Trump and the Fun Factor

When Donald Trump was indicted on criminal charges in New York City two months ago, I tried to make sense of the political fallout with my colleague Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst. After poring over traditional markers about fund-raising and poll numbers, Nate mentioned another standard I’ve been thinking about over the past few days: Do Trump’s legal challenges make him more (or less) fun?

The question is awkward, as it suggests that the reasons some Americans are drawn to politicians are divorced from the seriousness of their office. But after Trump’s arraignment in federal court in Miami this week, I’m reminded of its importance. Nate wasn’t calling Trump fun as a self-evident fact, but rather identifying a set of voters who are attracted to showmanship and celebrity, are distinct from Trump’s base and follow politics only casually, if at all.

These voters matter for Trump’s 2024 campaign. Five percent of Trump’s voters in 2016 were disengaged from politics, a study by Democracy Fund, a pro-democracy group, found, and that is the type of margin that made a difference in such a close contest.

What distinguishes this group? Perhaps you have a friend who doesn’t care about politics, but can’t believe Trump said THAT. Or who recognizes the belittling nicknames he bestowed on Republicans in the 2016 primary, like “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, monikers that have stuck beyond Republican circles.

Such awareness is part of the effect of Trump’s celebrity and ability to command attention in ways no other candidate can. When Trump was at his political peak, that quality extended beyond his most ardent supporters to political outsiders who were attracted to his style — or were at least entertained by it.

Ahead of the 2024 election, though, Trump’s crusade for supporters is failing to live up to his 2016 effort. At both of Trump’s arraignments, the number of people who came to the courthouse to defend him was smaller than expected. I’ve heard from Republican leaders — on Capitol Hill and in early voting states like Iowa — who say they have gotten fewer calls defending Trump than they anticipated. Even his return to CNN, in a widely criticized town hall last month, fell short of the ratings that Trump once delivered for cable networks.

Perhaps most important, Trump himself looks miserable. Even as Republican voters have largely rallied behind him, and even as he remains the front-runner to secure the Republican nomination despite his cascading legal problems, he appears to be wrestling with the reality that his freedom is in jeopardy.

“Some birthday,” he grumbled in Miami this week, ignoring a clear attempt by supporters to cheer him up on the week he turned 77.

According to my colleagues Shane Goldmacher and Maggie Haberman, who have closely followed Trump’s political career, his speech in New Jersey after his arraignment brought down the mood of the party instead of jump-starting it. Trump turned what was meant to be a moment of defiance into a familiar litany of grievances. He invoked the tone of personal victimhood that Republicans have told me cost them votes in the 2022 midterms, when Trump focused on the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

It’s not just that the indictments distract Trump from laying out an affirmative vision for the country. They can also stop him from being the most free version of himself.

In a competitive Republican primary where another candidate can gain traction with the electorate (a possibility that remains to be seen), Trump’s inability to summon his freewheeling style is the type of difficult-to-quantify factor that can keep him from securing votes — and leave opportunities for opponents.

Trump can, of course, return anytime to the unconstrained approach that won him so much attention in 2016 and since. His Republican primary competitors are already dreading the amount of media coverage they will lose this summer to his indictments, my colleagues Jonathan Swan and Jonathan Weisman reported.

Yet these factors are part of the reason that many Democrats feel good about a potential matchup between President Biden and Trump. They argue that the electorate is simply exhausted with the chaos that he brought to national politics and that his legal troubles are a reminder of that aspect of his presidency. What was once fun (for some) no longer is.

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