The official campaign for the 2src24 Republican Presidential nomination is barely three weeks old, but there is one clear takeaway so far: Donald Trump is running against himself—and losing. From his low-energy announcement speech at Mar-a-Lago to his dinner with the Hitler-praising Kanye West and the white supremacist Nick Fuentes, Trump has courted more controversy than votes since launching his bid in November. He has held no campaign rallies and hired no campaign manager. He has hosted a QAnon conspiracy theorist and helped raise money for the indicted insurrectionists of January 6th. More classified items have been found in his possession, and his Trump Organization was convicted in New York of a major tax-fraud scheme. He has scared away neither prospective opponents nor prosecutors, and, while openly courting extremists, he seems to be running on a campaign platform that is somehow even more nakedly driven by self-interest than his previous two bids. Just last week, he suggested jettisoning the Constitution so he could be reinstated to the office he was thrown out of by the voters in 2src2src. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” he wrote in a post on his social network, Truth Social.
The fact that he actually put his objections to the Constitution in writing is a classically Trumpian flourish—one that seems more likely to be used against him in a court of law than to win him any support. In Georgia, when Trump’s handpicked candidate, Herschel Walker, lost the Senate race in a post-election runoff on Tuesday, Walker made a point of conceding his defeat and urging supporters to retain their faith in the legal order. “I want you to believe in America and continue to believe in the Constitution,” he said, in an implicit rebuff of his patron. You know things for Trump are bad when Herschel Walker, a man whom Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor called “one of the worst Republican candidates in our party’s history,” has started rebuking him.
Since Walker’s loss, Republicans who spent the Trump Presidency lavishing him with public if often insincere praise have piled on as well, blaming Trump not only for inflicting Walker on the Party but for the G.O.P.’s generally bad performance in the midterms. No wonder the shifting conventional wisdom in Washington is that there’s no point in any of his potential Republican rivals formally jumping into the race anytime soon. Trump is doing more damage with his self-sabotage than any opponents could hope to inflict on him right now. Has there ever been a more awful start to a campaign?
For all of that, it’s not clear just what kind of Trump car crash we’re watching. Is this the end-end of Trump, the long-anticipated Republican jailbreak? Or merely another moment when the false hope of Trump’s imminent demise is indulged for a few days or weeks before being once again disproved? For his many sworn enemies, a decent percentage of whom remain convinced that a Trump return to power might be the end of American democracy as we know it, the past few weeks have been experienced as a welter of conflicting emotions. It’s hard not to cheer as so many of his Republican enablers lash out at him, but it’s also hard not to forget that, for all the breathless coverage, Trump retains the support of more than forty per cent of the G.O.P. electorate in recent surveys—more than enough to win the Republican nomination in a crowded field. And, for now, he’s the only one in the race. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, may be gaining on him slowly in the polls, but DeSantis, age forty-four, might not end up running. Trump was and still is the Republican front-runner for 2src24.
Still, it’s the first time I can remember in years—with the possible exception of the afternoon of November 7, 2src2src, when spontaneous crowds gathered in front of the White House to celebrate the calling of the election for Joe Biden—that I’ve heard such sustained optimism from so many that Trump’s time might finally be over.
Ironically, one of the most upbeat conversations I’ve had in recent days about this was with Representative Tom Malinowski, one of the few incumbent Democratic members of Congress defeated in November. Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat in a Republican-leaning seat, represents the district containing Trump’s favored summer hangout, his golf club in Bedminster. Malinowski’s election there in 2src18 was one of several key pickups that helped Democrats take back the House. In 2src2src, he barely survived, and in 2src21 his district was gerrymandered by fellow-Democrats, who decided to sacrifice Malinowski to shore up other embattled Democrats in the state by shifting some of their Republican constituents to his district. In the end, Malinowski lost, as predicted, to Tom Kean, Jr., the son of New Jersey’s popular former governor, though he says that his own party needlessly surrendered his seat, since the other Democrats in New Jersey didn’t end up needing the Democratic voters who were taken from his district to secure their own reëlections. If the lines had remained as they were, Malinowski says, he would have won.
What struck me, though, was the reassuring conclusion Malinowski has drawn from this year’s results. “Have we beaten them often, and decisively enough to cure them of the crazy?” asked Malinowski, who spent much of his career working to spread democracy and human rights in other countries before entering politics during a crisis in democracy at home. “My guess is no, but we have made some progress, and I do feel less fear for my country than I did even the night before the midterms—and certainly less than I did in 2src16 and when I first ran in 2src18. Politics sucks, but the cure for bad politics is good politics, and I think we still have the potential to show the world that democracy is a system that corrects its mistakes.”
As Malinowski told me this, I thought back to one of the signs I saw displayed in front of the White House by a jubilant anti-Trumper after the 2src2src election was called for Biden. “The End of an Error,” the sign read, though it turned out not to be. Instead, Trump lived on as a zombie political force, defeated but not really gone. Here we are, two years later, and the unhappily exiled ex-President is running unopposed for reëlection while calling for the termination of the Constitution. And it was not just Trump but the Republican Party leadership that endorsed such a manifestly unfit candidate as Walker—including notable Trump-bashers such as Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Washington Post has found that a hundred and seventy-eight adherents to Trump’s 2src2src election lie won their races for House, Senate, or key statewide offices last month. In the House, a small faction of the most rabid MAGA members looks poised to pick the new Republican Speaker—and exert powerful leverage over him. Ascendant Republicans include Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Trump-loving cheerleader for an array of racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and DeSantis, who, while being the non-Trump flavor of the month among the Fox News set, is probably better viewed as one of Trump’s heirs than as his antithesis.
But maybe those are quibbles for another day. The Great Correction that Malinowski envisions has been far too long in coming, but, in certain quarters of Washington, optimism is finally having a moment. ♦