Trump’s Resurgence Draws Parallels to Reagan’s 1980 Upset Victory

The 2024 presidential election is still more than 10 months away, but already there is a lot of déjà vu all over again about the festivity.

The smart money—which does not, I hasten to add, mean that it will turn out to be the most accurate money—has been telling us for months that wily Democrats have engineered Trump’s nomination because, clever chaps that they are, they know he cannot possibly win the election.

The main reason adduced is that Trump is not sufficiently popular to win.  How do said pundits know this?  Some point to the polls, though the polls have not been cooperating on that front of late. Trump is ahead in all or nearly all the swing states, and more and more polls put him ahead of Biden in the general election.  Some adduce Trump’s “character,” his behavior after the 2020 election, and the cornucopia of indictments he faces in four separate jurisdictions.  Back in December, Byron York summed up the state of play with this headline: “As Trump lead widens, prosecutors step up pursuit.”

What do you suppose most people think of that? What, I mean, do they think of a situation in which one political candidate is targeted by the opposing political party—which party, it may almost go without saying, totally controls the coercive instruments of state power?  I believe most people don’t like it.  They don’t like it because it reeks of basic unfairness and totalitarian overreach.

But that’s where we are now.  Who knows, perhaps Jack Smith, Fani Willis, or Letitia James will finally nab Trump on one charge or another.  After all, the net designed to capture the former president has been spread far and wide. But I would not be so sure.  Everywhere one looks, the cases against him have come more and more to resemble the House of Usher. Fani Willis put her boyfriend on the payroll and ordered him to get Trump. Unfortunately, that secret intimacy is making headlines everywhere. The news threatens to collapse the case against Trump in Georgia.

Prosecutors in New York and Washington can rely on biased judges and juries. But I suspect that even if Trump is convicted of something in one or both places, he will win on appeal. The cases against him long ago took on the slightly comical aspect of a vendetta.

I do wonder who is advising Biden and the Democrats. Biden’s speech in Valley Forge a week or so ago showed that he was doubling down on his Trump-is-an-incipient-dictator motif. But is anyone buying it?  Back in 2022, when Biden went in for the Leni-Riefenstahlich, neo-totalitarian stage set, the reaction was a mixture of alarm and bemusement.  What was this old duffer up to? But the reaction to the Valley Forge speech oscillated between ridicule and contempt. He said a lot of ridiculous things, which, taken at face value, sound pretty upsetting.  But no one took them at face value.  The man had clearly lost a few marbles, and his imprecations against Donald Trump and his “ultra MAGA” Hitleresque followers seemed as sad as they did minatory.

For his part, Trump seems to be pushing two themes.  One is that the hour is late, and if we want to Make America Great Again, this might very well be our last chance.  As people absorb what is happening where our southern border used to be, what is happening with inflation and the economy, and what is happening abroad in Ukraine, GazaIran, the Red Sea, and between Taiwan and China—when they absorb those calamities, they tend to get scared and then mad.

Trump’s second gambit is to call attention to Biden’s alarming incapacity. His latest clip, advertising White House Senior Living, is brutal but inarguable.

Let’s acknowledge once again that, as the English Prime Minister Harold Wilson once observed, a week is a long time in politics. The world is in a yeasty state at the moment. Who knows what will happen with the millions of illegal, mostly hostile, migrants that Biden has let into the country? Who knows what will happen in the Middle East, in Ukraine/Russia, or in Taiwan? With Iran and the Houthis? Maybe Joe Biden will be forced to bow out. He is probably one public fall away from an encounter with the 25th Amendment.  And Trump himself, though apparently robust, is hardly a spring chicken. Could he not also be incapacitated, if not by infirmity, then by the machinations of the battalions of prosecutors baying for his blood?

The answer is “of course” to any one of these contingencies.  But if we are asking about probabilities, not mere possibilities, then I would say Trump is looking more potent now than any candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

I am happy to note that Douglas Schoen, former adviser to Bill Clinton, is thinking along the same lines.

“In many ways,” Schoen noted, “the upcoming presidential election may mirror the 1980 election, when Jimmy Carter suffered a landslide defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan.”

It’s hard to remember the texture of sentiment back in 1979 and 1980. Today, Ronald Reagan is nearly universally admired.  He won the Cold War without firing a shot.  He jump-started an economic miracle that led to the greatest accumulation of wealth in history. It was “morning in America.”

But during his campaign, he was roundly excoriated as a dunderhead, a mere actor who would involve the country in war, whose Neanderthal views would set back progressive causes by decades, and whose economic illiteracy would bankrupt the country.  It’s hard to recapture the contempt with which Reagan was excoriated by the best and the brightest, but it was just as visceral and widespread as the animus against Trump in 2016 and today.

And it is just this, as Schoen points out, that should worry Democrats.  “What should alarm Democrats is that Carter, like President Biden now, was extremely unpopular, while Reagan, like Donald Trump, was considered almost unelectable.” Indeed, remember what the issues were.  Back then, “inflation was a thorn in Carter’s side, much as it has dogged Biden since the first year of his term. Not for nothing, 2022’s inflationary surge hit the highest levels since … Jimmy Carter was in office.”

Schoen ticks off other similarities: in foreign policy, with Iran and the hostage crisis, and America’s standing in the world. “[I]t is becoming nearly impossible,” Schoen observes, “to argue that the world has been safer, or less chaotic, under Biden than under Trump.” Will Trump manage to capture blue states like New York and Vermont? Will his appeal be as nearly universal as Reagan’s? It seems unlikely at this point, but who knows? I think Schoen is right that the bottom line is this: “The American image of weakness, along with the polarization and division at home and the persistence of inflation, even at a reduced level, makes the 2024 election look eerily similar to what we faced in 1980.”

The pollster (and former advisor to Newt Gingrich), Frank Luntz makes a cognate point.  Asked whom he would bet on to win in November, Luntz said this: “I never dreamed that I would say this, but I would bet on Trump.”

I thought it was done. I thought it was over. You don’t come back from an impeachment. You don’t come back from January 6, you don’t come back from any of this.

But he has come back. The guy’s a survivor and his opponent is having so much trouble that I would at this point [give], the edge to Trump.

As I say, a lot of things can happen between now and November 5, 2024 (to say nothing of January 20, 2025).  But Douglas Schoen and Frank Luntz seem to have their finger on the pulse of public sentiment now, in January.

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