This year was bad for the 45th president. 2023 may even be worse. Criminal prosecutions may be forthcoming. Beyond that, the legacy of 6 January 2021, combined with the results of the recent midterms, left Donald Trump politically vulnerable.
Stripped of the veneer of invincibility and inevitability, he looks like a loser. On Monday, the House committee on the January 6 attacks concluded that the evidence warranted referral to the justice department for possible prosecution.
In the committee’s eyes, Trump unlawfully conspired to overturn the 2020 election and remained actively adjacent to the invasion of the Capitol. In its referral, the committee tagged the former guy for alleged obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiring to defraud the US, and conspiring to make a false statement.
The committee also determined that sufficient evidence existed of Trump inciting, assisting, or aiding the insurrection. “The facts are compelling,” according to Trump administration veterans. His hold over the Republican party no longer appears ironclad.
His headaches go beyond legal woes. Tennessee Republicans prefer the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, 54-41. Polls out of New Hampshire, Georgia and Florida show Trump trailing. In Texas, he is locked in a footrace with DeSantis.
The luster is gone. Nationwide 62% of Republicans and Republican-leaners now believe someone other than Trump should be the party’s next presidential nominee. To be sure, his defeat in 2024 is not foreordained.
In 2015 and 2016, Trump appeared fresh, compelling and incendiary. He captured the anger, grievance and imagination of the party’s white working-class base. He was a walking middle-finger gleefully shoved in the eye of a clueless and self-satisfied party establishment.
His Republican rivals behaved like caricatures. “Jeb!” sleep-walked through the early primaries, dreaming of coronation. In the middle of February 2016, he exited the race without a win. Marco Rubio appeared robotic and hyper-caffeinated.
By contrast, Trump spearheaded a movement. His rallies doubled as revival meetings. Those left behind no longer needed to bowl alone. The ex-reality show host birthed a congregation of the faithful. Their applause was his sustenance, his performance their sacrament. It was a two-way street.
These days, Trump doubles as an aged huckster. He pitches NFTs bearing his image. “I can’t watch it again, make it stop,” Steve Bannon announced on his podcast.
Fast forward. Trump’s presidential announcement from Mar-a-Lago, his Eagle’s Nest on the Atlantic, was a snooze-fest. No one would confuse it with his earlier trip down the escalator at Trump Tower.
Back then, Bannon likened Trump’s descent to a scene from Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film. “That’s Hitler, Bannon thought,” according to the New York Times’s Jeremy Peters.
Now the sizzle is gone, replaced by a steady stream of damning headlines, needless errors and high-risk provocations. Trump bet that his candidacy would force Attorney General Merrick Garland’s hand. He wound up only half right.
His move triggered Garland’s recusal and the appointment of a special counsel, Jack Smith. But where Garland appeared reticent, Smith conveys the air of Eliot Ness, the legendary federal agent. In the heat of a moment, Trump transformed the justice department’s inquiry.
Substitute Al Capone for Joe Biden’s predecessor and you get the picture. The investigation was no longer a bottom-up endeavor, driven by the department’s career lawyers. Instead, it morphed into a top-down crusade led by a man who prosecutes war criminals.
Since Smith arrived on the scene, the tempo speeds up; grand jury subpoenas fly out the door. Trump misread the terrain just as he had misunderstood the realities and downside of treating presidential records as personal baubles. Chalk up the record-keeping debacle at Mar-a-Lago as another self-inflicted wound.
Indeed, his dinner with Ye, the antisemitic recording artist formerly known as Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes, the white supremacist, was made of ominous cloth, reminiscent of his September 2020 debate shout-out – “Stand back and stand by.” Three months later, the Proud Boys served as Trumpian shock troops.
Past looms as prelude. Against that backdrop, Trump’s infamous pre-Thanksgiving dinner signals steadfastness with the mob that rioted on 6 January and a dog whistle for street violence if indicted.
Whether the justice department indicts Trump is the open question. A New York jury recently convicted two of Trump’s companies. On Tuesday, the House’s ways and means committee will probably vote to release portions of Trump’s tax information. The hits keep on coming.
If anyone forgot, two years ago to the day, Trump tweeted: “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild.” It certainly was.