During my recent trip to Washington, the dirty secret that, strikingly, almost every Democratic Party operative I spoke with confessed to is that — while their party is surely on the ropes — it is counting on Donald Trump, the cancer still bedeviling their Republican rivals, to bail them out in 2024.
While many Democrats accept that the 2022 midterms will lead to a Republican wave, with the GOP retaking the House easily and quite possibly the Senate, this tsunami will have the paradoxical effect of tempting Trump to run again in 2024, a reality that had Democratic Party operatives literally cackling with glee. For while — as Glenn Youngkin just showed in the Virginia governor’s race — Trumpism (deregulation, tax cuts, disdaining fighting wars of choice, a strategic focus on China, and protectionism) remains popular, Trump assuredly is not, particularly with the independent voters who tend to determine the outcome of American presidential elections.
Unquestionably, the GOP is still Trump’s party. An October Morning Consult poll found that a dominant 47 percent of Republicans said they would vote for Trump if he ran in the 2024 party primaries, with only 13 percent supporting former Vice President Mike Pence and 12 percent rising star Ron DeSantis, the present governor of Florida. Reading the tea leaves, most Republican presidential hopefuls have not dared to declare, preferring to wait and see if Trump throws his hat into the ring once again.
By all accounts, a Republican sweep of the 2022 midterms will paradoxically be the single most important event tempting him into the 2024 presidential race. The Trump camp’s view is that, with the Republicans on the rise and with their man — according to Gallup polling — the most popular leader of the party ever, the political circumstances could not be more propitious for his return to front-line politics, as he tries to become only the second president in US history (after Grover Cleveland) to regain the White House after losing it.
Up to a point, all of this makes eminent sense. But it ignores the elephant in the corner of the room: Trump’s culpability for the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill, the worst stain on America’s democratic reputation in memory. Beyond the events tarring Trump historically in perpetuity, more practically, since that remorseful day, independent voters have deserted the former president in droves. It is safe to say that, during the coming presidential campaign, Trump will be asked about this damning incident incessantly.
Worse still for the GOP, Trump simply cannot let the calamity fade from view. He is the first president in the history of the country to refuse to accept defeat in an election, all facts to the contrary. To put it mildly, endangering America’s cherished and unique political stability — all for the sake of one man’s ego — is not something it seems likely most Americans are likely to warm to.
Yet, unrepentant as ever, Trump plows ahead, citing conspiracy theories and refusing to accept the facts in front of his nose. In mid-October, the former president erratically insisted that his populist base won’t be voting in 2022 unless Republican lawmakers prioritize his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him — a statement that (although merely amounting to wish-fulfillment) obviously delighted the embattled Democrats.
It has come to this for the Republican Party. The leader of the GOP is forcing them into pursuing extraconstitutional claims that a national presidential election was stolen from him. This is the price the party leadership is paying for its continued cowardice (and, yes, privately they all know better) in not refuting Trump’s poisonous claims or even publicly making it clear that his dangerous, selfish actions in January were deeply wrong.
While they are not and will not pursue Trump’s 2020 election vendetta, by not refuting it and him, the rest of the party remains firmly tied to the whims of this erratic man. When I asked what the endgame was to get the party finally past Trump — as no one of stature has the courage to refute him — I was bluntly told: “We are waiting for him to lose again.” Such is the GOP’s lack of political courage at present.
My Washington trip made it crystal clear that both parties’ critique of the other is spot on. Republicans are correct in that the Democrats are seen as navel-gazing infighters, who are worrying about everything but the one major issue (inflation) that Americans are most concerned with, while having an alarmingly aging president meekly follow the dictates of the out-of-control left of his party. At the same time, Democrats are right that the GOP’s cowardly failure to get to grips with the seminal problem that is former President Trump leaves them securely tied to him as a political millstone.
In normal times, both these critiques would be more than enough to doom the party in question to years in opposition. But, of course, these are not normal times. In the end, the party that leaves its analytical blinders behind and actually looks at itself squarely in the mirror, moving on from its current myopia, is likely to emerge victorious in 2024.
This blog post was originally published in Arab News.