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Wednesday, June 05, 2024

The Truth of Trump Is Very Far From the Myth

The Truth of Trump Is Very Far From the Myth

A poster reading “Guilty” in yellow and black, with a photograph of Donald Trump on it, lies on the ground surrounded by plants.
Lucia Buricelli for The New York Times

“The myth of Donald Trump is that he is immune to scandal — that there’s nothing he could say or do that would undermine his political prospects. In this rendering of the Trump dynamic, his shamelessness helps him glide past controversy, and the unshakable devotion of his base keeps him afloat through the worst of storms.

The truth of Donald Trump is very far from the myth. Yes, he is shameless. Yes, he is surrounded by a cult of personality. But neither has made him invulnerable to the blows of political combat.

It would exhaust your time and my patience to do a full inventory of every scandal and offense that has marked Trump’s time in the national spotlight. But we don’t need to. The pattern is clear enough.

Trump did not shrug off the debacle of the “Access Hollywood” tape; his campaign came as close as it ever would to total collapse. He owes his survival to the ironclad partisanship of his Republican allies; without it, he would have sunk under the many waves of anger and condemnation. In the wake of his apologetics for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017, his already low standing crashed even further as voters turned away in disgust. And Trump was so shaken by the roar of outrage in opposition to family separation at the Southern border that he rescinded the policy rather than risk the chance of a fatal blow to his presidency. Even minor scandals, like his derisive reference to “shithole countries,” forced both Trump and his White House into a defensive crouch.

The obvious rejoinder here is that what Trump lost in support from the general public he gained in an even tighter bond with his political base, which relished its shared sense of persecution by a Sanhedrin of liberal elites and deep-state operatives. And because the loudest segments of his base tend to occupy social positions tied to notions of the heartland as well as images of popular Americana (farmers, hard hats, pickup trucks), there is a tendency to treat this base as more significant than it is — as though it stood as the only authentic representative of the American people, bestowing Trump with the essence of the nation itself.

Here in reality, Trump’s base is just that — a base. It is a durable foundation, but like any political base it has given neither Trump nor the larger Republican Party the strength necessary to win competitive elections on its own. Trump did not win the 2016 presidential election solely on the votes of his base; he won it after he consolidated wavering Republicans and persuaded just enough moderate and independent voters in the right places — essentially the bare minimum — to back him over Hillary Clinton.

For all the solicitousness shown toward his most dedicated supporters — for years, reporters and other obsevers have evaluated the relative importance of one scandal or another on the basis of whether it moved the MAGA faithful to jump ship, as if this were the most important measure of political consequence for the former president — Trump’s base does not win elections outside of party primaries. It did not win the midterms for the Republican Party in 2018, it did not win re-election for the Trump in 2020, and it did not win a red wave for Republicans in 2022. The signature Republican victory of the last four years, the election of Glenn Youngkin over Terry McAuliffe in the 2021 Virginia race for governor, rested on an effort to marginalize the Trump base so that party leaders could engineer a nominee with the ability to distance himself from the former president and his movement.

Last week, a Manhattan jury found Trump guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records as part of a scheme to influence the 2016 election. Although critics of the prosecution have said this was a novel application of the relevant statutes, other commentators have observed that “the creation of phony documentation to cover up campaign finance violations has been repeatedly prosecuted in New York.” If there was anything novel about the situation, it was the crime, not the prosecution.

The guilty verdict makes Trump the only ex-president to be convicted of a felony and, as a result, to face the possibility of prison time. If this were any politician other than Trump, there would be no question that this conviction was the worst of all outcomes for his campaign. But the myth of Trump — the myth of his invulnerability to scandal — has produced the idea that his criminality, confirmed for the first time by a jury of his peers, is baked in to his standing with voters. He might be a felon, goes the argument, but this won’t matter, especially not to his base.

That’s half right. It probably won’t matter to his base although, again, it does not make sense to judge the importance of political events against the attitudes of people who, by definition, have immovable, calcified views of the former president. Besides, the base can’t put Trump in office by itself; his only hope is to win the moderate, independent and persuadable voters he lost in the previous election.

If the prosecution was misguided — if the case was truly as weak as some commentators believe — then Trump should have no trouble navigating the fallout from his felony conviction. The problem is that voters don’t appear to agree that the case was weak or that the prosecution was unfair.

More than half of voters (54 percent), according to Morning Consult, approve of Trump’s conviction and 49 percent, including 52 percent of independents, told pollsters for ABC News that the former president should drop out of the race. Twenty-five percent of independent registered voters say that Trump’s conviction makes them less likely to support the former president, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the verdict. And in a survey by the left-leaning firm Data for Progress, 56 percent of all likely voters say they approve of the jury decision, including 57 percent of independents and 60 percent of swing voters.

These numbers do not mean that Trump is destined to lose or that he cannot win. But on the narrow question of whether it helps or hurts him to have a felony conviction, it seems clear — even obvious — that he is in a worse position than he was before the jury rendered its verdict. The alternative is to think that Trump preferred a conviction to an acquittal. But that’s nonsense.

An acquittal would have been a triumph. Trump, a man who seems to live in an eternal 1990, would have had the chance to play John Gotti and pose as the persecuted champion of ordinary people. If an acquittal would have helped the former president, then his conviction has probably hurt him.

On Saturday, as a newly minted felon, Trump walked into the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., to attend an Ultimate Fighting Championship match. As my colleague Shawn McCreesh reports, Trump was mobbed by avid supporters and greeted with spontaneous cheers of “We Love Trump!” He was with his base, and they showed how much they loved him.

But the adulation of crowds will not win the election. If Trump wants to serve a second term in the Oval Office, he needs to persuade the same voters who denied him a second term in the first place that he is more than the chaos, confusion and dysfunction of his first term.

Perhaps the myth of Trump is true, and he can make this case in the face of 34 felony convictions. I might place my bets elsewhere.

Jamelle Bouie became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2019. Before that he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. He is based in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington. @jbouie

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