But he is still well placed to be the next Republican presidential candidate
Donald Trump at the Adler Theatre in Iowa, March 13, 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
ON THE AMERICAN RIGHT, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, baseball’s great sage, it’s déjà vu all over again. Early polling suggests the favourite to be the party’s next presidential candidate is now—just as it was eight years ago—Donald Trump. Also as in 2015-16, the party’s buttoned-up conservative establishment is profoundly in denial about that reality.
“He’s not going to be the nominee; that’s just not going to happen,” John Sununu, the old-school Republican governor of New Hampshire and a card-carrying member of that cadre, said of Trump’s chances this month. The right’s main mouthpiece, Fox News, and money-bags donors are meanwhile all abuzz over Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who is expected to be Trump’s closest rival and is expected to announce his candidacy in the summer.
If the standards that once prevailed in American politics still pertained, Trump would indeed be on the way out. He seems likely, perhaps as early as this week, to become the first former president to be charged with a crime. And indeed, American prosecutors might end up charging him with multiple offences. Trump is subject to numerous civil and criminal investigations, related to alleged tax fraud in his company, mishandling of classified information and his attempt to steal the 2020 election, which culminated in the ransacking of Capitol Hill by his followers on January 6, 2021.
A Congressional probe into that violence, which left nine dead, including police suicides, provided much graphic evidence, including testimonies from Trump’s inner circle, to suggest he incited the violence in full knowledge that he had lost an election he claimed to have won. Yet the charge Trump might face in the coming days is altogether less epic. It relates to a skullduggerous scheme to pay off a porn star, Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have slept with him, shortly after he secured the Republican nomination in 2016.
Having for decades defended himself against legal challenges with expensive lawyers and obfuscation, Trump appears to be positively embracing the prospect of being arrested over the stormy Daniels payoff. Ever attuned to the power of visuals, he is said to be actively welcoming the idea of being led out in handcuffs. For those susceptible to the idea of Trump as a victim, there could be no more emotive political image
However much the Republican establishment may loathe Trump, there is in reality little reason to think even a serious criminal charge would prevent him becoming his party’s presidential nominee for a third consecutive time. He would not be disqualified from running. In 1908, a longshot communist candidate ran for president from his prison-cell. And most conservative voters with the capacity to be scandalised by Trump have already forsaken him.
It is not at all clear why the remaining diehards, representing around 40 per cent of the Republican vote, would desert him now. Trump naturally dismisses every investigation into his affairs as a “witch-hunt”. And if you thought there could not possibly be, after seven years of his lies and abuses, enough Americans willing to swallow that, you would be wrong.
He is, to be sure, a little less popular with Republicans than when he left office. Around half would positively prefer to nominate a different leader, which is the main impetus behind DeSantis, a pugnacious odd-ball, who is, despite his rave reviews on the right, little known and largely untested in national politics. But Trump does not need all Republicans to support him. The Republican primaries (unlike the Democratic version) work on a winner-takes-all basis. That means whoever wins the most votes in the state-by-state contests that will begin in Iowa in February 2024, wins every delegate to the party’s nominating convention up for grabs. To be the ultimate winner, Trump therefore merely needs to be more popular than any single rival.
These rules make the Republicans vulnerable to a charismatic populist with diehard supporters, especially when the loyalties of more conventional conservatives are divided between multiple candidates. That is how Trump triumphed in 2016. Though he could count on the support of only around a third of Republican voters for most of the contest, the remaining vote was split among a crowded field of Senators and governors.
Much the same dynamic is now in play. Trump’s hold on about 40 per cent of the Republican vote appears so implacable that DeSantis or another prime challenger would need to win most of the remaining votes to deny him the nomination. And a crowded field again promises to make that hard. So far, besides Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman, and Nikki Haley (née Nimrata Randhawa), a former Trump loyalist and governor of South Carolina, have declared their candidacies. A dozen or so other senior Republicans, including DeSantis, are either preparing to follow suit or considering doing so. They include Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president; Chris Christie, a former governor of New Jersey; Asa Hutchinson, a former governor of Arkansas; Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state and CIA chief; and Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota.
If Trump’s opponents banded together against him, by relentlessly calling out his lies and the assault on conservatism and American democracy that he represents, they might have at least a hope of chipping away at his greatest strength: his core support. This was the opportunity his traditional Republican opponents spurned in 2016. For most of the primaries, they chuckled and patronised Trump, while knocking lumps out of each other. Though the former reality TV star led the primaries almost from the start, his opponents considered him too ridiculous to be a serious contender.
Every one of them therefore took aim at each other, aiming to emerge as the single main champion of the respectable right, whereupon they looked forward to sweeping aside Trump and claiming the ticket. Instead, the well-funded field remained crowded, its members were so mutually degraded by their back-biting that Trump was almost normalised, and, after a string of early victories, he was suddenly unstoppable.
The great threat of his impending indictment is that it could similarly insulate the former president from attack. Even as it stands, Republican leaders can rarely bring themselves to criticise him. That is to invite a furious backlash from Trump himself and the derision of almost half their party’s electorate. If he is indicted, criticising him may become even harder. His opponents will be under pressure to declare him a martyr to the tyranny of a leftwing conspiracy. Not only the president, but talking heads on Fox News and many Republican leaders, including Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House of Representatives, are already portraying the anticipated indictment over Stormy Daniels in those terms.
If he is indicted, criticising him may become even harder. His opponents will be under pressure to declare him a martyr to the tyranny of a leftwing conspiracy. Not only the President, but talking heads on Fox News and many republican leaders, including Kevin Mccarthy, the speaker of the house of representatives, are already portraying the anticipated indictment over stormy Daniels in those terms
DeSantis, so far, seems determined to keep all options open. The governor has castigated the Manhattan district attorney’s office that has indicated that it is preparing to charge Trump over the porn-star-pay-off as a bunch of “Soros-funded prosecutors”, who are weaponising their office “to impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety.” So far, so much Trump-pandering. In almost the same breath, however, Florida’s governor also had a dig at the former president, telling reporters that he didn’t know “what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair—I can’t speak to that.”
Trump duly posted a furious and scurrilous attack on the governor on his social media platform, Truth Social. “Ron DeSanctimonious will probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future, as he gets older, wiser, and better known, when he’s unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are ‘underage’ (or possibly a man!). I’m sure he will want to fight these misfits just like I do!” Accompanying this innuendo, Trump posted a blurry photograph of a man resembling DeSantis drinking with what appeared to be teenage girls. It was alleged to date from DeSantis’ brief stint as a young teacher at a school in Georgia.
Trying to have it both ways is a DeSantis trait. The 44-year-old Floridian is a graduate of Harvard and Yale who now styles himself a working-class scourge of the elite. After a brief and undistinguished spell in Congress, he won Florida’s governorship after slavishly angling for Trump’s endorsement—whereupon he proceeded to unleash a raft of sensible centrist environmental and economic policies. Only to then switch tack yet again, when his early flouting of public health guidance during the Covid-19 pandemic made him a hero to Fox News viewers. If DeSantis has any firm beliefs, beyond the sacred importance of opposing the left, broadly defined, he is keeping them hidden. Back in 2014-15, he berated Barack Obama for failing to arm Ukraine against Russia. Yet, now that Joe Biden is vigorously doing so, DeSantis is against that. This month he berated the Biden administration for offering Ukraine a “blank cheque”, characterised Russia’s invasion of the country as a “territorial dispute”, and suggested it was not among America’s “vital national interests”.
The Wall Street Journal and other organs of the conservative establishment were aghast. (“If American conservatives aren’t for pushing back against Russian attacks on democratic Europe, what are we for?” a puzzled Republican grandee wondered.) But to be surprised by DeSantis, you would need to consider him a man of conviction, which his record shows he is not. The key question, then, is what political game is he playing at?
A simple but surprisingly effective way to think about Republican voters, as the analyst Ron Brownstein has shown, is as a coalition of two almost equally sized groups, one of which has been to college, while the other hasn’t. Non-college conservatives tend to be culturally aggrieved, somewhat isolationist and overwhelmingly pro-Trump: they were the single main reason he won the Republican nomination in 2016. College-educated conservatives are less culturally conservative, less isolationist and were mostly for alternative candidates back then. And though they were supportive of Trump in office, most are now again looking elsewhere.
They did not know it at the time, but Trump’s opponents in 2015 were essentially competing for that more educated half of the Republican vote. Most left non-college conservatives cold. And the electoral arithmetic that gives rise to still holds. Trump can probably be beaten only by winning a big majority of the college-educated vote; or by bagging a plurality of college-educated votes and topping them up with a useful minority of non-college ones. In wanting DeSantis to stick to their preferred lines (strong defence, low taxes, damn the left…), his establishment backers want him to pursue the first strategy. But his newfound isolationism, and earlier anti-elite grandstanding, suggest he prefers the second course.
No one has tried to appeal to both halves of the Republican coalition in quite this way before. The obvious danger is that Ron Desantis ends up pleasing neither—that his populism is a turn-off for his core, college-educated supporters, and that he is too implausibly populist or manifestly establishment a figure for the minority of non-college voters open to an alternative to Trump
It is, in theory, a potential means to insure against being crowded out in the college-educated lane, as Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and the rest were in 2016. Perhaps it will prove to be a winning strategy. But it is a risky one. No one has tried to appeal to both halves of the Republican coalition in quite this way before. The obvious danger is that DeSantis ends up pleasing neither—that his populism is a turn-off for his core, college-educated supporters, and that he is too implausibly populist/manifestly establishment a figure for the minority of non-college voters open to an alternative to Trump. It is very early days. And it is far from clear that DeSantis, a gruff, uncharming figure, with little hard campaigning experience, will even remain the likeliest alternative to Trump. Yet it does seem clear that if he wins the primary, it will not be as the pro-business establishment figure his backers were hoping for.
Trump is meanwhile plotting to make DeSantis’ ambitions stillborn. Having for decades defended himself against legal challenges with expensive lawyers and obfuscation, he appears to be positively embracing the prospect of being arrested over the Stormy Daniels payoff. Ever attuned to the power of visuals, he is said to be actively welcoming the idea of being led out in handcuffs. For those susceptible to the idea of Trump as a victim, there could be no more emotive political image. And anyone who reckons it would turn off swathes of Trump supporters should consult the former president’s career to date.
It has been punctuated by countless new lows—sex scandals, rape allegations, racist outbursts, alleged fraud, abuses of power, and so forth—all of which have provoked predictions that Trump’s fervent mass of supporters were about to leave him. But they haven’t yet. So why would they now?