Instead of taking off like a rocket over the past three weeks, Donald Trump’s bid to win back the White House appears, so far at least, to be blowing up on the launchpad.
The swagger of 2016 has given way to somnolence in 2022. Opinion polls are grim. Legal setbacks are piling up. A run of dismal results in the midterm elections, culminating in another Republican loss in Georgia this week, have punctured his aura of invincibility within the party.
And Trump has performed astonishing acts of self-sabotage, from dining with antisemites to calling for the constitution to be shredded. He has eschewed a widely-anticipated spree of public rallies, instead remaining largely out of the public gaze.
For any conventional candidate, such a list would be career-ending. For Trump, who has long defied political gravity, the fallout remains uncertain. But even the most ardent propagandist would be hard pushed to describe it as a flying start.
“It couldn’t be going any worse,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington. “And it’s not because Donald Trump is making mistakes. It’s because Donald Trump is being Donald Trump.
“He was something new and fresh and interesting back in 2016. He has presided over three disastrous election cycles for Republicans in 2018, 2020 and 2022 and he’s the same old Donald Trump, caring only about himself, wrapped up in his own grievances and his own whining. It’s just not playing anymore for the American people.”
It was not meant to be like this. When Trump first set the date for his campaign launch at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida for 15 November, it was based on the premise that Republicans would enjoy a “red wave” in the midterm elections, putting wind in his sails for the coming months.
Instead the midterms were a nightmare as most of his handpicked candidates, including election deniers, were wiped out in swing states. This week’s defeat of former American football star Herschel Walker by incumbent Raphael Warnock in a Senate runoff in Georgia seemed to confirm that Trump has become ballot box poison, prompting a headline on the once loyal Fox News website: “Herschel Walker just wrote Donald Trump’s political obituary”.
Gallingly, one of the biggest winners in the midterms was Ron DeSantis, re-elected as governor of Florida by nearly 20 percentage points, cementing his status as the biggest threat to Trump. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted from 1 to 5 December found DeSantis leading the former president by five percentage points in the race for the 2024 Republican nomination.
So it was that Trump’s Mar-a-Lago speech was widely derided as a damp squib, lacking his usual bombast and brio and even his daughter, Ivanka, has decided to sit this one out. Since then, the campaign has been running on autopilot and little has been seen of the former president hunkered down in Florida, venturing out only to play golf.
Trump’s rambunctious campaign rallies, expected to give early momentum to his third consecutive run for president, have mysteriously failed to materialise. In June 2015, by contrast, he declared his candidacy after riding down an escalator in New York and held his first rally in Iowa just 10 hours later, moving on to New Hampshire a day later.
Yet Trump is still making plenty of news from Mar-a-Lago. He dined with two antisemites: Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and white supremacist Nick Fuentes (Ye subsequently expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler). Still harping on the 2020 election, which he falsely claims was stolen, Trump mused about the “termination” of the constitution that he once swore to preserve, protect and defend. He also posed for photos with a reporter supporter of the QAnon and “Pizzagate” conspiracy theories.
Such antics have shaken even the faithful. Larry Kudlow, who was Trump’s economic adviser in the White House, shared his concerns with Trump’s former counselor Kellyanne Conway during his Fox Business show. “I don’t understand what our former boss is doing,” Kudlow said. “I love the guy, but I do not understand Kanye West, hanging out with white nationalists, hanging out with antisemitic people, talking about ending the constitution or postponing the constitution.”
He added: “I don’t get it, I don’t understand why he’s saying it, and if he says it why hasn’t he apologised for it or corrected the record or something, because he’s losing support left and right. I hear it everywhere.”
Then there are the legal headaches, another contrast from the carefree days of 2016. Trump’s business was this week found guilty on all 17 counts in a tax fraud case in New York. The Trump Organization – which operates hotels, golf courses and other global assets – faces up to $1.6m in fines, denting his carefully constructed image as a businessman with the golden touch.
Last month attorney general Merrick Garland appointed Jack Smith special counsel for two justice department investigations. One is focusing on Trump for retaining government records, including some marked as classified, after leaving office. On 1 December Trump suffered yet another defeat when an appeals court reversed a judge’s appointment of an independent arbiter to vet documents seized by the FBI from Mar-a-Lago, clearing the way for all the records to be used in a criminal investigation of the former president.
The other concerns of the far reaching effort to overturn Trump’s loss in the 2020 election; Smith this week issued grand jury subpoenas to local election officials in Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin. Separately, a prosecutor in Georgia is pursuing Trump’s alleged efforts to influence that state’s 2020 election results. And the House of Representatives panel investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol is expected to make criminal referrals to the justice department.
Lichtman added: “Trump’s companies have been operating as a criminal enterprise. That’s now established in court: 17 counts. And of course he still could be indicted on a host of different charges: mishandling classified documents, meddling in the Georgia election, inciting a riot, interfering with Congress, tax fraud. There are any number of potential violations.”
Many regard Trump’s early campaign launch as blatant attempt to head off such a prospect. He characterises the investigations as politically motivated “witch hunts” reminiscent of the Russian collusion “hoax”. His gamble is that the justice department will be reluctant to prosecute an active candidate lest it be accused of interfering in an election.
Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist, said: “It seems like it’s not really a campaign but more of an effort to use the illusion of a campaign to try and manage his legal situation. The Trump legal strategy is directly tied to the Trump 2024 strategy. They’re one and the same.”
Garland’s actions so far suggest that the bid for legal immunity has failed. Trump’s effort to clear the Republican field, intimidating and chasing away potential challengers in 2024, has been equally futile, serving only to expose his vulnerabilities.
DeSantis, former vice-president Mike Pence, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin and Senator Tim Scott have left a trail of clues about their intentions. Big money donors and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire have indicated that they are ready for an alternative.
And yet, if these candidates divide the anti-Trump vote, his shrinking but hardening Maga base may help him prevail in a Republican primary just as in 2016. Loyalty to the former president runs deep in county and state parties. Even after his latest transgressions, the number of senior Republicans speaking out against Trump has been striking but so too has the number mincing their words or staying silent.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “Show me the evidence where his grip on the party is breaking. The only thing we’ve heard from the party leadership is there’s no place for antisemitism in the Republican party. We haven’t heard anybody call for Donald Trump to be removed as a potential nominee of the party.
“Ron DeSantis has said nothing about the Mar-a-Lago dinner. He is absolutely silent, so the idea that he’s going to be a leader is a joke because that was the moment to lead and he quivered in the corner because he was afraid of getting smacked by Donald Trump.”
He added: “Trump still is the thing that animates and controls outcomes inside the Republican party for as long as the political leadership allows the tail to wag the dog. If you’re afraid of your own shadow, you’re not going to get out much.”
There is no doubt that Trump’s political obituary has been prepared a thousand times, only to be torn up when the Republican party capitulates once more. Is there something different in the air this time? Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who worked on Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns, said: “The problem is we’ve said it so many times and it hasn’t been true. On the other hand, some time it will be true.”