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The Dangerous Durability of Donald Trump

When Donald Trump announced his 2024 run, he was at perhaps his lowest point politically. His party had just flopped in the 2022 midterms after hyping up a coming “red wave.” The January 6 committee, which had spent months detailing his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, was about to refer him to the Justice Department for criminal charges. And even the former president himself seemed to be going through the motions. It was way too early to write his political obituary, of course. But perhaps it was “time for the pro-democracy coalition to embrace a somewhat unfamiliar feeling,” I wrote back then. “Optimism.”

Now, as he all but seals up the GOP nomination after routing Nikki Haley on Super Tuesday, that optimism is a bit harder to come by. Trump has once again bent the Republican Party to his will, dominating the primary with little resistance from even his rivals. There wasn’t much drama Tuesday night, with Trump projected to win 11 states by 9:30 p.m. Though he couldn’t officially clinch the nomination in terms of delegates, that day should come soon, setting the stage for a rematch this November with Joe Biden (who also coasted on Super Tuesday against minimal Democratic competition).  

Despite a disastrous four years in office, two impeachments, four indictments, and one violent insurrection, polls suggest Trump’s running even with or leading Biden in the general election. This all comes as Biden has overseen a strong economy and an impressive list of accomplishments in this divided Washington.

“Polls don’t vote,” as the Biden campaign mantra goes. “Voters do.” But the mood among voters has seemed decidedly gloomy: Democrats are worrying about the sturdiness of their 2024 coalition amid divisions over Gaza policy and concerns about Biden’s age, and a disturbing number of Republicans have either made their peace with or outright embraced Trump and his authoritarian agenda. “It’s the contest nobody wanted,” as GOP strategist Kevin Madden put it to me, “and it’s a race to see who hits the bottom last.”

Is this malaise just more of the typical anxiety from the pro-democracy set, who learned the hard way in 2016 not to get too comfortable? Or is Trump’s dominance in the Republican primary a prologue for his potential return to power?

By the normal rules of politics, the answers to those questions would be easy. Trump is an aspiring tyrant who is facing 91 felony charges (to which he has pleaded not guilty) and was recently ordered to pay more than a half-billion dollars in defamation and fraud cases. (He has asked a judge to suspend the ruling in the defamation case, and he has appealed the judgment in the fraud case.) Not to mention, he’s seemingly losing the tenuous grip he had on reality to begin with. He should be unelectable. But the normal rules don’t necessarily apply here, as his election in 2016 and his ongoing reign over the GOP make clear.

Trump barely participated in the GOP’s nominating process, skipping debates and acting as the party’s de facto incumbent while his rivals—many of whom have now endorsed him and earned a spot on his VP short listduked it out amongst themselves. None of the challengers—from sycophants like Tim Scott to wannabe heirs like Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy to critics like Chris Christie—made it past the Iowa caucuses. That is, except for Haley, who got the head-to-head matchup she wanted but still entered Super Tuesday with just a single victory to her name: Washington, DC, which Trump, ever gracious in defeat, claimed he “purposely” lost. “He’s in a better position with the GOP electorate than he was in 2016,” Madden observed, “and he won in 2016.”

And while the Republican establishment viewed him with some wariness in that election eight years ago, it has long since yielded to him. Capitol Hill Republicans are rallying around him. Old standard-bearers like Mitch McConnell are in retreat, as are those we might generously describe as “normal” members of the conference. And he’s further reshaping the Republican National Committee as he effectively ousts chair Ronna McDaniel and seeks to install Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law, and North Carolina GOP chair Michael Whatley, an ally and proponent of his lies about the 2020 election. “He’s gonna be a shill,” Anderson Clayton, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, told me of her Republican counterpart.

Whatley, Clayton said, was an establishment type when she took over the state Democratic Party, and she once had a grudging respect for him. But his potential ascent to the top of the RNC is a kind of case study in the “dramatic turn” the party has taken in recent years: “You’ve got a whole party that’s an election-denying party right now,” Clayton said.

But if the primary season reflected the disturbing durability of Trump and his movement, it also hinted at their limitations and his potential vulnerability. Trump’s most dominant win, in the Hawkeye State, was a low-turnout affair in which the non-Trump vote split between DeSantis and Haley. His subsequent victories, while commanding, have nevertheless suggested that a sizable portion of Republican voters don’t support him—and a significant chunk of Haley backers say they’d prefer Biden, if it came down to it. The primary affirmed that the GOP is the “party of Trump,” said Dan Kalik, head of politics and strategy at the progressive Swing Left. But “as the stakes of the election become clear,” Kalik told me, the “energy will be there” to stand up against Trump’s antidemocratic threat.

“Elections are a choice,” Kalik said. “On one side, we have a current president who has spent his entire career and entire presidency trying to make sure Americans have an economy where everyone can thrive, and their rights and freedoms are protected. On the other side, there’s someone who has no respect for democracy, who’s leading an effort to strip Americans of their core, basic freedoms. It’s such a clear contrast.”

Even so, the general election is sure to be close, given the unsettling number of Americans Trump continues to count as true believers. And even if that confederacy of chaos isn’t as big as the pro-democracy coalition, a few votes here and there in key swing states could end up proving decisive. Most Americans may “choose normal” over crazy, as close Biden aide Bruce Reed suggested to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos recently. But that doesn’t mean Trump can’t pull off an Electoral College victory like he did in 2016, especially with a cast of potential spoiler candidates—including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—loitering around this race. “It’s really going to come down to the wire,” Madden, the GOP strategist, told me. “It’s probably going to come down to five or six regions, and about four to five hundred thousand voters in those regions.”

That’s a discomfiting thought. It’s bad enough to elect Donald Trump president once. The fact that there’s a chance, let alone a good chance, that he could win out a second time, even after voters lived through four years of his leadership? That speaks not only to the cynicism and cravenness of the GOP, but also to the dysfunction of this country’s politics. Which isn’t to say that I feel my cautious optimism from 2022 was misplaced. Trumpism, though, will remain an insidious force in American politics, and it’ll take sustained effort to beat it back. “I’m confident we’ll do that,” Kalik told me. I am too—I think.

Originally Published Here.

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