Trump on the Trail and on Trial

As a way of launching the race for the Republican Presidential nomination, the Iowa and New Hampshire contests offer a neat thematic juxtaposition: in the Midwest, candidates fight for the social-conservative vote; in New England, for the support of small-business owners. Last week, after winning the Iowa caucus by thirty points, Donald Trump complicated the story by ping-ponging between New Hampshire and a Manhattan courtroom, where a jury is considering the amount of damages he now owes E. Jean Carroll for defaming her by saying that she lied when she accused him of rape. “Here’s my schedule for the next four or five days,” Trump told a crowd in Atkinson, New Hampshire, on Tuesday evening. “I come here, I meet with great groups in New Hampshire. I then get on the plane late at night when it’s snowing and freezing out—wonderful. And the pilot says, ‘Sir, it’s gonna be tough.’ And I get there early in the morning, I go to a Biden witch hunt, then I come here in the afternoon.” Trump’s trials, in which he faces ninety-one felony counts, have often been described as a potential distraction for the candidate. But Trump, who complained in Atkinson that he has been indicted more times than Al Capone, did not sound distracted or gloomy about the prospect of spending that time in court. Quite the opposite.

Trump wasn’t required to appear at the Carroll trial at all. But he found it politically advantageous to be there, not so much menacing the courtroom as Dennis-the-Menacing it. On Tuesday, when potential jurors were asked whether they believed that the 2020 election had been stolen, three raised their hands (none was selected), and Trump raised his hand, too. On Wednesday, Carroll’s lawyer said that Trump was disrupting the proceedings by “muttering” loudly enough for jurors to hear him say that the trial was a “con job” and a “witch hunt.” The judge threatened to throw him out. “I’d love that,” Trump replied. But, as he has been pointing out on the campaign trail, the indictments and trials have had a way of strengthening his support among Republicans. Trump’s first Presidential campaign, in 2016, was launched in an atmosphere of displacement and rage. This one is being conducted in a posture of relentless victimhood.

Maybe that’s a more effective position than at first it sounds. One way to interpret it is that the trials have imposed a deadline and he is in a race to beat it: to consolidate the support of the Party before his most serious cases get under way, so that he can campaign against the charges as partisan fictions. This may explain his curiously subdued performance after his win in Iowa, which derailed the campaign of Ron DeSantis, his only real challenger on the right. Speaking at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, Trump praised both DeSantis and Nikki Haley, and repeatedly urged the Party to “come together.” In recent campaign appearances, Trump has tended to stand alone on the stage and deliver a harangue, but in Des Moines he was flanked by his sons Eric and Don, Jr., and devoted part of his meandering victory speech to the sports preferences and tall height of his youngest son, Barron. Donald Trump, political conciliator and family man? It would be a real turn. But organizing his campaign around the idea that the trials are a Democratic setup means that Trump has to get the whole Party behind him, even those members who have long found him immoral, vindictive, or extreme.

Trump isn’t really running as a populist insurgent this time. He’s acting like something closer to a conventional leader of the Republican Party—though it’s a party, of course, that he has completely remade. His reëmergence as its front-runner in this election, after he tried to overturn the results of the last one, has required both capitulations within the Party (from Mitch McConnell’s failure to push G.O.P. senators to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial to Marco Rubio’s and Ted Cruz’s endorsements, last week, of the candidate they once denounced) and mistakes made outside it. The Biden Justice Department’s yearlong slow roll of its January 6th investigation, out of a “wariness to appear partisan,” as the Washington Post put it, now looks a little naïve. The trouble for Biden isn’t just that Trump remains the central figure in U.S. politics. It’s also that, to some voters, Biden’s inability to move his predecessor offstage just demonstrates the ineffectualness of his Administration.

Trump’s unity stance may be superficial—not even a full day after his Iowa win, he was back to mocking DeSantis and Haley—but it seems that it can still have an effect. The religious conservatives who helped defeat him in Iowa in 2016 largely supported him this time; at Davos, mainstream business leaders including Jamie Dimon, the C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, found ways to praise him. On Friday, Senator Tim Scott, who has been viewed as an approachable moderate, endorsed Trump over Haley, his fellow South Carolinian. Chris Christie was the last Republican contender to criticize Trump over January 6th, and the former President probably expects that, if he keeps attacking judges and prosecutors, and pushing grandiose claims of immunity (such as that, absent an impeachment conviction, he wouldn’t be criminally liable even if, as President, he had ordered Seal Team Six to assassinate a rival), most of the remaining holdouts in the Party will, if not support him, shuffle their feet and look the other way.

Is it clever, or deluded, for Trump to see his trials as a political opportunity? He has already been found liable for sexual abuse, in the Carroll case, and he still faces charges of financial fraud, taking documents marked classified from the White House and refusing to give them back, and conspiring to overturn a federal election—not exactly a winning roster. On the icy campaign trail this month, Trump’s presence has been something short of overwhelming. His events are held mostly in hotel ballrooms and country clubs, rather than the arenas of yore; he says little that is new; the crowds tend to thin noticeably as he rambles on. They chuckle when he says “crooked Joe Biden,” but there is nothing like the cascading chants of “Lock her up!” directed at Hillary Clinton in 2016. Even Trump’s Iowa “landslide” consisted of just fifty-six thousand votes, and half of Republicans wanted someone else. Lately, Trump has been working into his stump speech an attack on Fani Willis, the Fulton County D.A., who indicted him for conspiring to pressure Georgia officials to invalidate his loss in the state in 2020—and whom one of his co-defendants has accused of an alleged conflict of interest. For Trump, the attraction of the trials, in an election characterized so far by general indifference, may be quite basic. They give him something to talk about. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *