Don’t be distracted by the circus: Trump is frighteningly smart

While his rivals bicker for a Republican nomination they won’t win, the former president is already in full campaign mode, writes Jon Sopel. Despite the endless scandals, he is rewriting the rules of politics yet again

Saturday 30 September 2023 12:19 BST
Trump is now so far ahead and out of sight over his Republican rivals for the party nomination that he has pivoted to fighting the general election
Trump is now so far ahead and out of sight over his Republican rivals for the party nomination that he has pivoted to fighting the general election (AFP via Getty Images)

In a week where a judge declared that Donald Trump committed a billion dollar fraud, one golden rule shines through: don’t be distracted by the circus. While you look at the courts – or the unedifying spectacle of the second Republican debate – Trump has been busy rewriting the rules of American politics yet again in his bid for the White House.

During the 2016 election, I was covering the Republican primaries and found myself in snow-covered Iowa, where – improbably – Trump was due to speak at an evangelical mega-church.

I ran into his son Don Jr there. We got chatting and he said the thing people needed to understand about his father was that “he was just a regular blue-collar worker (pregnant pause) – but with a slightly better bank balance”. Indeed.

That came back to me this week, as I saw Trump outside Detroit, Michigan, visiting a car parts plant where there’s hugely significant strike action being taken by the Union of Auto Workers. Now bear with me. There are one or two small wrinkles here. The factory he was visiting isn’t represented by the UAW, and there are suggestions that some of those in attendance had been bussed in and paid by the Trump campaign to masquerade as if they were union workers. But let’s let that go.

The point is Trump had chosen the rust belt of the US over the sun belt, which is where the second Republican debate was taking place at the Ronald Reagan Library. And this is important.

Trump is now so far ahead and out of sight over his Republican rivals for the party nomination that he has pivoted to fighting the general election – a full 14 months away. And he is being smart about it. Frighteningly so for many Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans.

All the time I was in Washington, the Biden White House wouldn’t engage in whatever the latest psychodrama was around Trump. They would earnestly tell us Biden was too busy governing to take any notice of the sturm and drang being whipped up by his predecessor.

But this week, Trump announced that he would be heading to the key swing state of Michigan – Trump won it in 2016; Biden took it in 2020 – so, the president announced that he, too, would be visiting and offering support to the striking auto workers. Team Biden also dropped a TV ad saying why he was a greater friend of blue-collar America than Trump. This is stuff you expect a few months out from the election.

And Thursday evening, the president was in Arizona (another key swing state), taking chunks out of Donald Trump for being no respecter of the constitution and a dangerous autocrat. So much for pretending Trump doesn’t exist.

The tradition in US politics is that in the Republican primary season you go all out to win your party base – throwing out big chunks of red meat on abortion, immigration, support for guns – all the hot-button issues. And then once you’ve secured the nomination you tack like crazy to the centre to win over independents, floating voters and the like.

Just as we fret about global warming when snowdrops and daffodils appear unfeasibly and unnaturally early in our gardens, so in America it feels the general election season has started too soon.

This is behind Trump’s visit to Detroit this week. And there is another important policy area too – namely, abortion. It’s worth underlining that during his presidency Donald Trump appointed three ultra-conservative justices to the Supreme Court who were instrumental in the overturning of Roe vs Wade. And he would crow – justifiably – that it was all thanks to him that it had been overturned.

However, it has turned out to be very unpopular and politically costly for Republicans, even though it had been the fever dream of the Christian right for decades. But abortion was never a core belief of Donald Trump; Donald Trump is the only core belief of Donald Trump.

And so he has rounded on states that are proposing laws to make abortion more or less impossible. Florida has passed a statute to make it illegal after six weeks – of course, many women at six weeks have no idea that they might be pregnant. Trump, to the consternation of right-wing groups, has said the six-week ban “is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake”.

You don’t do this if you’re still fighting for your party’s nomination.

It is shrewd, calculated politics. And one poll – done for ABC and The Washington Post – has had the bed-wetting wing of the Democratic Party reaching for clean sheets: a poll putting Trump up nine points in a head-to-head match-up against Biden.

It is possible – probable even – that it is an outlier. But if you want to stop Trump winning a second term with all the chaos that could ensue, it’s not an option simply to shrug your shoulders. And maybe that is why the Biden White House is taking the Trump threat so much more seriously.

All of which made the second Republican Party debate seem like a sideshow of wannabes who never will be. The seven people on stage talked over each other, the Fox anchors lost control, and I suspect big chunks of the TV audience switched over to escape the cacophony. It had all the excitement, tension and drama of the World Cup play-off match for third place between the two losing semi-finalists – which is to say, none at all.

All of this while a judge in New York found this week that Donald Trump and his sons had committed fraud over many years, artificially inflating the value of his hotels and golf courses to borrow money at cheaper rates. Just as he is rewriting the political season, he seems still to have an uncanny ability to defy the laws of political gravity.

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