Two paradoxes are shaping the 2024 presidential election. Both arise from Donald Trump’s presence in our political life, and as with Trump himself, we might be stuck with them for the foreseeable future.
First, there’s the paradox haunting what we can now only charitably call the “race” for the Republican nomination. And it’s this: Any Republican candidate running against Trump faces certain disqualification for not supporting Trump.
We all saw the hands go up in Milwaukee when moderators asked Republican contenders whether they would support Trump’s nomination even if he were convicted in a court of law. Vivek Ramaswamy’s shot up like it was attached to a front-row teacher’s pet, and all but one debater followed, down to Chris Christie’s waffling jazz hand. The only holdout was Asa Hutchinson, who’s currently tied with North Dakota governor Doug Burgum in last place with 1 percent support among GOP voters, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll.
Not that we needed a show of hands to know where the candidates stood. Ever since March, when Trump was indicted by Manhattan District DA Alvin Bragg on charges of falsifying business records, the GOP field has served as Trump’s Praetorian Guard. And their loyalty was proudly reaffirmed with every Trump indictment that followed.
Whether this was inevitable is an interesting question. It might have done Ron DeSantis a world of pre-emptive good to capitalize on his massive election success last November when Trump’s hand-picked midterm candidates lost in a slew of elections. It’s almost strange to recall now, but for that brief moment, DeSantis looked like a giant and Trump sounded like a pipsqueak. Had the Florida governor pressed this dichotomy and gone on the offensive in advance of Trump’s indictments, perhaps he wouldn’t be 46 points behind Trump today. And if he’d talked up Trump as a reckless and easy mark for the establishment, perhaps other candidates would have followed his lead.
But there’s little point in asking whether the dynamic will change now. And it’s not just because it’s getting late in the game to reverse course. With Trump’s securing 59 percent of GOP voters, according to the same Wall Street Journal poll, the primary has become a de facto second-place race. If the rest of the pack are essentially running against one another for special notice in the hearts of Trump voters, they’re more likely to ramp up praise for Trump than tone it down. Plus, Ramaswamy’s frenetic enthusiasm for the man at the first debate made him an instant media heel, and he’s exploiting the attention for all its worth. His more lackluster competition would love to get a piece of the action.
The second paradox concerns the general election: The very thing that’s making Trump the runaway frontrunner among Republicans is anathema to the larger voting public. It comes down to a straightforward moral binary. For Americans with no connection to the populist right, Trump’s defiance in the face of federal indictments is perverse. It’s the fruition of everything they feared about him (and his followers) while he was president: He has no regard for the rule of law, the Constitution, or the preservation of the country itself. And his supporters will follow him into the abyss.
Unlike the paradox governing the general election, however, it’s not impossible that this situation shifts. It’s not probable, but it is thinkable. The indictments against Trump range in credibility, so much so that even liberal detractors have acknowledged the weakness of certain legal arguments used against him. If he racks up a few wins on some of the more dubious charges, he’ll have a stronger case to make for himself.
But that’s not really where Trump has room to change minds. It’s the drip drip drip of the Hunter Biden scandal—the scandal that Politico now says is “falling flat” for Republicans—that could unwind the general-election paradox just enough to give Trump the edge he needs.
Ever since Hunter Biden’s sweetheart plea deal fell apart a month ago, the case has been bad news for the president. Biden’s initial claim of ignorance regarding his son’s business is no longer operative, and the House Oversight Committee’s persistent accumulation of testimony and documentation makes it harder and harder for Biden to dodge sticky questions about his possible involvement in wrongdoing.
If the Hunter scandal grows even worse for Biden, it could go a long way in neutralizing Trump’s negatives as the embodiment of American political lawlessness. Despite press efforts to minimize the threat that the Hunter case poses to Joe Biden, the story has already broken through in startling ways. The Washington Post acknowledges that President Biden lied about his son’s Chinese earnings. And CNN’s Jake Tapper recently stated on air that Donald Trump “was right” in his accusations about Hunter’s foreign business dealings during a 2020 debate with Biden.
If the investigation has truly hit a wall, however, then the general-election paradox may hold. We’ll see. As Socrates put it paradoxically, “I know that I know nothing.”