If Donald Trump was not already beyond the pale, his behaviour on 6 January 2021 made sure that he became so. He will not and cannot return for a second term. For goodness sake, even his former vice president, Mike Pence, has denounced him, telling an audience of political journalists: “What happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way.”
That just about sums up the view this side of the Atlantic, not just on the Left but among most conservatives, too. Trump, once widely seen as a grave threat to the world, has all but disappeared off our radars because we cannot conceive of how any decent human being could possibly vote for him following the manner of his departure from office last time around. What support he retains, we like to believe, is on the fringes of US politics. We couldn’t be more wrong.
There is still a year to go before Republicans start to pick their candidate for next year’s p-presidential election. But anyone taking a bet against Trump being the victor in 2024 would be foolish. Slowly but surely, the former president is building a campaign which, like last time around, reaches the parts few other politicians can reach.
In November, the Republican party appeared to have, in Ron DeSantis, a force which would end for good any lingering hope Trump might have of returning to office. DeSantis had just won a thumping re-election victory as governor of Florida. By contrast, candidates backed by Trump did badly in the mid-term elections, robbing the Republicans of a widely-touted majority in the House of Representatives. DeSantis seemed to offer a lot of the red meat which appealed to Trump voters – with a Stop Woke Act lying at the heart of his plans – but without the toxic record. Trump supporters, it was assumed, would switch allegiance and the nomination would fall into DeSantis’ lap. Except that is not what has happened.
Many polls show a lead for Trump. Making a speech in Iowa last night, a couple of days after DeSantis had been there, Trump showed that he had lost none of his vigour. He will be just as old next year as Biden was in the 2020 presidential election, but the difference is palpable. While Biden always seemed a man tragically still pursuing his lifetime’s ambition in ignorance that he is long past his prime, Trump has lost none of his facilities.
Moreover, he seems instinctively to know which buttons to press if you want the votes of the many millions of Americans whose thoughts and dreams are off-grid to Washington’s political class. While being anti-woke is great – and Biden might defeat himself on that score if he goes on saying things like he did yesterday, that banning trans surgery for teenage children would be “close to sinful” – Trump knows that it is the issue of China which offers the most fertile political ground among America’s overlooked mass. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed fears of malign dictatorships – and in China we have one which not only threatens global peace, if it invades Taiwan, but which continues to threaten US jobs through what many voters perceive as unfair trading practices and currency manipulation. Trump’s potential winning narrative is this: of all recent presidents, I was the only one who avoided foreign wars. How? By squaring up to the world’s bad men before they caused us problems. Look how I handled Iran and North Korea. And see what happened once sleepy Joe came to the White House? Putin decided it was safe to complete his invasion of Ukraine, which he had started under Obama.
I am no fan of Trump. I’m with Pence on Trump’s fitness for office following 6 January. But I have to say that Trump’s claim to be able to control the world’s dictators has some truth to it; as a fellow narcissist, he understood them. A tough line on China will certainly appeal to his core vote in a time of global angst. We would do ourselves a favour by taking Trump seriously now rather than being caught out if, as is very possible, he wins a second term next year.