One of the stunning facts of the age is the continued prominence of Donald Trump. His candidates did well in the GOP primaries this year. He won more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. His favorability ratings within his party have been high and basically unchanged since late 2016. In a range of polls, some have actually shown Trump leading President Joe Biden in a race for reelection in 2024.
His prominence is astounding because over the past seven years the American establishment has spent enormous amounts of energy trying to discredit him.
Those of us in this establishment correctly identified Trump as a grave threat to American democracy. The task before us was clear. We were never going to shake the hard-core MAGA folks. The job was to peel away independents and those Republicans offended by and exhausted by his antics.
Many strategies were deployed in order to discredit Trump. There was the immorality strategy: Thousands of articles were written detailing his lies and peccadilloes. There was the impeachment strategy: Investigations were launched into his various scandals and outrages. There was the exposure strategy: Scores of books were written exposing how shambolic and ineffective the Trump White House really was.
The net effect of these strategies has been to sell a lot of books and subscriptions and to make anti-Trumpists feel good. But this entire barrage of invective has not discredited Trump among the people who will very likely play the most determinant role. It has probably pulled some college-educated Republicans into the Democratic ranks and pushed some working-class voters over to the Republican side.
The barrage has probably solidified Trump’s hold on the GOP Republicans see themselves at war with the progressive coastal elites. If those elites are dumping on Trump, he must be their guy.
A couple weeks ago, Biden gave a speech in Philadelphia, declaring the MAGA movement a threat to democracy. The speech said a lot of true things about that movement, but there was an implied confession: We have no strategy. Denouncing Trump and discrediting Trump are two different tasks. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, denunciation may be morally necessary, but it doesn’t achieve the goal the denouncers think it does.
Some commentators argued that Biden’s strategy in the speech was to make Trump the central issue of the 2022 midterms; both Biden and Trump have an interest in making sure that Trump is the sun around which all of American politics revolves.
This week, I talked with a Republican who was incensed by Biden’s approach. He is an 82-year-old émigré from Russia who is thinking of supporting Ron DeSantis in the 2024 primaries because he has less baggage. His parents were killed by the Nazis in World War II. “And now Biden’s calling me a fascist?!” he fumed.
You would think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would have at one point stepped back and asked some elemental questions: What are we trying to achieve? Who is the core audience here? Which strategies have worked, and which have not?
If those questions were asked, the straightforward conclusion would be that most of what we are doing is not working. The next conclusion might be that there’s a lot of self-indulgence here. We’re doing things that help those of us in the anti-Trump world bond with one another and that help people in the Trump world bond with one another. We’re locking in the political structures that benefit Trump.
My core conclusion is that attacking Trump personally doesn’t work. You have to rearrange the underlying situation. We are in the middle of a cultural/economic/partisan/identity war between more progressive people in the metro areas and more conservative people everywhere else. To lead the right in this war, Trump doesn’t have to be honest, moral or competent; he just has to be seen taking the fight to the “elites.”
The proper strategy in this situation is to scramble the identity war narrative. That’s what Biden did in 2020. He ran as a middle-class moderate from Scranton. He dodged the culture war issues. That’s what the Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman is trying to do in Pennsylvania.
A Democratic candidate who steps outside the culture/identity war narrative is going to have access to the voters who need to be moved. Public voices who don’t seem locked in the insular educated elite worldview are going to be able to reach the people who need to be reached.
Trumpists tell themselves that America is being threatened by a radical left putsch that is out to take over the government and undermine the culture. The core challenge now is to show by word and deed that this is a gross exaggeration.
Can Trump win again? Absolutely. I’m a DeSantis doubter. I doubt someone so emotionally flat and charmless can win a nomination in the age of intensive media. And then once Trump is nominated, he has some chance of winning, because nobody is executing an effective strategy against him.
If that happens, we can at least console ourselves with that Taylor Swift lyric: “I had a marvelous time ruinin’ everything.”
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.