By Rick Wilson
The ways in which Donald Trump came to plague American life and politics are terrible, varied, and would take far longer than this brief essay to recount. As we face Trump’s third campaign of this era, America’s political, media, and donor classes are trapped in a time loop, repeating the same mistakes of 2016 and 2020 over and over again.
But in one key way, the ground ahead of us looks nothing like the two previous elections.
No, that’s not a good thing.
Trump’s 2016 victory was a combination of luck, celebrity, becoming the avatar of a seething mass of Boomer resentment, and the felicity of running against a profoundly terrible candidate in the general election. Say what you will of Hillary Clinton, but a natural candidate, she was not.
On Trump’s first campaign, his advisers and consultants were, to put it mildly, not America’s best. The claque of political non-entities, alt-right agitprop peddlers, racial arsonists, scam artists, and rank amateurs. Even the campaign “professionals” barely deserved that adjective.
No, that first campaign was driven completely by Trump's celebrity and by the bizarro world moment in which the cream of the old Republican crop was consumed by a populist social change inside the party's base and the death of mainstream conservatism. 2020 would have gone very, very differently had it not been for COVID; Trump’s mismanagement cost America over 500,000 lives and crashed the economy.
The 2016 campaign was run largely from Trump’s phone and his plane. The Trump Tower offices were an abandoned set from “The Apprentice” and populated by the alleged campaign staff. In 2020, the campaign had a Potemkin Village headquarters and staffing but was still largely conducted based on Trump’s whims, moods, and his itchy Twitter finger.
Now we face a more serious, meaningful threat.
The dangers of Trump are still evident; his disdain for the rule of law, his contempt for the democratic process, his banality, caprice, short attention span, and lack of any kind of moral center are drawn in sharper focus than ever before. We know his record in office and America’s scar tissue from that time and from his wilderness years is dense and painful on the American psyche. By and large, he is a loathed and loathsome figure.
And yet, he can still win. A bad campaign can’t save a great candidate, but a great campaign can save a bad candidate.
Trump is bringing something different into the 2024 campaign: serious people. This iteration of Trump’s re-election effort includes serious, smart, determined campaign professionals who know the work, know the steep hill they must climb, and know how to win. They’re adults, smart people with experience in real politics. Some of the old guard are still lurking around the Court of King Donald, but there’s a chill in the air when watching his new team take shape. People like Chris LaCivita and Suzie Wiles aren’t capering for Trump’s approval. They’re driving for a win.
Gone are the clownish antics of Brad Parscale or Cory Lewandowski. Gone is Steve Bannon’s opera-cloak revolutionary mastermind schtick. Scenery-chewing Trump soap-opera queen Kellyanne Conway is, for now, off the stage, consumed by her self-inflicted dramas. Gone too, at least for the time being, is the venal Jared Kushner, known for sluicing almost half of the 2020’s campaign’s $1.26 billion in revenues through a mysterious shell company that had seemingly every Trump family member on the payroll.
This is bad news for Joe Biden’s campaign. It’s a challenge for outside pro-democracy groups fighting Trump’s return, including my organization, The Lincoln Project. In 2020 we were able to manipulate Trump’s emotional states with almost comic ease. We would relentlessly push his mental buttons, not just to troll him, but to distract him, force him into mistakes, and divert his wrath and mania away from Biden.
For the last few weeks, this new team has disciplined the most undisciplined candidate in American political history. They’ve operated as a more-or-less standard campaign when it comes to communicating with the media. They’ve worked out the details of events in the early primary states.
While they allow him to vent his spleen in his digital backwater of Truth Social, the operational parts of the campaign are ticking the boxes on a set of strategic goals:
First, they converted the story of his first indictments into a martyr narrative. They knew it would return Trump to the warm center of Fox’s coverage, lock in MAGA base voters who were flirting with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, force his primary opponents to bend the knee and revive his small-dollar fundraising. On all those, mission accomplished.
Next, they’ve identified and are neutralizing the primary election threat Florida Governor DeSantis posed with his vast cash hoard, moderate and establishment GOP backing, and culture-warrior primary electorate street cred.
Flooded with money from the more traditional Republican donor class, DeSantis appealed to Wall Street types, investment bankers, private equity firms, and Silicon Valley bros. The plutocrat caucus may have donated to Trump in the past but held their nose while doing it.
For the past month or more, Trump’s team warmed up their mighty attack machine to crack the illusion of Ron The Inevitable, and DeSantis failed in the most fundamental ways to respond to it. Shortly after the Alvin Bragg indictment of Trump, DeSantis both defended the former President and took a single passive-aggressive sniper shot at Trump with his badly delivered “I don’t know what it’s like to pay off a porn star.”
Next, Trump has played it smart on a few of the key issues he and his new team know are coming in 2024. He knows reflexively what won’t work in the general election; they read polling. Trump continues to play to the left of the rest of the Republican caucus on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. His feral cunning tells him correctly that the GOP‘s position on the matter is deeply unpopular.
We’ve also seen reporting out of Mar-a-Lago that Trump recognizes the six-week abortion bans passing in the state are what “defund the police” has been in the last two election cycles for Democrats, a politically poisonous issue driven by an ideological edge of the party.
The DeSantis world has been rocked by a sweeping string of Trump endorsements in the governor’s own political backyard.
How did Trump’s team do it? The old-fashioned way; hard work. They worked the phones and had Trump individually call the members of Congress. Politics is a business of relationships, small courtesies, and tiny graces that add up to a broader impact.
Finally, Trump has broken CNN to his will. Chris Licht, repeating the 2016 playbook, has ordered up a Trump town hall next week in New Hampshire. The categorical impossibility of fact-checking the lie machine of Trump’s mendacious prolixity is already well established, but apparently, Trump’s team convinced Licht that the numbers Trump will bring the network are worth enabling the Trump comeback show.
In every election cycle, one candidate really wants the job. The ones that want it hustle like no human beings you’ve ever seen. They bust their asses, they work the phones, they raise the money, and do the deals necessary to win. Donald Trump quite evidently wants it.
These are early signs, but they show how Donald Trump presents an ongoing threat to the republic and an existential challenge to American democracy.
The frightening thing about authoritarians is that sometimes it’s easy to mistake the clownishness on the surface for the smart, immoral, deeply experienced operators running the show.
That’s happening now. The new Trump team is very, very good at what they do and will stop at absolutely nothing to win.
There is danger ahead. If Democrats and those of us who believe Trump must be defeated once and for all fail to take seriously the imminent and terrible threat his new campaign poses, a Trump victory is more likely than ever.