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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch
The Dispatch staff is a kind-hearted bunch. We aren’t quite the optimists about human nature that we were eight years ago, it’s safe to say, but I think most of us still believe people are good at heart.
Most, not all. Regular readers might have a guess as to who one of the exceptions is.
On Thursday, in the company Slack channel, three of our more good-natured contributors marveled at this news from an Associated Press reporter covering the Republican frontrunner’s latest rally:
Donald Trump, before saying any words as he takes the stage at his Houston rally, plays the song he did with the Jan. 6 prisoners and stands there saluting. “I call them the J6 hostages, not prisoners,” he said when he starts speaking.
He played the song at last TX rally at Waco
— Michelle L. Price (@michellelprice) November 2, 2023
He’s almost 46 points ahead of his nearest challenger in national polling. Barring divine intervention, he’ll be his party’s nominee for president. Yet here he is, with Iowa set to caucus in less than three months, babbling sympathetically about the goons who smashed up the Capitol to facilitate his coup attempt.
That’s … weird.
“Weird” doesn’t mean surprising. Trump sounding wistful about the insurrection is a dog-bites-man story for the sort of political news junkie who subscribes to this publication. But most American voters aren’t news junkies. Many barely follow the news at all.
Do they have any idea what an obsessive freak Trump has become since leaving office?
“I wonder if some of the problem is that most Republican primary voters don’t actually hear Trump enough,” one staffer said in Slack, referring to the former president’s enormous polling lead. “I believe this,” another responded. “Most people have no idea [about] the stuff he actually says.” A third agreed: “That is absolutely true. Fox doesn’t cover it, so they don’t know it.”
What if Republican voters, or at least a critical mass of them, aren’t cultists after all? What if they tune into the campaign next summer expecting the same lively insult-comic shtick peppered with demands to “build the wall” that they got in 2016, only to find an old man muttering darkly about retribution, vote-rigging, “hoax” prosecutions, and pardoning seditionists?
They love the old Donald Trump and would certainly vote to make him president again, to their undying shame.
What will they do once they realize they’re voting for Captain Queeg instead?
It’s been almost 70 years since Americans have had a rematch in a presidential election, and nearly twice as long since we’ve had a rematch between two candidates who have each served as president.
So we might describe 2024 as the “Known Quantity Election.” Neither party’s nominee will need to spend even a minute introducing himself to voters. Presidential debates seem superfluous under the circumstances. Between the former president who was a celebrity for decades before he ran for office and the current president who’s been an institution in Washington for 50 years, we all know what we’re getting with these two.
We all know what we’re getting with Joe Biden. He’s “lost a step” since he ran for president three years ago, you may have heard—and not just from right-wing propaganda outlets. The president’s age is a recurring topic for America’s most influential newspaper. Even if you’re not following that coverage, he appears regularly on television and provides evidence of his decline, however inadvertently. By a wide majority, voters in his own party believe he’s too old to serve another term.
Conceivably, the House Republican investigation into Hunter Biden will uncover a smoking gun proving his financial corruption, providing us with an important new fact about the president. But chances are there’s nothing left for voters to learn about the Democratic nominee before Election Day.
Is the same true of his opponent?
Voters know that Trump believes the 2020 election was stolen, of course. But how many have heard him talk like this?
“The sinister forces trying to kill America have done everything they can to stop me, to silence you, and to turn this nation into a socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, Marxists, thugs, radicals, and dangerous refugees that no other country wants,” he said. The speech was ominous, but one rhetorical flourish stood out. “In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior; I am your justice,” Trump said. “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” He repeated the last phrase—“I am your retribution”—and promptly the crowd started chanting: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
“We will demolish the deep state. We will expel the warmongers,” Trump said. “We will drive out the globalists; we will cast out the communists. We will throw off the political class that hates our country … We will beat the Democrats. We will rout the fake news media. We will expose and appropriately deal with the RINOs. We will evict Joe Biden from the White House. And we will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all.”
That’s from Jonathan Karl’s upcoming book, Tired of Winning, quoting remarks Trump made to CPAC earlier this year. Steve Bannon told Karl that he refers to those remarks as Trump’s “Come Retribution” speech, named in honor of, uh, a plot by the Confederate Secret Service to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
That’s weird. It’s a lot of things, actually, but “weird” is certainly one.
(Disclosure: Declan Garvey, The Dispatch’s executive editor, served as a researcher for Karl’s book.)
Trump is a weird guy in a hundred different ways, petty and otherwise—I can’t imagine we’ve ever had a president whose psychology is so plainly abnormal—yet his personal weirdness was a bass note in the “America First” melody he played in 2016. He offered an honest-to-goodness nationalist policy program at the time: protectionist, nativist, anti-corruption, law and order. If you found aspects of his personality “problematic,” shall we say, you could still point to his program and justify voting for him, telling yourself that eccentricity is the price of draining the swamp.
He doesn’t spend much time talking about policy anymore. He’ll pay lip service to it, but his heart obviously isn’t in it, and some of the policies he’s floating are more than a little weird themselves. There’s scarcely any pretense left that he craves power again for reasons other than thwarting the criminal cases against him and taking revenge on his political enemies.
If you’re aching to see what an authoritarian and his army of proto-fascist lawyers who “know what time it is” will do if handed the keys to the presidency, that’s a good reason to support him next year. If you aren’t—and some Republican voters surely aren’t—you’re in for a surprise once you start paying attention to the 2024 campaign and get a hard look at the figure Trump now cuts in public. Relentlessly dark, vindictive, and menacing, far beyond what he was in 2016: The spectacle of him is grotesque.
Even when he reverts to the insult-comic mode that made him a phenomenon eight years ago, as often as not his flourishes come off as, well, weird:
This is the GOP's frontrunner for president. pic.twitter.com/rEzSUaMnp7
— Republican Accountability (@AccountableGOP) November 2, 2023
How eager will America’s “soft” Trump voters be for four more years once they drink all of this in?
“More eager than they’ll be for four more years of an 82-year-old as president,” one might say. Is that right?
Recently, the New York Times took a break from worrying about Joe Biden’s age to point out that the other elderly frontrunner in the race has begun to slip in ways that betray his own senescence.
“Mr. Trump has had a string of unforced gaffes, garble and general disjointedness that go beyond his usual discursive nature, and that his Republican rivals are pointing to as signs of his declining performance,” the paper reported this week. Some of the alleged “gaffes” mentioned are clearly just cases of Trump being Trump, like calling Hezbollah “smart.” That’s not a matter of an old man becoming momentarily confused. It’s a matter of a ruthless strongman admiring ruthless strongmen, something to which he’s been prone for decades.
But he’s made other missteps that would have been prime fodder for right-wing media had they come from the Democratic incumbent. He confused Sioux City for Sioux Falls at a speech in Iowa last weekend. He identified post-liberal heartthrob Viktor Orbán as the leader of Turkey, not Hungary. He accused Biden of pushing policies that would trigger World War II, and seemed to boast that he was leading Barack Obama in the polls. He’s slurred his words on occasion. Profanity seems to be slipping into his discourse more often.
Ron DeSantis noticed. “This is a different Donald Trump in 2023. I don’t think he’s got the same energy,” the governor said in an interview on Thursday. “I don’t think he’s got the same pizazz. 2015 and ’16 was about America First. I think this campaign is more about Trump First. It’s more about his issues.” All of that is true, and voters who haven’t paid Trump much attention in the last two-and-a-half years have no idea how true it is. But they will.
Trump’s age might also be contributing to the more “grotesque” elements of his campaign.
At Friday morning’s staff meeting, one Dispatch colleague remembered how his father became less cautious about the things he said as he grew older. To some degree, that was a matter of choice—what penalty would he pay in his dotage for declining to censor himself?—but it might also have been a matter of innate inhibitions diminishing over time along with everything else. Trump, a man who never had much of a “filter” to start with, might be aging into his grotesquerie by losing what little ability he had to speak responsibly.
Team DeSantis took note of this admission last month:
JUST NOW: Trump admits he never intended to keep his promise to get Mexico to pay for the wall.
"There was no legal mechanism. How do you go to a country and say 'I’m building a wall. Hand us a lot of money.'"
What other promises is he making that he knows he can’t keep? pic.twitter.com/ugKvLusYEL
— DeSantis War Room 🐊 (@DeSantisWarRoom) October 1, 2023
They also noticed a few days earlier when Trump casually accused his critics in the pro-life lobby of being in it for the money. If the average senior citizen is more prone to speak their mind than a younger person due to disinhibition, imagine how much more prone a senior citizen with an honest-to-God personality cult behind him and the strain of 91 criminal charges weighing on him might fare. Prone enough to praise the miscreants who attacked the Capitol on January 6 as “hostages,” at least.
One notable excerpt from Karl’s upcoming book provided to The Dispatch recounts how obsessively Trump followed coverage of the absurd “Cyber Ninja” audit of the 2020 election in Arizona. The audit was live-streamed on the fringey One America News network, and was watched so closely by the Republican frontrunner that he was soon saluting obscure state senators in Arizona by name during his speeches. At one address, according to Karl, he spent a solid hour chattering about “ballot signature-matching standards and Maricopa County’s network routers.”
Trump seemed to earnestly believe that once the fraud in Arizona was revealed, it would trigger a domino effect leading other swing states to decertify their own results and ultimately to his reinstatement as president. Imagine.
We can only wonder whether a younger, fitter Trump would have been capable of such self-delusion. His talent for gaslighting is so preternatural that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’s occasionally victimized himself in the past. The 2020 election wasn’t the first time he rationalized losing an election by accusing his opponent of cheating, after all.
But whatever the 2016 version of Donald Trump might or might not have believed to cope with his own failures, the 2024 version has plainly gone full Queeg.
For any political candidate within shouting distance of normalcy, the solution to all of this would be easy. Stop talking about the “stolen election,” stop ranting about judges and prosecutors, and devote yourself tirelessly to the reality that Joe Biden is a feeble old man who’s gifted us with the worst inflation in more than 40 years.
Message discipline, nothing more or less. It’s that simple. And absolutely impossible for someone who’s gone full Queeg.
Increasingly I wonder if his campaign team will conclude that their best strategy for getting him reelected is to keep him off the trail next year and out of sight to the maximum feasible extent. A “basement campaign,” to borrow a term.
Trump has been more active on the trail lately, but ran a basement campaign for much of this year. To growing legal peril, he still howls endlessly on Truth Social about the many injustices he’s faced in his fantastically privileged life, but most American voters couldn’t tell you what Truth Social is, let alone find his daily pensees there.
So if I were advising him and knew that there was no way to restrain his grotesque Queeg-ery in public, I’d resolve to keep him away from the public. Having his weirdness on display in the media every day would risk making the election a referendum on him, a strategic catastrophe for the candidate and his party. Having him and Biden equally on display would make the election more of a choice, which is better but still not great given that Trump’s message is proudly pro-seditionist.
What I’d want as a Trump adviser is for Biden to dominate the media coverage. That will make the election more of a referendum on the incumbent, and incumbents with job approvals below 41 percent seldom win. The more the campaign is “about” the president, the more significant every whiff of senility on the trail will become. And the less likely it’ll be that Biden-weary progressives will be inflamed by the specter of their least-favorite Republican into holding their noses and supporting their party’s candidate anyway.
“Less Trump, more Biden” is a good strategy for the GOP—and functionally a nonstarter, as a pathological narcissist will never permit himself to be a supporting player in a drama about someone else. Even if it’s to his personal advantage to do so.
A kind-hearted, optimistic, anti-Trump Dispatch staffer would find encouragement in that. If traditional Republican voters are supporting Trump at the moment only out of ignorance of how strange he’s become, his insistence on making a spectacle of his strangeness next year will be his undoing. He’ll scare them off.
A less kind-hearted, more pessimistic Dispatch staffer (ahem) would disagree. He would point to the fact that rank-and-file Republicans have mountains of evidence already of Trump’s unfitness for office—from his autocratic shenanigans following the 2020 election to the criminal indictments piling up on his doorstep to his habit of trying to intimidate his political opponents—and have rationalized it away at every turn. When a panel of GOP primary voters was recently shown a series of ads attacking Trump for his criminal trouble, not only didn’t those ads weaken his support—they strengthened it.
If they can rationalize that, how hard will it be to rationalize him grumbling about January 6 prisoners being treated as “hostages”? If they’ve hung on through everything for eight long years, what are the odds that Trump wheezing about “retribution” at a rally in October 2024 will be the thing that finally crosses the line?
You realize that Democrats are going to run ads quoting John Kelly about all the terrible things Trump has said about American soldiers and that it’s almost certainly not going to matter, don’t you? It’s already a matter of public record, courtesy of major news networks. It wasn’t even a blip in Republican primary polling.
If Trump loses this election, I suspect it’ll have less to do with GOP voters suddenly discovering their consciences after eight years than with the right’s weirdo vote abandoning him for an even weirder candidate on the ballot. You can’t expect Republican voters to do the right thing anymore—but we can, perhaps, count on them to do the craziest possible thing. That might be Joe Biden’s salvation.