Politics Analysis

The danger of a second Trump presidency still looms

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Despite Donald Trump facing a slew of legal problems, there is still a slight chance of the former President posing a threat to American democracy, writes George Grundy.

AS A NEW YEAR dawns, it’s tempting to believe that the era of Trumpism is, finally, coming to an end. Donald Trump appears a much-diminished figure on America’s political stage. He’s alone and isolated down at Mar-a-Lago, his candidacy announcement was a damp squib and the spectre of indictment grows more real with each passing day.

Trump’s business has just been convicted of criminal fraud. His CFO, Allen Weisselberg, is going to prison. Yet, I contend, Trump continues to retain a clear, if narrow, path to the Republican nomination and to the White House in 2024. Although a myriad of factors might stymie his ambitions, the danger Trump still poses to American democracy makes it worth considering how he might still plot a path to success.

First, think of Trump’s personal motivation. The former President is the subject of multiple federal and state investigations and although the U.S. justice system (when applied to rich White men) can be painfully ponderous, criminal indictment seems inevitable. The 6 January Committee’s recently released final report makes clear that Trump was the driving force behind the attempted coup in early 2021 and has sent a criminal referral to the Department of Justice. Anyone else caught with the kind of top-secret files that were found by the FBI in August would already be in gaol.

Trump is no fool. He needs the veneer of candidacy as a means of painting any action against him as being driven by partisan politics, a witch hunt as he likes to call things.

Trump will view his political candidacy and the start of the election primary season as a safe harbour against these legal concerns. Televised Republican debates typically commence around August (in the year prior to the election), with the Iowa caucus in early February 2024. If Trump can make it to these dates without mishap, he can claim that any legal action against him is being taken solely to stop him from becoming president again and a great many of his supporters will agree.

So, Trump has a vital imperative to retain political relevance, in great part simply to try and stay out of gaol.

A second matter worthy of consideration is the chance of Trump attaining the Republican party nomination and the processes involved in that decision. Trump may currently trail Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in polls, but recent history shows this may count for naught.

Seventeen candidates nominated for the 2016 Republican Presidential Primaries. This large number allowed Trump to pick off his enemies one by one without attaining a substantial majority of his own. Trump got 24% in Iowa, 35% in New Hampshire and 32% in South Carolina in 2016, as the primary field halved in size.

This time around, Trump will also have name recognition, history and money on his side. Trump has a $100 million war chest that dwarfs any other candidate’s resources. Unless the Republican Party can coalesce and put up a small field, ideally with just two candidates to choose from, Trump can take his guaranteed 30% or more of the votes and ride them deep into the primary season.

There is little chance of such rational discipline from a Republican Party that is perhaps more fractured than at any time in its history. Yet the biggest threat to the Party comes from within. Trump isn’t a party man. He doesn’t give a damn about political affiliation and when his ego combines with an urgent need to use politics to fend off legal woes, there may come a moment of reckoning.

If push comes to shove, Trump could use the threat, implicit or otherwise, of burning the house down around him. If denied the nomination, Trump might threaten to split from the Party (as he did in 2016) and form his own — the Trump Party. This would be catastrophic for Republicans. Trump would take the 30% of Americans who will never leave him, split the vote of America’s Right and the Democratic Party nominee would win all 50 states.

The Republican Party might never recover. Faced with this kind of ultimatum, Republicans would most certainly buckle. There have been few profiles in courage since Trump took charge in early 2016 and there is precious little sign that a political backbone is redeveloping. Absent illness, gaol or a leftfield development, Donald Trump will be the 2024 Republican nominee.

And then what? “Surely, they couldn’t” is an expression that has lost currency in American politics this century. Today’s headlines scream that Trump’s popularity keeps decreasing, but as of December 2022, 31% of Americans viewed the man favourably. Trump never polled above 50% during his entire presidency.

You don’t need to be wildly popular to win America’s elections. The political divide is now such a yawning chasm that anyone with an “(R)” next to their name is automatically in with a chance. Herschel Walker, possibly the worst Senate candidate in American history, got 48.6% of the vote in the recent Georgia runoff. If Trump is the nominee, he automatically, undeniably has a good chance of winning.

And finally, then, there are the external factors. Like it or not, America’s swing voters tend to cast their ballot based on kitchen table issues like employment, education, healthcare and the economy. Right now, the Federal Reserve is on a run of seven consecutive rate hikes in 2022, hoping to combat the spectre of inflation (which, in turn, is mostly caused by COVID supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine).

Eleven of the last 14 times a long run of interest rates hikes like this has happened, a recession has been the result. Most economists now expect America to enter a period of recession in 2023. If President Joe Biden is unsuccessful in quickly revitalising the economy, voters are likely to turn against him and if Trump is the only other option, they’ll vote for him.

And that’s not to mention the vast array of nefarious actors who will fall in behind Trump and his “pro-business” policies, if it suits their purpose. The Saudis continue to support Trump and line his pockets, hosting LIV Golf Tour events at Trump properties and gifting US$2 billion (AU$2.9 billion) to his son-in-law.

Many Republicans still parrot Russian talking points and speak of limiting support for Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression. There’s no doubt at all that Russian President Vladimir Putin would prefer Trump to Biden in office, nor that he would hesitate for a moment to get involved, as he did in 2016.

Billions in political dark money would back a candidate who (as president) confirmed hundreds of hard-Right judges, including three lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court. The evangelical Christian block would fall in squarely behind Trump. Elon Musk’s eccentric ownership of Twitter would allow the former “Iron Man” influence over his 120 million followers, as would Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, whose company’s appalling behaviour probably made the difference between a Hillary Clinton win and a Trump presidency in 2016.

Facebook has just been fined US$725 million (AU$1.7 billion) for its nefarious collusion with Cambridge Analytica in 2016 — sounds like a lot, right? But $725 million is just 0.6% of Facebook’s US$118 billion (AU$173.3 billion) revenue (in 2021), or two days' trading. Facebook now knows it can profit from interfering in an American election for the price of just 48 hours income.

None of this means that Trump will be elected president at the end of next year. Legal woes may finally lay him low. His health might catch up with him. The 2024 election cycle is staggeringly unpredictable. But a path to the presidency is there for Trump and should he somehow find a way back to power, the consequences for America – and for humanity – really don’t bear thinking about.

George Grundy is an English-Australian author, media professional and businessman. Read more from George on his blog americanprimerweekly.com or follow him on Twitter @georgewgrundy.

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