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Decisive and Divisive — How Donald Trump Keeps Winning

Image courtesy of Evan Guest on Flikr, accessed on Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_in_Muscatine,_Iowa_(24087043363).jpg

Culture Editor Evelyn Shepphird explains what’s behind Donald Trump’s dominant performance in Republican primaries and argues that the Democrats will need to change strategy to win in 2024.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, his position as the Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election seems inevitable, despite the frustration of American voters.

Trump won the New Hampshire Republican primary two days after Ron DeSantis announced his withdrawal from the presidential race. While Iowa’s caucus on 15 January allowed party members to select a favourite, New Hampshire’s primary was the first test of candidate’s support from all voters —independent, as well as affiliated with a party. Iowa and New Hampshire are thus the first presidential primaries in which votes, rather than polls, indicate voter preferences, and thus determine candidate’s strategy moving forward. 

On 22 January, Ron DeSantis announced his withdrawal from the presidential race and endorsed Donald Trump, the man he’d spent his entire campaign in conflict with. This announcement came two days before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, and left Donald Trump vying for nomination against Nikki Haley, who came in third in the Iowa caucus.

Yet Haley’s subsequent failure in New Hampshire – and embarrassing defeat to “none of these candidates” in Nevada – now seems to herald the inevitability of Trump’s nomination to run against Joe Biden, the incumbent Democratic president.

This leads to questions of what the political motivations of DeSantis and Haley truly were. With Trump being an electoral behemoth in American politics, it seems as though his competitors were vying for a 2028 presidential bid rather than posing a legitimate threat to Trump’s campaign this year. This became especially obvious after Trump’s indictments incited a deluge of support for the former president. DeSantis’s campaign suffered after the indictments – the outpouring of Trump support, alongside severe financial mismanagement of the DeSantis campaign, led wary donors to endorse other candidates like Trump or Haley. 

Haley, however, hasn’t posed a significant threat to Trump, despite the windfall of support since DeSantis’ withdrawal. Her campaign has self-styled as promising a “new generation of leadership” to replace the catfight of personal insults between Trump and DeSantis (it’s hard to forget Trump’s assertion that DeSantis– or, “DeSanctimonious” – required a “personality transplant”). Despite Haley’s efforts at running a more mature campaign, it’s clearly not what voters wanted.

Possibly because he’s become such a personality in the show of American politics, it’s hard to imagine Trump losing the Republican nomination, even as he faces numerous criminal indictments and almost half a billion dollars in fines. If nothing else, Trump appears strong and unapologetic, and when Americans feel threatened by issues of the economy, immigration, and law and order, his appearance of fortitude is appealing to many.

Of course, this means Donald Trump is a textbook populist candidate and his popularity, among Republicans, has only grown in the wake of the criminal investigations. This ‘outsider’ campaign, which won him much of middle America in his 2016 bid, has continued to draw support from voters frustrated with the inefficiency of Washington D.C., even if they don’t agree with Trump on key issues. 

Many consider President Biden ineffective and hindered significantly by his advanced age; whatever his administration does, it seems too little, too late. The United States’ involvement in the Gaza conflict, for example, has sparked intense criticism of the Democratic president. Jaded voters have expressed their sense of helplessness in choosing a candidate and, because of this, the election has fallen into a choice of lesser-evils for many voters. Congressional gridlock and political inaction from politicians stuck between the desires of their constituents and their financial sponsors (as seen with the failed $3.5 trillion spending bill in 2021) has made Trump look increasingly attractive to American voters, despite his legacy staining the international reputation of the United States.

That being said, there’s still significant division within the Republican Party. While Trump represents a nationalist, populist strategy, it’s important to remember the Republicans who encouraged a step away from Trump’s inflammatory politics in favour of a more collaborative candidate in 2018. This demonstrates that despite Trump’s dominance in the primaries, there are still some Republicans seeking to unseat him as the hegemon – even as they dwindle in number.

Ultimately, Trump’s hold on the Republican nomination (and the party itself) seems unchallengeable. Yet this leaves several questions unanswered: to what degree will conservative Americans excuse Trump’s bad behaviour out of frustration with the current political system? What – among the many accusations of Trump’s misogyny, racism, ableism, capitalist interest and xenophobia – is excusable? 

Democrats, on the other hand, must use these questions to evaluate their own position: much of their campaigning in recent memory has relied on emphasising the risks that Republican government entail. In the run-up to elections, Democratic candidates have routinely sought to cast themselves as somehow ‘less bad‘ than their Republican opposition. Yet as the incumbent party, this strategy has lost much of its appeal, and as frustration with Washington builds, Democrats need to change their campaign from one of moral superiority to one of legitimate, applicable solutions to the nation’s problems.

Evelyn Shepphird is a second year student at King's College London, on the European Studies (French Pathway) Programme.

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