Trump is on the cusp of a stunning turnaround - GulfToday

Trump is on the cusp of a stunning turnaround

Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington. File/AP

Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington. File/AP

When he left the White House, Donald Trump was a pariah. After years of bending Washington to his will with a single tweet, Trump was, at least for a moment, diminished. He was a one-term Republican president rejected by voters and then shunned by large swaths of his party after his refusal to accept his 2020 election defeat culminated in an insurrection at the US Capitol that sent lawmakers running for their lives.

Some members of his Cabinet had discussed invoking the 25th Amendment, seeing him unfit to remain in office. He was banned from social media and became the first president to be impeached twice. And when he departed Washington, the nation’s capital was still reeling from his supporters’ violence and resembled a security fortress with boarded-up storefronts and military vehicles in the streets. Three years later, Trump is on the cusp of a stunning turnaround. With commanding victories in the first two 2024 nominating contests and wide polling leads in the states ahead, Trump is fast closing in on the Republican nomination. Already, he is the first nonincumbent Republican to win the party’s contests in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and he had the largest victory margin in Iowa caucus history. His standing is expected to improve this coming week with a win in Nevada’s Republican caucuses, which his last major GOP rival, Nikki Haley, will skip in favor of a competing primary, which awards no delegates.

Trump did all this while facing 91 felony charges that range from mishandling highly classified documents and conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to Democrat Joe Biden, to paying off a porn star during his 2016 campaign. Trump is also facing a civil fraud case in New York that threatens his control of much of his business empire and was recently ordered to pay $83.3 million for defaming a woman he was previously found liable for sexually abusing.

The story of how Trump became his party’s likely nominee for a third straight presidential election is a reminder that there was an opening - however brief - when the GOP could have moved beyond him but didn’t. It shows how little was learned from 2016, as his critics once again failed to coalesce around a single alternative. And it demonstrates — with long-standing implications for American democracy — how Trump and his campaign seized on his unprecedented legal challenges, turning what should have been an insurmountable obstacle into a winning strategy. “I think everybody got in the race thinking the Trump fever would break,” said longtime Republican strategist Chip Saltsman, who chaired the campaign of one of Trump’s rivals. “And it didn’t break. It got hotter.” Trump campaign aides say their first sign of momentum was not a legal victory or a gaffe by a rival, but a trip to East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2023. Following a lackluster 2024 campaign announcement a few months earlier and slow start, the former president received a rousing welcome from residents demanding answers after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed, leading to evacuations and fears of air and water contamination. Trump was briefed by local officials, blasted the federal response as a “betrayal” and stopped by a local McDonald’s.

“It kind of reminded people what it was they liked about Trump to begin with,” said senior campaign adviser Chris LaCivita. Trump, whose surprise 2016 victory had been fueled by angry white working-class voters who felt the government had failed them, was again casting himself as the outsider fighting big business and Washington. Biden didn’t visit at the time, helping Trump draw a contrast. He has accepted an invitation from East Palestine’s mayor to finally visit this month. If the derailment offered Republican voters a reminder of why they liked Trump, a series of criminal charges would reinforce their devotion to him. Ralph Reed, chair of the influential Faith & Freedom Coalition and a presidential campaign veteran, happened to be at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida for a charity breakfast the morning Trump become the first former US president to be indicted.

“It was like a bomb going off,” he said. “You could feel the ground shift immediately. But instead of calls for Trump to suspend his campaign, the response from Republicans was one of indignation. Trump portrayed himself as the victim of a politicized criminal justice system bent on damaging his reelection chances. Almost immediately, Republicans sprung to his defense. His campaign was flooded with small-dollar donations and raised $15.4 million in just two weeks. (When Trump was later booked on racketeering charges in Georgia and became the first former president to have his mug shot taken, the campaign brought in a record $4.18 million that day.) Trump’s allied super political action committee, which had struggled to raise money, saw a similar surge in contributions as Trump’s poll numbers began to rise.

For Republican voters, the mounting charges confirmed Trump’s loudly stated grievances that the system was rigged against him, driving many who had been considering other candidates to rally around him. It was “a reminder that, at the end of the day, they wear a red jersey, and Joe Biden and his henchmen wear a blue jersey,” said Trump senior campaign adviser Jason Miller. Michael Telesca, a former schoolteacher from Hickory, North Carolina, who left his job to hike the Appalachian Trail, said last fall that the indictments and other attacks against Trump had transformed him from an ordinary Trump voter into an “ardent” supporter. While he liked Trump’s policies, “I am more fighting against the system that is attacking him relentlessly. ... There’s a good portion of Republicans who say it’s time for someone else. Here’s the problem: If that happens, you’ve allowed the system to win.”

The impact was immediately felt across rival campaigns, whose candidates were put in the awkward position of having to defend their chief opponent in order to avoid siding with Democratic prosecutors or Biden’s Justice Department. As the indictments continued to roll in, Trump further dominated the media coverage, denying his competitors much-needed attention. “It made him a victim, and nobody’s better at playing the victim than Donald Trump,” Reed said. Trump turned his subsequent bookings and court appearances into spectacles that became fundamental to his campaign message. Indeed, some weeks, he voluntarily spent more time in the courtroom than in early voting states. Trump’s team credits his decision to confront the charges head-on with helping ease voters’ concerns about his electability.

“It was from that point on that it essentially had become impossible to beat Donald Trump in the Republican Party primary,” LaCivita said. For months, Trump’s stiffest competition for the GOP nomination appeared to be the governor of Florida. Fresh off a landslide reelection victory in November 2022, Ron DeSantis was a rising conservative star and one of his party’s only bright spots in a bruising midterm election cycle. Some polls showed voters preferred him to Trump, who was being blamed for backing extreme candidates who cost Republicans winnable seats.

Associated Press


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