The Year We Stopped Being Able to Pretend About Trump

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Four years ago, on the threshold of a critical election year that would decide whether Donald Trump won another term in the White House, I asked a German friend, Constanze Stelzenmüller, of the Brookings Institution, to come up with one of those long Teutonic words for the state of constant, gnawing anxiety that Trump’s disruptive tenure inspired. She came back with a true mouthful, a thirty-three-letter concoction that pretty much summed it up: Trumpregierungsschlamasselschmerz. Helpfully, she suggested that it would be fine to shorten this to Trumpschmerz. It means something like “Trump-worry,” but on steroids. At the time, I defined it as “the continuous pain or ache of the soul” that comes from the excessive contemplation of the slow-motion Trump car crash. Well, here we go again. Headed into 2024, America is stuck with another bad case of Trumpschmerz.

At the start of this year, it was still possible to look at the facts and avoid falling back into this dark place. There were reasonable expectations that something, somehow could prevent the looming rematch between Trump and Joe Biden, who succeeded Trump but has never been acknowledged by the ex-President and millions of his followers as America’s legitimate leader. Perhaps Trump would finally face consequences for his unprecedented efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. Perhaps a strong Republican challenger would emerge against him. Perhaps Biden, who spent the first year of his tenure more unpopular than any other President in the history of modern polling—aside from Trump—and is already the oldest leader in U.S. history, would step aside in favor of a younger Democrat, rather than seek a second term. But none of that happened.

The most extraordinary development in American politics this year was, without a doubt, the indictment of Trump in four separate criminal cases, totalling ninety-one alleged felonies. He is not only the first former President charged with a crime; he ends 2023 accused by the federal government of essentially mounting a coup against that government. And yet the charges against Trump—which were hardly a foregone conclusion a year ago—served not to clarify but to further confuse our muddled politics. Will the trials overshadow the 2024 race or shape its outcome? Will they even take place before the voting? What happens if he’s convicted and wins anyway? All we can say definitively, so far, is that the indictments proved to be a political boon for him with his Republican Party. With just a few weeks until the beginning of the 2024 primaries, Trump now has what looks to be an insurmountable lead in the G.O.P. race, a lead that has only risen with each new case filed against him. When 2023 started, he was at about forty-six per cent among Republicans in the FiveThirtyEight average of national polls. Today, he is drawing more than sixty-one per cent.

A year ago, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, coming off a nineteen-point reëlection victory in a formerly competitive state, and boasting a hundred-million-dollar-plus war chest, looked to be a real prospect to knock off Trump. But he fared just about as well as Jeb Bush, another Florida governor with a hundred million dollars to spend against Trump. Which is to say: his candidacy has been a total dud. Trump never even had to stoop to appearing on a stage with his rivals, who proved to be so afraid of the Trump-loving Republican electorate that they rarely so much as criticized the man they were theoretically running against. The defining moment for this field of craven also-rans came during their first debate, in August, when the Fox News moderators asked for a show of hands as to who would support the indicted ex-President—“the elephant not in the room,” as Fox’s Bret Baier called him—were he to receive the nomination. Virtually all of them indicated they would. Needless to say, the two dissenters, Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, have no chance.

As of year’s end, the one non-Trump candidate to see her fortunes rise in the G.O.P. race has been the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Despite having served in Trump’s Cabinet, she is often described as the closest thing the Party has left to its pre-Trump establishment—a hawkish, Chamber of Commerce type who is neither a culture warrior nor a MAGA acolyte. Talk about defining deviancy down. Haley is no avatar of the status quo ante but proof of how debased the party of Abraham Lincoln has become in its thrall to Trump. Just this week, Haley, when asked what caused the Civil War, told a voter in New Hampshire that it was about government “freedoms” and “what people could and couldn’t do.” When the voter expressed astonishment that her answer had not included mention of slavery, she replied, “What do you want me to say about slavery?”

Trump, of course, could not resist the chance to dunk on Haley. “Not ready for prime time,” he crowed in response to her Civil War flub. (On Thursday morning, Haley said, “Of course the Civil War was about slavery.”) Trump has ended the year, meanwhile, striking his usual statesmanlike note. In a Christmas Day social-media post, his message to his opponents was “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL,” followed by the incongruous but nonetheless perfectly Trumpy conclusion, “AGAIN, MERRY CHRISTMAS.”

The only surprise is that anyone is surprised by this. In the first week of March, months before he was indicted by the Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, Trump gave a speech to CPAC in which he promised a run centered on the theme of “retribution” for all the grievances nursed by him and his followers. Despite the current conventional wisdom that the spate of indictments against Trump over the spring and summer allowed him to reinvent his campaign around a narrative of his own persecution, revenge was his mission well in advance of the court cases; 2024 was always going to be about seeking payback. The list of wrongs never mattered as much as the fact that he would have a litany of them to recite. The “rigged election.” The martyrdom of his supporters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and were sent to jail for it. His own undermining by the “deep state.”

His message then, as later in the year, was simple and messianic: “This is the final battle.” The audience cheered and hooted and clapped. They were, like the bulk of the Republican Party, not Never Trumpers but Always Trumpers. The story of 2023 turned out to be not the G.O.P.’s search for another Trump but the persistent preference of a large majority of Republicans for the one they already have.

But if Trumpschmerz is our destiny again in 2024, the ex-President has also benefitted from his foes in 2023. DeSantis, despite the early hype from Fox News and the hopes of the Republican donor class, proved that negative charisma and terrible political judgment are not enough to run for President. He thought he was going to ride attacks on Mickey Mouse to the White House. Seriously?

Biden’s miscalculation was not about Trump—the President has always been dead serious about the threat posed by his predecessor and by the party that embraces him—but about himself. Having aspired, for the better part of four decades, to the office he improbably won on his third try, Biden has been reluctant to relinquish it in favor of a younger Democrat. His theory of the case seems to be rooted in his belief that he, and he alone, can insure Trump’s defeat. But that rationale has become harder to sustain as his polling has grown worse and worse. As of the end of the year, Biden is, at best, tied with Trump; the Real Clear Politics average has him down 2.3 points.

Trump’s victory is by no means assured. It may well be that predictions of him winning in 2024 will turn out to be just as wrong as the forecasts of a recession were at the start of 2023. But the past few years of Trump, Trump, Trump have taught me, if nothing else, that hoping for the best is not necessarily a winning strategy. With American democracy on the line, I’m taking the only defensible position toward the New Year: full-scale dread. I plan to pull up the covers and hide under my pillow as long as possible come January. It’s going to be a long twelve months. ♦


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