, how many serious contenders will there be for the nomination?

This may prove the most significant. If the battle swiftly develops into a mano a mano between Trump and DeSantis, I think the latter will win. However, former Vice President Mike Pence, ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, Trump’s US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and others are pondering runs.

If one or more of them gets any traction and stays in for the longer haul, Trump’s odds improve markedly, given his implacable following. Divide and conquer, as in 2016, is his best bet.

In short, Trump definitely has a navigable path to being his party’s choice for the third time. While he is down – I would say way down – he is not out. Trump is facing an uphill climb. And that is before daring to contemplate whether he can capture the ultimate prize in the event that he were to garner the Republican nod.

In the wake of his speech from Mar-a-Lago last week, one commentator wryly quipped on Twitter that at least American politics will be “entertaining” again. I suppose that’s one word for it.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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