Ross Douthat: Why Trump’s chances of a return are weakening

If all Trump has to run on is his claim of a stolen election, he doesn’t have much of a chance.

(Kenny Holston | The New York Times) A broken decorative MAGA hat is swept up during a demonstration against Donald Trump on Election Day in Washington, Nov. 3, 2020.

In Donald Trump’s quest to sustain his dominance over the Republican Party, his claim to have been robbed of victory in 2020 has been a crucial talisman, lending him powers denied to previous defeated presidential candidates. By insisting that he was cheated out of victory, Trump fashioned himself into a king-in-exile rather than a loser — an Arthur betrayed by the Mordreds of his own party, waiting in the Avalon of Mar-a-Lago to make his prophesied return.

As with many forms of dark Trumpian brilliance, though, the former president is not exactly in conscious control of this strategy. He intuited rather than calculated his way to its effectiveness, and he seems too invested in its central conceit — the absolute righteousness of his “Stop the Steal” campaign — to modulate when it begins to reap diminishing returns.

That’s a big part of why 2022 hasn’t been a particularly good year for Trump’s 2024 ambitions. Across 2021, he bent important parts of the GOP back to his will, but in recent months his powers have been ebbing — and for the same reason, his narrative of dispossession, that they were initially so strong.

While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his strongest potential rival, has been throwing himself in front of almost every issue that Republican primary voters care about, Trump has marinated in grievance, narrowed his inner circle and continued to badger Republican officials about undoing the last election. While DeSantis has been selling himself as the scourge of liberalism, the former president has been selling himself mostly as the scourge of Brian Kemp, Liz Cheney and Mike Pence.

Judging by early primary polling, the DeSantis strategy is working at the Trump strategy’s expense. The governor is effectively tied with the former president in recent polls of New Hampshire and Michigan, and leading him easily in Florida — which is DeSantis’ home state, yes, but now Trump’s as well.

These early numbers don’t prove that Trump can be beaten. But they strongly suggest that if his case for 2024 is only that he was robbed in 2020, it won’t be enough to achieve a restoration.

This is not because the majority of Republicans have had their minds changed by the Jan. 6 committee, or suddenly decided that actually Joe Biden won fair and square. But the committee has probably played some role in bleeding Trump’s strength, by keeping him pinned to the 2020 election and its aftermath, giving him an extra reason to obsess about enemies and traitors and giving his more lukewarm Republican supporters a constant reminder of where the Trump experience ended up.

By lukewarm supporters, I mean those Republicans who would be inclined to answer no if a pollster asked them if the 2020 election was fairly won, but who would also reject the conceit — as a majority of Republicans did in a Quinnipiac poll earlier this year — that Mike Pence could have legitimately done as Trump wished on Jan. 6.

That’s a crucial distinction, because in my experience as well as in public polling, there are lots of conservatives who retain a general sense that Biden’s victory wasn’t fair without being committed to John Eastman’s cockamamie plans to force a constitutional crisis. In the same way, there are lots of conservatives who sympathize in a general way with the Jan. 6 protests while believing that they were essentially peaceful and that any rioting was the work of FBI plants or outside agitators — which is deluded, but still quite different from actively wishing for a mob-led coup d’état.

So to the extent that Trump is stuck litigating his own disgraceful conduct before and during the riot, a rival like DeSantis doesn’t need the lukewarm Trump supporter to believe everything the Jan. 6 committee reports. He just needs that supporter to regard Jan. 6 as an embarrassment and Trump’s behavior as feckless — while presenting himself as the candidate who can own the libs but also turn the page.

A counterargument, raised Friday by New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, is that so long as those lukewarm supporters still believe the 2020 election was unfair, Trump will have a trump card over any rival — because if you believe a steal happened, “you are perfectly rational to select a candidate who will acknowledge the crime and do everything to prevent it from reoccurring.”

But it seems just as possible for the lukewarm supporter to decide that if Trump’s response to being robbed was to first just let it happen and then ask his vice president to wave a magic wand on his behalf, then maybe he’s not the right guy to take on the Democratic machine next time.

There is more than one way, in other words, for Republican voters to decide that the former president is a loser. The stolen-election narrative has protected him from the simplest consequence of his defeat. But it doesn’t prevent the stench of failure from rising from his well-worn grievances, his whine of disappointment and complaint.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.