Ukraine Might Be Killing Trump's Re-Election Chances
Historically, being a mouthpiece for America's enemies doesn't play well
Unfortunately, the title of this article has a “might” in it. Ukraine MIGHT be killing Trump's re-election chances – unfortunately, that “might” is as fat1 and as impossible to ignore as the man himself. Of course, Trump’s political obituary has been written many times before, but he always survives. I don’t get it; I don’t understand why people stick by him. Of course, I also don’t understand why every woman in North America is lining up to fuck Pete Davidson, but apparently they are, so I just need to accept that there are things in this world that I don’t understand.
Still, it feels like things might be different this time. The war in Ukraine seems to perfectly highlight some of Trump’s vulnerabilities. It makes me hopeful that Trump will lose the Republican primary and that the country will finally be able to move on.
The war in Ukraine is an incredibly easy moral question. State and non-state actors alike have come down decisively on Ukraine’s side. FIFA has banned Russia from World Cup qualifying. Turkey — not exactly a bastion of freedom and human rights under Erdogan — is selling Ukraine weapons. The fucking TALIBAN denounced the war — how bad have things gotten when the Taliban thinks you’re violent and immoral? It’s a bit like having the Donner Party criticize your vacation planning.
Trump is one of very few to have flubbed his lines. In a speech given the same night as the invasion, Trump laid responsibility for the war at Joe Biden’s feet and called Putin “very smart”. He later called Putin “a genius” and “savvy”. Over the years, I got used to feeling that Trump was dead wrong on certain esoteric issues; I hated his use of tariffs, I thought that ending the Iran deal was a ridiculous self-own, and I considered basically everything he did on climate change to be exactly wrong. But this is the simplest issue I’ve ever seen Trump whiz down his leg. By complimenting Putin instead of forcefully backing Ukraine, Trump has become the guy in Eddie Izzard’s “cake or death?” bit who opted for “death”.
Most Republicans got this one right. Basically every Republican except for those who appeared at last week’s Comic-Con For Racist Virgins Conference is clearly on Ukraine’s side. That includes all likely GOP presidential candidates, and also extreme wildcards like John Cena, Andy Cohen, and AnnaLynne McCord, who – because this is a Republican presidential primary, where chaos reigns – you have to consider as possible nominees. When primary season rolls around, Trump will stick out like a sore, fat thumb.
And, of course, Trump isn’t just out of step; back in 2019 – so, 30 years ago – he was impeached for actions that look much worse in light of recent events. And they looked bad enough the first time around to get him impeached! Surely, one of Trump’s opponents – maybe John Cena? – will remind voters that the thing Trump was withholding in exchange for dirt on Joe Biden was military aid to Ukraine. And it certainly won’t help that the guy Trump was extorting was President Zelensky, whose recent actions have made him the only thing more popular than YouTube videos of animals playing in the snow.
As huge of a liability as Trump’s call with Zelensky is, I don’t actually think it’s his main liability. The Zelensky scandal was too abstract to really resonate; to get the full effect, people had to know about the situation in Ukraine, understand the history of the prosecutor Trump was asking about, and recognize the distinction between a president leveraging for his country and leveraging for himself. There was just too much going on – in screenwriting terms, it was “plotty”. You need to simplify, make it relatable: “He got a BJ in the Oval Office” – now that’s a scandal! The Oval Office is not a place where you’re supposed to get blown! The writers of that scandal knew what they were doing, and they only lost the audience when they got bogged down in an over-complicated perjury plot in the third act. Trump’s history with Zelensky certainly won’t help his campaign, but I honestly think its complexity will keep it from being his biggest liability.
I think Trump’s biggest liability will be continued suspicion about his ties to Russia. People think in terms of probabilities: If we’re told something that might be true or might not, we mentally assign it a probability. In politics – which exist in a Salvador Dali-esque surreal-scape where the line between fantasy and reality has been fractured – this tendency can be exploited for maximum effect. If you say “my opponent is a murderer”, there’s a good chance that people will assume she’s at least an arsonist. In the minds of many voters, Trump’s ties to Russia existed in this unknowable space where things are neither true nor untrue.
Putin’s Russia is now so toxic that if Trump does have improper ties to the regime, the consequences of that reality would be an even more potent poison than they were the first time around. This remains true even if the only thing that’s changed is Putin’s brand being downgraded from “noxious” to “PT Cruiser-esque”. Consider this simple equation that might represent the importance of a possible scandal in voters’ minds:
Republicans have spent the past several months acting as if the right side of that equation has been reduced to zero. And, of course, it’s true that the Steele Dossier does not look very credible, and also that some on the left spent the last few years about as obsessed with Russia as my five year-old nephew is with dinosaurs. But it’s also true that facets of Trump’s possible connections to Russia remain unknown. We never did find out why Paul Manafort left a job working for a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine to work for Trump for free, nor do we know why he gave campaign polling data to a Russian spy. Much of the Trump organization remains opaque, which leaves the door open for good, old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes avenues for extortion like money laundering and off-the-books financing. Trump’s backers are right that many suspicions about Trump’s ties to Russia were never proved, but they were never disproved, either.
The ”no smoke, no fire” crowd certainly haven’t been helped by the fact that several members of Trump’s inner circle are currently some of Russia’s loudest defenders. Steve Bannon noted that Putin is on his side of the woke/anti-woke war, which is apparently the only war that Bannon thinks matters. Long-time Trump phone-a-friend Tucker Carlson has engaged in deflection so cringeworthy that it seems to have embarrassed even Fox News. Michael Flynn issued a statement so favorable to Russia that even the very obvious fact that his brain no longer works might not completely explain it. The public mostly lost interest in Trump’s ties to Russia over the past year, but recent events have made them very interesting again.
Republican voters might wonder if it’s not too much to ask for a nominee without all that baggage. It seems like a fair question: Is it really too ambitious to want a candidate who doesn’t have a long record of saying nice things about a man who could accurately be described as America’s nemesis? And who didn’t advocate that man’s point of view at a NATO summit and in the Republican platform? And who didn’t also – by the way – get impeached twice, lose an election, and end America’s 224-year tradition of peacefully transferring presidential power? Isn’t there anybody else? I mean, really: Is Ted Cruz that fucking bad? And the answer to that question may be “yes”, but even primary voters who are willing to laugh off Trump’s coquettish flirtation with the most hated man on Earth might worry that general election voters might not be so kind.
And finally, there’s this: Trump’s poll numbers were way down before Russia invaded Ukraine. An Economist/YouGov poll from early February put Trump’s favorable/unfavorable rating a 40/55, with 45 percent in the “very unfavorable” camp. A Marquette poll taken in January found that Trump would lose a hypothetical rematch with Biden by ten points. Trump’s numbers are significantly down with conservative-leaning groups including self-identified Republicans, voters over 65, and white males without a college degree. Republican officials seem to believe that defying Trump is no longer the political death sentence that it used to be; former GOP consultant Mac Stipanovich says that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis “did everything but moon him, and he's going to get away with it." And as much as I wish Stipanovich would have used a metaphor that didn’t force me to picture Ron DeSantis’ naked ass, his point is taken.
In December, I wrote a piece trying to calculate the odds of a stolen election in 2024. One of the fattest, most powerful variables in that equation was Trump; if Trump doesn’t win the Republican nomination, then the probability plummets to almost zero.
The device I made up to illustrate the threat is something I call the Stolen Election Austin Powers Steamroller. The idea is that the possibility of a stolen election is a slow-rolling threat that we all see coming; the Steamroller is a lot like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock”, except lighthearted and potentially infringing on copyright. The distance between the steamroller and a stolen election is calculated using an equation that previously put the odds of Trump winning the GOP nomination at 70 percent. In light of recent events, I’m lowering it to 25 percent. So, the steamroller – which had previously been 93.7 feet away – is now here:
Of all the columns I’ve written that will one day be thrown back in my face, this one might hurt the most upon impact. Staying in the Austin Powers universe: Saying that “Trump’s done” feels a lot like placing him on the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism and then leaving the room and assuming that everything went to plan. But I try to call things as I see them, and I think that Putin’s attempt to crush Ukrainian democracy might inadvertently help safeguard ours. I think my “it’s different this time” is actually different this time. Ukraine might end up being the final nail in Trump’s fat, fat political coffin.
As I have mentioned before, I am very against fat shaming, and body shaming, generally. But Trump is a world historic body shamer — nobody violates this principle as frequently or with as much gusto as Trump. So, because he completely ignores this principle, I have decided that I am not bound by it IN REFERENCE TO TRUMP ONLY, and, therefore, I frequently mention out the obvious fact that Trump is a fat, fat man.