Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president after a dominant performance in the Iowa caucuses — a performance in which he earned over 50% of the vote and left his closest competitors in the dust. Trump currently leads in the polls in New Hampshire, South Carolina and every other primary state.
Get ready for “Trump vs. Biden II: Electric Boogaloo.”
The big question, of course, is why? Why does Trump retain such a grip on the Republican imagination after losing the 2020 election, contributing heavily to the loss of two Republican Senate seats in Georgia in 2021, and contributing heavily to the loss of the Senate in 2022 with his spate of bizarre primary picks? Why should Trump, who spends much of every day fulminating about his upcoming legal cases, have the upper hand against Republicans without such baggage? Why does Trump, who is certainly no conservative ideologue, live so large in the imagination of conservatives?
There are several reasons.
Primarily, Trump is lucky in his enemies.
To be more precise, Trump’s very presence on the political stage — and his victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 — drove his enemies out of their minds. Those enemies determined that any and all means were appropriate for undermining his presidency and his 2020 reelection bid: from Russian collusion nonsense to multiple impeachments, from nodding at historically damaging riots to blaming him for a pandemic, from changing the voting rules to lying about and then shutting down the dissemination of the Hunter Biden laptop story, anything was on the table. So when Trump claimed in the post-2020 election landscape that he had been robbed of victory, that contention rang true, even if his contentions about outright voter fraud remained unproven.
Trump has been the title character of “Trump: The Series” since 2015. In the end, the chances that Americans would allow a recasting before his reelection effort were always low. But those chances shrank to zero the moment Trump’s enemies weaponized the legal system against him.
When Trump’s enemies, in the aftermath of Joe Biden’s election win, continued to come after Trump using the legal system, Trump argued that he was a stand-in for conservatives everywhere, who feel that they are targeted for destruction by America’s most powerful institutions. That argument had major purchase: by polling data, Trump’s bump to the top of the Republican 2024 heap came not with his reelection announcement, but with the announcement in March 2023 that he would be indicted in Manhattan on specious charges of campaign finance violation. The drumbeat of new legal charges against him, dropped everywhere from Florida to Washington, D.C. to Georgia, simply added fuel to the fire.
Perhaps even that legal news could have been turned against Trump in a primary race. But there was one more factor Trump needed: He needed Joe Biden to be so terrible at his job, so outright awful, that Trump would suddenly look competitive. The electability argument — the argument that Trump’s losing record since 2016 would continue into 2024 — collapsed for Trump’s Republican opponents as Biden’s approval rating sank into the 30s. Republicans’ hearts were with Trump; now their heads could be with him, too.
And so Trump is the presumptive nominee.
The only question is whether he will reenter the White House in January 2025. And that question, ironically, will be answered less by Trump than by Biden. Trump’s campaign will be relatively quiet: He’ll be relegated to courtrooms and TruthSocial; there will be no debates. Which means that 2024 could easily be a referendum on Biden’s presidency. And if that happens, Trump will have capped the most remarkable political comeback since Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968.
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