By now, Donald Trump should be tired of all the winning.
Pretty much since late-February, he’s been on the political upswing — no matter what. Good, bad or ugly, it either helps him in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, or doesn’t hurt him. The verdict against Trump in the E. Jean Carroll defamation case can now be probably added to the list.
Trump is the first former president to be found guilty of sexually abusing and defaming a woman, and will likely be the first former president to suffer no immediate adverse political consequences from being found guilty of sexually abusing and defaming a woman.
Over the last month or so, Trump has gotten indicted while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has passed a truly historic raft of conservative reforms — and Trump has gained, while DeSantis has lost ground.
DeSantis’ winning hasn’t proved nearly as valuable as Trump’s losing (assuming one thinks that getting indicted on felony charges —any felony charges — is a bad thing).
How is that possible?
Trump has constructed an impenetrable political force field. In his own telling, he’s strong and a fierce fighter at the same time that he’s a victim — because his adversaries are out to get him since he’s so strong and such a fierce fighter.
Pretty much anything that happens fits in one of these two buckets: a validating strength or a validating victimization.
All of his administration’s victories, his large rallies, his successful endorsements fall in the first category of confirming Trump’s power.
The Alvin Bragg indictment — as well as all manner of negative news stories about him, other accusations and impeachments — falls into the second. If Trump weren’t such a threat to the establishment, weren’t on the front lines of the culture war, weren’t a hated figure for everyone Republicans despise and fear, the other side wouldn’t bother to charge him with crimes and otherwise malign him.
The worse things are for him, the more unfairly he’s being treated, and the more Republicans should feel obligated to rally to his side.
If the polling is good, it’s because he’s such a strong candidate; if the polling is bad, it’s because the fake news media is out to get him because he’s such a strong candidate.
If he wins a national election, it’s because he’s such a formidable political phenomenon; if he loses a national election, it must have been stolen because he’s such a formidable political phenomenon.
The grand jury in Manhattan was set up this way, too. If it hadn’t indicted him, Trump would have boasted that his vigorous pushback had given Bragg no choice but to bend to his will. The indictment, on the other hand, has been the best thing to happen to him politically since he left the White House.
Heads, Trump wins; tails, he doesn’t really lose. And it wouldn’t have come up tails, you should know, if the coin-flipper didn’t hate him so passionately.
None of this would be possible if Trump felt the normal person’s, or even the normal politician’s, sense of shame. Nothing makes him flinch. Nothing embarrasses him. He barrels through with the same boastfulness and confidence that saying something eventually will make it so, no matter what.
Nor would Trump be capable of pulling this off without the intense personal bond his supporters — at the very least, a significant plurality of the GOP — have with him. They accept his way of looking at the world, and help him enforce it on the rest of the party.
It’s hard for Trump’s opponents to operate in this environment.
For example, DeSantis took an oblique shot at Trump when word first came down that the former president’s arrest was imminent on charges related to the Stormy Daniels hush payment (the Florida governor noted that he doesn’t know about paying off porn stars). This didn’t play well, since it seemed like it was kicking Trump when he was already getting kicked by his enemies.
When the indictment was actually handed down and an enormous backlash took hold among Republicans, DeSantis reversed course. He made a symbolic gesture of support by saying Florida wouldn’t cooperate with an extradition request from New York authorities — seeming overly solicitous of Trump and overly eager to curry favor with his fans.
This is the choice — appear, for many Republicans, a quisling by not siding with Trump, or side with him and implicitly accept his dominant role in the party.
Another advantage Trump has is the sheer number of contentions he’s involved in. To take a small example, it’s hard to see how any other politician would possibly get away with calling the Asian American wife of another major politician “Coco Chow”; Trump does it routinely to Elaine Chao, Mitch McConnell’s wife (and his own former Transportation secretary), and it’s not necessarily the most outlandish thing he says on any given day.
Stalin supposedly said that one death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. By the same token, one controversy or allegation is memorable, dozens are a fog. The E. Jean Carroll verdict is probably destined to be a blip between the Bragg indictment and the impending indictment in Fulton County, Georgia for his effort to subvert the 2020 election.
Is there any escaping the Trump vortex if good news helps him, and bad news does, as well?
Maybe not. But it’s not true that he’s impervious to everything. The abysmal showing of many of his loyalists in last year’s midterms rocked his support, at least temporarily.
If DeSantis or someone else can show that they don’t fear Trump, while creating their own narrative and base of support, there’s a chance of a new dynamic. The entire party doesn’t have to be won over, just a critical mass of Republicans in Iowa. A loss there in next year’s caucuses, administered by Republicans in a vote that no one is going to think is stolen, would be a serious blow to Trump.
Of course, getting from here to there won’t be easy. And if Trump does become the Republican presidential candidate, it’s very unlikely that general election voters, who already repudiated him once, will consider his controversies and deficiencies as charitably as do Republican primary voters.