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Is Trump In Trouble?

Osita Nwanevu
5 min read
Trump at a podium.
Trump at a May rally in Greenwood, Nebraska (Right Cheer)

Hey all. Just want to give one last reminder to send in your questions for the upcoming Mail Time if you’ve got any. Let’s hop to it.


Trump, in DC for the first time since leaving office, was welcomed back to town with a bit of bad news Tuesday. According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department has officially included him in its criminal investigation of the efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Hardly a surprise, but there’s another morsel of intrigue for liberal sleuths to chew over, I suppose. Up until now, the January 6th hearings in the House have occupied their attention. As I might have mentioned before, I’m not watching them. I’m glad they’re happening, though. It’ll be good, for one, to get the basic facts of what happened down for the historical record. But I’m not sure what material outcomes viewers are angling for. The committee can’t prosecute Trump or his backers; at best it might send its findings to DOJ. And even prosecution wouldn’t actually prevent Trump or anyone else from running again. As Amy Davidson Sorkin recently wrote in The New Yorker,  there’s a defensible logic to that ⁠— if political candidates could be disqualified merely for being charged with crimes, opportunistic prosecutors might start going after them willy-nilly.

She notes too that the other remedy people are looking into ⁠— a 14th Amendment disqualification for abetting an insurrection ⁠— has been used only once post-Reconstruction, and against a socialist congressman no less:

In 1919, the House of Representatives refused to seat Victor Berger, a Wisconsin Socialist, who, like Debs, had been convicted under the Espionage Act—in Berger’s case, for publishing editorials saying that the First World War benefitted “our plutocracy.” There was a special election to fill the vacant seat—he won again, and the House rejected him again. He finally took his seat after winning yet another election, in 1922, by which point the war fever had cooled and the Supreme Court had overturned his conviction. “From time immemorial, the Bird of Liberty was a jailbird,” Berger told the congressmen considering his case.
[...] Trump, God knows, is no Berger or Debs. A reading of Section 3 capacious enough to disqualify him would nonetheless be highly destructive; it would turn the clause into an anti-democratic instrument that would inevitably be deployed against a broad range of candidates.

In any case, 14th Amendment disqualifications would probably have to go through Congress. I don’t see them getting passed and don’t know that this Supreme Court would uphold them even if they did. And the disqualification question aside, I just doubt as a matter of intuition that Trump is ever going to jail, though I’ll concede I haven’t parsed the legal ins and outs of the insurrection all that closely.

Again, I’m still in favor of the hearings, though I wish they’d have been conducted with the same aim I’d recommended for both impeachment trials ⁠— they’re a political stage Democrats could have used to hurt the Republican Party, as a whole, for bringing Trump to power. Instead, they’ve gone out of their way these last few months to lionize anti-Trump figures on the right like Liz Cheney ⁠— even as Democratic strategists and operatives privately back Republicans who have defended Trump’s election claims in primaries.

The point of the grandstanding in front of that fact is to hurt Trump specifically. And while polling suggests Republicans are growing ever more open to a real primary race in 2024, that probably has less to do with Republicans substantively turning on him than it does with a general Trump fatigue the hearings might be contributing to. Ross Douthat made this case in a recent column for the Times ⁠— while Republicans still believe or pretend to believe Trump’s claims about the election, they’d like to move on and don’t feel as strongly about all that as they do about the culture war material that’s been taken up by potential candidates like Ron DeSantis:

While 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’s 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.

Trump’s still the favorite of course, but he does seem to be a victim of his own success. His political style has been influential enough that Republicans are successfully applying his general affect to issues he hasn’t been leading on ⁠— grooming, critical race theory, and all the rest. Dan Cox, the GOP’s just-nominated candidate for governor here in Maryland, isn’t a ‘24 contender and is almost certainly going to lose his race in November. But he illustrates what being a “Trumpian” candidate is all about now ⁠— get Trump’s backing by expressively mimicking him and endorsing his election claims, and spend much of the campaign talking about your hard-right stances on issues where figures other than Trump have taken the lead.

Another part of Trump’s dilemma is that Biden and most Democrats, contrary to the complaints of the popularists, have tried to keep the issues Trump’s most associated with ⁠—  immigration, crime, and trade ⁠— off of their public agenda and out of the headlines. So it’s fallen to Trump to try to dredge them up again ⁠— in his speech at the “America First Policy Institute” Tuesday, for instance, he talked a good deal about protecting and empowering police, for instance. But he does seem to know just playing the old hits won’t cut it anymore. So he also said this:

Trump’s really more politically adaptable than people assume ⁠— as I’ve argued previously, he came to the White House by letting the party shape him on policy substance on most issues, not the other way around. And he moved further right as his term went on. If he convincingly apes the rest of the party on the latest round of the culture wars, he’ll be even harder to beat in the primaries. And I doubt the structural roadblocks the January 6th folks want to place between him and the White House are actually going to get put up.

A Song

"Safeway Cart" – Neil Young (1994)