For many people, Donald Trump’s victory in Iowa this week will seem incomprehensible. Not only did he win — he did so by a margin that no other Republican has achieved since the state became the first to choose its candidates. This is quite a feat from a man facing almost 100 criminal charges, who was also twice impeached — the second time for encouraging his supporters to riot on Capitol Hill.
It now seems inevitable that Americans will be offered the same unappealing choice of leader in November as they had in 2020, but with an even older Joe Biden doing battle with an even more rumbustious Donald Trump. On current polling it looks as if Trump could win.
Trump’s power comes from his ability to provoke: he drives his enemies to loudly denounce him and therefore promote him. It is hard to look past Trump’s outlandish character and conduct, which has often disgraced his country and his office. But his critics fail to make a persuasive case that his presidency was such a disaster for America. Until Covid, which struck in his final year, the American economy had thrived under his leadership. In his first year in office, Trump passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 and median household income hit a record high.
It is astonishing that the United States cannot muster up two better candidates for the White House
Poverty rates for black and Hispanic Americans reached record lows, as did unemployment. Trump may not have built much of his vaunted wall to keep out illegal migrants from Mexico, but he made a better effort to control the US’s borders than either his predecessor or successor did. While his language has frequently been reprehensible, he was one of the first leaders to tap into the new mood against mass migration.
During Covid, Trump made many mad remarks, but in truth his pandemic policy was at odds with the popular image of him as a reckless maniac who was happy to let the virus run riot. Trump deferred to the Constitution and let state governors control lockdown policies.
As commander-in-chief, however, he marshalled America’s medical resources to produce a breakthrough. He launched Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership which resulted in vaccines being developed in only a few months.
Trump’s manner may have upset western leaders, but with hindsight his foreign policy record looks impressive. His administration brokered the historic Abraham Accords, which saw a reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbors that was working well until the Hamas atrocities of last October. Under Trump there were no major new conflicts. The same cannot be said for Biden. From the Taliban to Hamas to Putin, the world’s worst people have become bolder and more active since Trump left office.
This is not to suggest that if the mercurial Trump returns he will be a force for peace and stability. If he withdraws support for Ukraine and cuts a deal with Vladimir Putin that allows Russia to keep its conquests, Trump will have demonstrated to the world that aggression works. NATO would be weakened and a divided Europe with its thread-bare military would be left to deal with the triumphalist Putin.
It is astonishing that the United States — an ingenious country that leads the world scientifically, culturally and economically — cannot muster up two better candidates for the White House than Biden, aged eighty-one, and Trump, seventy-seven. If, by its deranged pursuit of Trump in the courts, the American left had intended to bolster him in order to give Biden a bogeyman opponent, then the policy appears to be working. It will not seem quite so clever, though, if Trump manages to return to the White House in 2025.
When Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, his rise was treated around the world as a political horror show: the triumph of vulgarity over decency; proof of America’s decline; the end of democracy. Yet, in many ways, the establishment’s response to Trump’s victory showed exactly why he had won: because of the refusal to engage with the concerns of his voters.
There had been a blindness to the reality of life for many Americans, and to the fact that so many millions believe the system doesn’t work for them. When incomes rose in every single city of the United States for the first time in decades, as they did pre-Covid, Trump voters took notice. And now they remember.
It is essential to at least attempt to understand why decent people might be voting for Trump and to respond accordingly. Neither his Republican opponents, nor the Democrats, have done so. As a consequence, they face the prospect of his return. This magazine will not be cheering Trump on, but we will not be joining the Greek chorus of obloquy that greets his every move either. Better to watch — whether in fascination or horror — and learn from the mistakes that have led America back here.