The caging of America’s Kraken

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Saying the quiet bit out loud is rarely a good idea. Yet after last week’s midterm success, Democrats cannot help themselves. The gist is that they would love Donald Trump to be the 2024 presidential nominee because his name would all but ensure another Republican defeat. They are probably right about that. Whether Maga Trumpism would do better without its author is a tougher one to answer.

The prospect of Trump riding the Mar-a-Lago train all the way to its next wreck — even if he is not indicted in the meantime — offers a tantalising fix for the Democratic party. With Trump, Democrats would win so much people would get tired of winning (to borrow a phrase). Should Democrats retain the White House, that would mean they would have governed America for all but four of the 20 years since the 2008 financial meltdown. It would also prove that Trump’s single term was indeed an “aberration”, as Joe Biden put it.

That vista is even more beguiling for Democrats considering America’s likely economic picture in 2024. Last week was as bad a time as any to consult the electorate’s mood. But for Trump and a raft of cartoonishly Trumpian candidates, the Republican red wave would probably have hit. Two years from now US growth will have probably rebounded from the recession that is expected next year. Inflation will be under control. Making Trump a loser again would be the cherry on the cake.

But it would be a blunder to think the American Kraken has just been slew. That mythical sea monster that came to stand for America’s id has not vanished. It needs a new figurehead. There is no reason to think that Trump’s demise would restore the party to the country club Republicans whom he banished. Potential rivals such as Ron DeSantis, the re-elected Florida governor, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, and Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s governor, would be auditioning to lead the Maga movement, not to abolish it. The path to defeating Trump will lie through Trumpism.

Displacing Trump without alienating his base will require dexterity. No one wants to be called a Brutus. If Trump’s rivals lack the courage to strike first, he will do it for them. He has already got into the habit of attacking DeSantis as a talentless ingrate and saying bizarre things about Youngkin. The essence of his attacks is that they owe their victories to him. Eventually Trump’s goading will prompt what he fears — their hats in the ring. This conjures what will be a first in US politics: your rival inadvertently launching your campaign for you. It is hard to see how the coming war for Trump’s mantle will benefit the Republican brand.

Wise heads warn against writing Trump off too soon. His premature obituary has been written too often. Almost nobody thought he would survive the fallout from the failed putsch of January 6 last year. Yet he bent the party to his will. By launching a 2024 campaign that is entirely about personal grievances, Trump is writing his own obituary. His pitch is almost completely devoid of the appeals he made in 2016 to the “forgotten American” (whom he seems to have forgotten). Trump’s political career will either come to an end in the vitriolic Republican primaries that are about to get under way or via defeat in a general election.

Democrats are booking front-row seats. The first act will be Trump’s insertion into next month’s Georgia Senate run-off between Herschel Walker — the former football star and the Trumpiest of candidates — and Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent. Trump has already snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Georgia — in the two losing run-offs last year that handed control of the US Senate to Democrats. By insisting the election would be rigged he depressed Republican turnout and handed victory to the two Democrats. Less is riding on Georgia’s decision this time as Democrats already have the 50 Senate seats they need. A Warnock victory would nevertheless remind Republicans that Trump is their most expensive indulgence.

It is possible, even probable, that Trump’s only role now is to leave his party in ruins. That would be the Democratic dream. Yet last week’s results point to a less comforting narrative for Democrats. There is still a path to victory for hinged Trumpians. Their goal is to channel the Trumpist appeal — hatred of America’s liberal elites, resentment of corporate America, disdain for freeriding Europeans — minus the caprice of its namesake. The Kraken is awaiting a new champion to release it from its cage.

edward.luce@ft.com

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