Ross Douthat
Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

Trump Is Stronger Than He’s Ever Been

About 18 months ago, Donald Trump suffered one of his worst political defeats, when many of his loyalists and handpicked candidates were defeated in a midterm landscape that clearly favored the Republicans. A lot of people — I was one of them — thought that this might be the beginning of the end for him, a stark indicator of political weakness that would encourage G.O.P. voters to abandon him or set him up for a decisive general election defeat.

Instead today Trump arguably occupies a more politically commanding position in American politics than at any other point in the past eight years. His romp through Super Tuesday last night completes the replay of 2016’s Republican primaries, with his opposition once again fatally divided and his coalition this time much stronger from the start. And while the residual support for Nikki Haley indicates some persistent discontent, the polls that matter are the ones that show Trump consistently beating President Biden — a show of strength beyond anything he managed at a similar point in his previous two presidential runs.

How did we go from defeat and apparent weakness to recovery and strength? Start with the most important political result of the Republican disappointments in 2022, which was not the temporary blow to Trump but the brief return of Biden’s mojo, pre-empting any effort within the liberal coalition to make an issue of his age and push him out for 2024.

Sticking with Biden didn’t just mean that Democrats were stuck with apparent presidential decrepitude to go along with an unpopular economic record. It also meant that the argument among Republicans for Trump’s unelectability, briefly potent enough to lift Ron DeSantis in the polls, fizzled out quickly: With every new survey showing Biden struggling, it became harder and harder for DeSantis and then Haley to persuade voters who liked Trump that it was time to turn the page.

In saving Biden, then, the midterms eventually helped revive Trump. So did the return of liberal lawfare, which was in abeyance during Biden’s first two years but came back with a vengeance in the run of indictments, lawsuits and attempts to remove Trump from the presidential ballot.

There is an understandable liberal frustration with all attempts to make Trumpism out to be some kind of unbeatable political force, given how many bruising defeats he and his allies have suffered at the ballot box. But there is a clear pattern where you can’t expect to beat Trump except at the ballot box — because all the attempts to investigate, impeach and prosecute just don’t have the desired political effect.

Obviously Trump is corrupt, and some of the proceedings against him have merit. But far too often these efforts end up tainted by nakedly partisan intent, whether they’re taken over by liberal grifters like Michael Avenatti or just pursued with a mixture of overreach, incompetence and wishcasting.

So it’s been in the past year. Prosecutors could have brought one slam-dunk indictment against the former president, in the classified-documents case. Instead they brought four of them — the first one (the New York case) completely partisan and far-fetched and the other two requiring novel or creative legal theories to succeed. And now one of the prosecutors, Georgia’s Fani Willis, has recapitulated the Avenatti arc, as her pursuit of Trump has exposed her own ethical vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile we’ve also had the strange swell of enthusiasm for a 14th Amendment solution to the Trump problem, his removal from the ballot via state officialdom or judicial diktat. As lawfare, this was the worst of all worlds: The effort was antidemocratic and incompetent at once, signifying a special liberal fear of Trump (boosting him with his core supporters) and a general elite fear of the voting public (alienating swing voters) while leading to an entirely-foreseeable 9-to-0 Supreme Court rebuke.

So Trump has risen by being fortunate, once again, in his rivals and enemies. But he’s also risen by doing something a bit more unaccustomed: ceding the spotlight and showing a touch — just a touch — of actual political discipline.

He refused to be goaded onto the primary debate stage, whether by Haley, Chris Christie or his former vice president. He has somewhat normal political professionals running his campaign. He’s kept his more bizarre rants confined to the weird microworld of Truth Social instead of making a triumphant return to a larger social media platform. He’s done fewer rallies, made fewer headlines with his insults and backed off from some fights that might have run for weeks in the past. (For instance, when a dig at Haley’s husband, serving overseas, went over badly in South Carolina, Trump mostly dropped it from his campaign-trail rhetoric.)

This isn’t a “new Trump,” exactly: His rally speeches are still rambling and rich with grievance, and you just need to take a glance at Truth Social to see the old mania at work. It may just be that he seems more contained because he’s being contained, unwillingly, by forces stronger than his ego, from advancing age to the demands of all those trials and legal issues.

But whether there’s a real strategy or not, his current position clearly vindicates the rule of the Trump era that the lower his profile, the higher his polls. A cautious front-runner’s campaign and a packed calendar of court dates have been much better for his political standing than a packed calendar of rallies and a return to constant posting on Elon Musk’s social media platform.

This is the one part of the Trumpian revival that I think should give the Biden campaign some degree of comfort for the fall campaign. In general the White House seems to be in a dangerous kind of denial about its parlous position, trying to wish away the clear message of the polling averages. But to the extent that Trump thrives when he’s getting less attention, you would expect a general election campaign to provide many more reminders of his chaos and unfitness to the voters who just aren’t paying close attention now.

Or at least you’d expect that from a normal general election campaign, with a Democratic candidate ready to take the fight to Trump and make a big deal out of his every rant and ramble. But we don’t know yet if Biden can really play that role. If he can’t, then the peculiar ease of Trump’s recovery, the way he’s seemed to coast toward his party’s nomination and into a general election lead, may just extend itself all the way to a November restoration.

The New York Times