America’s next presidential election is 13 months away. But while the first Republican primary votes will not be cast until the dead of winter, the last week of September 2023 may come to be seen as the moment when the extraordinary implications of the fight for the White House crystallized.
President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, hit swing states as though they were in the race’s final stretch rather than its prologue. And the futile attempts of Trump’s GOP rivals to break through at the GOP presidential debate in California only cemented a growing impression that theirs is a race for second place.
But recent days have also revealed a more profound truth about the 2024 election that Biden sought to highlight in a speech on Thursday in which he warned, “There’s something dangerous happening in America.” Trump, if he heads the GOP ticket, will not just be running for a non-consecutive second term shadowed by four criminal trials that include charges alleging abuses of power during and after his tumultuous first spell in the Oval Office.
Through his rhetoric and actions, Trump is leaving no doubt that his menace to the country’s democratic guarantees and constitutional institutions has not dimmed during his exile from power. In a tight election, amid questionable economic conditions and with the normality that Biden promised in 2020 still fleeting, the threat may be greater than ever.
Both Trump and Biden showed up in Michigan courting blue-collar votes this week. The president also headed West to Arizona, a state he barely won in 2020, which is home to fast expanding suburbs that are transforming the US political map and where he must draw huge turnout to win back the White House next year.
After weeks of Democratic handwringing about his chances next year and an unflattering public debate about his age, Biden slipped into a more aggressive mode. He returned to the theme that democracy is under attack – seemingly a slam dunk given Trump’s week of autocratic outbursts and demagoguery. He cited public statements of a predecessor who tried to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in 2020 to warn US founding values were threatened. “Frankly, these extremists have no idea what the hell they’re talking about,” Biden said in his Arizona speech, referring to Trump and his “Make America Great Again” acolytes.
“They’re pushing a notion the defeated former president expressed when he was in office and believes applies only to him, and this is a dangerous notion – that this president’s above the law, no limits on power.”
Biden was using the message that drove him into the presidential race in 2020 – that Trump represented an existential threat to the Constitution. He confounded pundits by successfully using the same strategy in the midterm elections in 2022, which helped Democrats hold the line against an expected Republican red wave. By invoking democracy in peril, Biden hopes to pull off a bigger trick: convincing Americans rocked by inflation and high interest rates, who worry that he’d be 82 at the start of a second term, that the election is much more fateful than a referendum on his performance. “We are at an inflection point in our history,” the president said.
Almost everything that Trump did over the past week played into Biden’s warning. He suggested, for example, that Gen. Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stood up for constitutional governance during his final days in office, should have been executed. He warned he’d use a second presidency of “retribution” to seek to close down media organizations, specifically MSNBC. In Detroit, Trump accused Biden of trying to mount a government “assassination” of the auto industry with support for a new cleaner, electric automobile industry.
At the same time, fresh polling showed that close to a majority of Republican voters still love Trump. The ex-president speaks for millions of Americans who believe his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and see him voicing their anger with government, media, economic and legal institutions. Trump’s campaign strategy of presenting indictments against him as examples of political persecution is working among Republican voters – a reality that Biden’s warnings about democracy under attack won’t change.
Wednesday night’s shambles of a Republican presidential debate helped explain why Trump looks so inevitable in the party’s primary race. Theoretically, the ex-president’s boycott offered a chance for one of the chasing pack to establish themselves and seriously challenge his bid for a third straight Republican nomination.
But the evening was more cringeworthy than decisive, ranging from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s lame “Donald Duck” swipe at Trump, to former Vice President Mike Pence’s risqué joke about sleeping with a teacher (his wife) and a juvenile spat between South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley about luxury drapes at her former residence in New York during her tenure as the US ambassador to the United Nations.
The brawl at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California did not only expose the diminished quality of candidates in the shadow of the Great Communicator’s Air Force One. It showed that those locked in the race for second place lack Trump’s political skills – as dastardly as they sometimes are – for defining a campaign theme, for shutting down rivals, for inspiring anger and fury among their followers, or even for coining nicknames.
The primary battle isn’t over. But with less than four months until the first votes are cast, it’s becoming harder to envisage a sudden surge by a Trump rival that could knock him back in Iowa or New Hampshire and create a real fight for the nomination.
Several of the contenders did go a little further in bashing Trump – like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But criticism mostly focused on his refusal to show up, and not the fundamental emerging issue of the 2024 race: whether a man who refused to accept the result of one election – and is promising to use the presidency as an instrument of revenge – is suitable for the Oval Office. Trump’s refusal to debate is in itself is a warning sign, even if it might represent a shrewd political strategy. (Trump said Thursday he’d also snub the third debate in Miami in November). The ex-president is declining to submit to scrutiny in a public forum. He told the Daily Caller that Republicans “have to stop the debates” because they are hurting the party. As ever, he’s trying to shut down democracy.
“That is a fantasy world, not the real world,” New York Judge Arthur Engoron said this week in finding Trump and his two adult sons liable for fraud in a civil case that could prove devastating to the fortunes of the family firm. The comment encapsulated potentially the greatest threat to Trump in an election year – the possibility that his signature talent for evading accountability, spinning untruths and creating alternative realities will come crashing down when faced with the exacting standards of the legal system in the four criminal trials that are darkening his immediate future.
Trump’s vulnerability on this issue was further underscored on Thursday when he lost an attempt to prevent the civil fraud trial – which will focus on his gross exaggerations of real estate asset values and consider the financial penalties to be exacted in the potentially $250 million suit – from going ahead on Monday. Still, those who hope that legal judgments will down Trump in 2024 may be disappointed as the ex-president is sure to prolong the battle in appeals and litigation for years. And all previous evidence suggests that, among GOP voters at least, Trump legal travails only boost his poll numbers and fundraising.
However, a growing succession of damning court judgments next year could further damage Trump among critical moderate and suburban voters if he’s the Republican nominee. And the personal and financial strain of the approaching legal storm on Trump – unfolding at the same time as the immense stresses of a presidential campaign – can only be imagined. In an sign of how the legal storm will batter the 2024 campaign, news of Trump’s failure to delay the fraud trial broke while Biden was warning of the threat to democracy in Arizona.
When Republicans won a narrow majority in last year’s midterm elections, they paved a way for a return to power of Trumpism for the first time since the ex-president left the White House in January 2021.
The powerful committee chairs who are driving the impeachment investigation into the president – Reps. James Comer of Kentucky and Jim Jordan of Ohio – are acolytes of the ex-president. So far, the investigation, which had its first hearing Thursday, hasn’t produced evidence that Biden personally profited from his son Hunter’s apparent influence peddling when he was vice president. While the younger Biden’s activity suggests at the very least a flagrant conflict of interest on his part, the probe has so far failed to approach the constitutional standard for impeachment – treason, bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors. And the fact that witnesses refuted key thrusts of the probe on Thursday will only add to impressions the GOP is weaponizing its power for political gain.
While House Republicans were holding their first impeachment inquiry hearing, the government was headed closer to a shutdown. The extreme right-wing rebels who are dragging the country toward that fate after midnight on Saturday include Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida lawmaker whose political schtick mirrors Trump’s stunt politics. To anyone who has forgotten the constant tearing at legal, political and constitutional norms that characterized almost every day of the last presidency, Gaetz and his fellow MAGA troops are proving that Trumpism sows chaos. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who himself has paid homage to the ex-president, has accused Gaetz and his ilk of wanting to “burn the whole place down.”
But the Republican hardliners who are holding the House hostage as they demand huge spending cuts are revealing a deeper aspect of Trumpism beyond political opportunism. The GOP only has a tiny House majority after midterm voters declined to fully trust the party, while Democrats control the White House and the Senate. By seeking to wield power they did not rightly win, the extremists in the House are implicitly rejecting the premise of American democratic governance.
The distribution of power through multiple institutions is meant to promote gradual and democratic change rather than the sudden, radical and disruptive absolutism sought by Trumpism.