Donald Trump carries a deep personal appeal for many millions of Americans. An appeal that not even criminal charges can or will erase.
Thank goodness. We can all stop worrying. Finally, we can sleep soundly at night.
A Manhattan grand jury has indicted Donald Trump.
Surely, that ought to do it. Surely, his spell over the MAGA horde has been broken. Surely, the Republican faithful will now see him for who he truly is and, collectively, turn away.
Yeah. Right. If only things were that easy. Sadly, they’re not. And Thursday night’s historic announcement means only one thing: the road ahead for American democracy just got a whole lot bumpier. Buckle up.
And yet, despite all the warranted hoopla — we should not forget there’s still an ongoing race for the Republican party’s presidential nomination. So the million-dollar question becomes: what impact will this latest development have?
Well, if you think these charges will do anything to dampen Trump’s support, think again. Even before charges were formally announced, Trump was effectively fundraising off just the threat of this legal action. But now that this threat has materialized and Trump’s victim narrative is approaching its climax, his devotees will be doing much more than opening their wallets.
Indeed, I believe that only if Trump is behind bars will he lose the Republican party’s nomination race. A race in which he faces one serious challenger: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Though he’s not formally declared his candidacy, DeSantis has distinguished himself in national and state-by-state polling as the lone player who can release Trump’s stranglehold over the GOP. With two new polls showing DeSantis running competitively in the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, pundits claimed his camp had strong reasons for optimism and hope — even weeks ago.
But here’s the rub: weeks ago, I’m pretty sure they were dead wrong. Dead wrong because DeSantis’s strategy left him with only one realistic road to victory — Donald Trump’s arrest and, crucially, conviction. So it’s only after this past week’s events that they might be somewhat correct.
Still, that strategy has been and is flawed in two fundamental respects.
First problem. With DeSantis, Trump is not taking any chances. Diving into his usual bag of tricks, he’s branded DeSantis a traitorous lackey. Both Trump and DeSantis understand their support significantly overlaps, but only Trump, thus far, has been willing to bet his is stronger. And it is. Meanwhile, DeSantis has, far from criticized Trump, only defended him.
Second problem. The greater one. To date, DeSantis’s sales pitch has amounted to this: I’m Trump, but without the baggage, and therefore more electable.
You need only consult the myriad documentary evidence of DeSantis plagiarizing Trump’s every move, to appreciate the pupil is copying his master. But it’s a political rule that when voters are presented with the choice between the real McCoy and a copycat, they’ll go for the genuine article — essentially every time.
It’s not because voters can’t imagine the alternative might be preferable. Instead, experience tells us voters go with what they know as opposed to what they don’t.
And this is where DeSantis and his strategy “Trumpism without Trump” crumbles. It fails to account for a truth that so many try and wish away: that Trump carries a deep personal appeal for many millions of Americans. An appeal that not even criminal charges can or will erase.
So, don’t get confused, the GOP is still the party of Trump. What better proof than the fact the sole realistic challenger to Trump is Trump-lite, the wannabe, the counterfeit? Indeed, so long as Trump is a free man and therefore a choice in the primaries, most Republicans will back the King, not the pretender to the throne.
However, if Trump’s candidacy goes up in legal flames, as it well might, DeSantis will be perfectly positioned as his heir apparent. But, in the meantime, no matter how much he practices in the mirror, the student won’t be dethroning the master any time soon.
This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 2, 2023.