Members Only | January 3, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Rumors of Trump’s decline have been greatly exaggerated
We can’t yet know whether his “fortunes are fading.”
The year-end holidays are a horrible time for politics and for writing about it. Most people are thinking about other things, even if they don’t celebrate Christmas. So the press and pundit corps scrape together what’s already known and make it seem dramatic and new.
The AP ran a round up of Donald Trump’s travails. In the beginning of 2022, he was at the peak of his powers, the AP said. “Primary candidates were flocking to Florida to court the former president for a coveted endorsement. His rallies were drawing thousands. A bevy of investigations remained largely under the radar.”
By the close of 2022, however, Trump was mired:
“in criminal investigations that could end with indictments. He has been blamed for Republicans’ disappointing performance in the November elections. And while he is now a declared presidential candidate, the six weeks since he announced have been marked by self-inflicted crises. Trump has not held a single campaign event and he barely leaves the confines of his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.”
The Economist went farther to suggest that the anti-Trump wing of the GOP is growing and that “his fortunes are fading.” It quotes Trump’s The Art of the Deal: “You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotions and get all kinds of press … But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.” “These remarks are proving prescient,” the magazine said. “After defeat in three key elections in a row, Republicans are catching on to the con.”
That’s a lot of conclusion to base on very little evidence.
The absence of knowing
Polls tell us what respondents say at the time they say it. They don’t tell us why. They don’t tell us whether what they say is true. Going from “Republicans seem to be looking for alternatives to Trump” to “Republicans are catching on to Trump’s con” is a gigantic leap.
As likely, Republicans want a winner. They don’t know whether Trump is what they’re looking for. They don’t know because asking about politics during the year-end holidays is asking too much.
The Economist even made up a standard to justify saying that his popularity with Republicans “is sinking.” “The Republican primary is 14 months away, so these polls are of little use in predicting what would happen in that contest,” it said. “But they do show that the former president’s return is not as inevitable as once thought.”
Funny, I don’t recall when God anointed Trump as “inevitable.” But maybe I missed it since I’ve been busy with Christmas and all.
My point here is that no one knows whether Trump is fading. No one knows how the criminal investigations will affect his future. No one knows, because no one can know. We have not arrived in a moment when knowing is possible. But there is something we do know.
The absence of knowing is the presence of fiction.
Being a winner
When will the moment of knowing arrive?
I’m not sure, but Joe Biden’s experience can help.
Last year, there was a wave of polls showing Democratic voters did not want to see the president seek reelection. They had reasons, most of them related to his age. (He’s 80, the oldest president ever.)
That was at the start of summer when Biden’s legislative agenda seemed stalled in the Senate. By late summer, news came of a breakthrough. The Inflation Reduction Act capped what had been the most productive two years of any Congress since the 1960s. By November, it was clear the Republican brand ran out of gas. The political middle had moved left after years of being on the right.
Biden was a winner.
Suddenly, no one is asking whether he should run.
Easier than you think
Obviously, Donald Trump can’t mount a comeback based on legislation. But the criminal former president has never achieved anything through merit and hard work. Instead, he manipulates the press and pundit corps, forcing them to do the work for them, in ways that perpetuate the illusion of being a strongman. With that, he can show that he still has what Republican voters are looking for.
Manipulating the press and pundit corps is easier than you think.
After all, they are the same ones that made up ways of justifying stories they wanted to produce in order to get your attention, even during parts of the year when you really have other things to do.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.