Donald Trump, who served as the 45th President of the United States between 2017-2021, epitomises our era’s politics — when larger-than-life, loud, fear-mongering political characters tailor-made for television and social media win public office. This is an era when television news is more like reality TV and political constituencies display a fierce tribalism. After being a one-term president and losing his re-election to the now 80-year-old Joe Biden, Trump has surfaced in the news again. At 76 years old, Trump is back to challenging Biden for the presidency, as a front-runner for the Republican party ticket. However, this is not the only reason Trump is in the news.
On May 9, a jury found that Trump had sexually abused and defamed writer E Jean Carroll. Trump is the first former US president to face criminal charges. He has also been indicted for “falsifying business records” in connection with a “hush money payment” made to Stormy Daniels, a porn star, shortly before his victory in the 2016 presidential election. The indictment speaks of a payment of $1,30,000 that Trump’s former personal lawyer made to Daniels for her silence about the affair with Trump. Prosecutors allege that Trump admits to reimbursing his lawyer for this payment amount but that he had falsely characterised it as a retainer agreement for business advice.
The tribalism that Trump inspires is fiery and lawless. On January 6, 2021, mobs of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol Building (the seat of the United States Congress, located on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC) in a bid to keep him in power following his loss in the elections. The House Committee (comprising select members of the House of Representatives) appointed to investigate the attacks voted to recommend to the Department of Justice that Trump be charged with “assisting, aiding or comforting” the insurrection. These charges will haunt him as he continues to be the Republican frontrunner — or will they?
As Trump once boasted, he could kill a person on a busy street and his supporters would still back him.
The political reality is that Trump is enormously popular. In the last elections, both Biden and Trump collected a record number of votes. Biden polled 81,283,501 votes (51.3 per cent of the total) and Trump polled 74,223,975 votes, with the former becoming the president. However, both men had received more of the popular vote than ever before. Biden now holds the record for the most votes earned in a presidential election. To give some context, in 2008, Barack Obama earned 69,498,516 votes — till then the most ever in a presidential election.
The “popular vote” is hardly the barometer for winning elections in the American electoral college system. Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump despite polling almost three million more votes than him. In the American system, the winner is the candidate who takes the electoral college. Yet, the popular vote is an indicator of how voters feel about a candidate, even if it’s not the constitutional marker of winning the elections for President.
What the Biden-Trump showdown indicates is that despite losing the presidency to Biden, Trump was enormously popular. This notwithstanding well-founded allegations of breaking the law on multiple counts, repeatedly making false claims on most political issues including about the 2020 elections being “stolen”, running a deeply disorganised administration and fear-mongering that included banning Muslims from entering the US. Why then is Trump so popular?
For mainstream Republican party members and supporters, Trump delivered on core issues while he was in office. For instance, Trump’s greatest legacy will be judicial appointments. Most especially, his three appointments to the Supreme Court. The appointment to the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) is notoriously political, while the testimony of the candidate for judge is shown on national television. In the US, having lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court and other appellate courts means that many Trump appointees will stay in office for the next 30 years or more.
All three of Trump’s appointments — Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett — identify with a more conservative brand of politics. And many Republicans see Trump’s greatest legacy as being the overruling of Roe v Wade, the abortion rights decision, by Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation decided in June 2022.
In Dobbs, SCOTUS held that the US Constitution does not confer a right to abortion and overruled its previous decisions in Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey. All three Trump appointees voted to overrule Roe.
Numerous studies show that Trump and most Republicans typically score higher with white voters, while Democrats overwhelmingly win black and Hispanic voters. Interestingly, college-educated Americans are increasingly voting for the Democrats. While non-college-educated white Americans support the Republicans, especially Donald Trump. Race and class play significant roles in who voters support in the elections.
For those seeking deeper insights into Donald Trump, a riveting new biography has just been released. Titled Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America. The author is New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. Haberman covered Trump both as a candidate for the 2016 elections and eventually as a one-term president. Trump was famously conscious of Haberman’s unflattering coverage of him as a president. It is 600 pages of drama, political insight, and scoops, a story of the intertwined worlds of wealthy law-breaking real estate moguls, far-right politics, and the large cult of die-hard Trump supporters and the privileged and spoilt scion of a real estate magnate father, who learnt to bend every rule and put himself before anyone or anything else.
This is the explanation for the rise of Trump: He figured out his core constituency, which he shapes through fear, strategically deploying social media and speaking in a language that appeals to them. Along the way, he deployed his privilege to bend and break the law. What remains to be seen in the 2024 elections for president, is whether voters reward him again — for being Donald Trump.
The writer is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India