Earlier this month, former president Donald Trump addressed a crowd in Windham, New Hampshire. Unsurprisingly, Trump spent some of his time blasting various prosecutors for indicting him and repeated his familiar line that the 2020 election was “rigged” and “stolen.” He also set aside a few minutes for boutique right-wing culture war issues, promising “a new executive order” to cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory and pledging to ban Veterans Affairs from paying for gender reassignment surgeries.
Much of the speech, however, was essentially a rehashing of his 2016 campaign’s favorite themes. Absent a few topical references, in fact, large swathes could have been lifted straight from a Trump rally seven years ago. Attacking Republican opponents like Florida governor Ron DeSantis for wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare, Trump struck his old nationalist posture on trade and promised to introduce a new tariff on foreign-made goods. He fearmongered about illegal immigration from Mexico and made vague noises about preventing World War III.
Peppering his speech with allusions to alleged Biden family corruption, Trump closed with a rallying cry that sounded uncannily like his improbably successful 2016 message:
We are a nation in decline. . . . [But] with you at my side war will demolish the deep state. We will expel the warmongers from our government. We will drive out the globalists. We will cast out the communists, Marxists, and fascists. . . . We will throw off the sick politics class that hates our country. We will rout the fake news media. We will defeat crooked Joe Biden, and we will drain the swamp once and for all. The great silent majority is rising like never before. Under our leadership the forgotten man and women will be forgotten no longer. With your help, your love, and your vote, we will put America first. We’re gonna make America greater than ever before.
If Trump sounded buoyant despite his many growing legal troubles, one reason is that they appear to have done little to dent his support among Republican primary voters or damage his prospects for reelection next year. This week, just ahead of the first GOP primary debate tonight (which Trump plans to skip), new polling released by the Des Moines Register finds Trump’s lead in Iowa over DeSantis up since his recent indictment in Georgia. Since June, Emerson’s national survey finds the former president some forty-six points ahead of his closest rival, whose own support has more than halved over the past two months.
In lieu of some completely unexpected development, Trump is thus poised to cruise to the Republican nomination and face President Joe Biden for a rematch in 2024. What exactly that contest will bring is still anybody’s guess. But there is currently no reason anyone should see Trump’s defeat as a foregone conclusion or think that his chances of victory are even particularly distant.
In a different world, this might not have been the case. Despite polls indicating that a full 70 percent of Americans opposed Biden standing for reelection (including more than half of Democrats), the party leadership’s decision to impose him anyway means that an unpopular incumbent president — Biden’s current disapproval rating is 54 percent — will be defending his record in an environment less favorable than the one in which he won election in 2020.
That victory owed a considerable debt to Trump’s bungling of the country’s pandemic response and, despite the record number of popular votes secured by Biden, a mere forty-four thousand in just three key states were all that separated him from a tie with Trump in the electoral college. As things presently stand, national polling shows the two, in spite of everything, basically even.
As in 2016, the problem for Democrats is less Trump’s popularity than their own choice of candidate. A graceful Biden exit and a competitive primary would probably have generated some grassroots excitement. Instead, 2024 currently looks set to resemble a rematch of 2020’s nail-bitingly close contest, with Trump running something similar to the outsider candidacy that saw him capture the presidency in 2016.
Seven years ago, this formula — antiestablishment rhetoric paired with a selective defense of welfare programs like Social Security, a nationalist posture on trade, and racist fearmongering about illegal immigration — was enough for Trump to win key swing states amid depressed Democratic turnout. Unless the Democratic Party can offer voters something genuinely compelling — beyond appeals to Trump’s criminality, bland calls for national harmony, and defenses of the Biden administration’s lackluster record — there is no reason to think that history can’t repeat itself.