Washington, DC – Throughout his time in politics, Donald Trump has seemed nearly immune to scandal. From his earliest days as a United States presidential candidate, he survived gaffes that could have been career-ending – from lewd remarks to allegations of racism – ultimately winning the Republican nomination and later the White House.
His leadership over the Republican Party has since survived two impeachments and a failed run for a second term. Even when his supporters attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, prominent Republicans continued to offer him support.
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But this year, Trump, who is running for president again, faced a series of challenges many experts say will be difficult to overcome.
“I think his career is doomed,” Ronald Stockton, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said of the former president. “He’s got a lot of troubles that accompany him everywhere he goes and people don’t like the stress. I think people are going to turn against him.”
Investigations and setbacks
Trump faced several investigations and legal proceedings throughout 2022, including a Congressional inquiry into the January 6 attack.
A committee in the US House of Representatives ultimately recommended criminal charges against Trump, releasing a report in December detailing the former president’s role in the attack.
“The central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump, whom many others followed. None of the events of January 6 would have happened without him,” the report said.
A second Congressional committee won a nearly four-year legal fight to gain access to six years of Trump’s tax returns and plans to release the redacted returns Friday.
Meanwhile, in New York, the former president’s real estate company, the Trump Organization, was convicted of tax fraud in a civil case earlier this month. Separately, the Justice Department is conducting a criminal probe into Trump’s possible mishandling of secret government documents.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and dismissed the investigations as a “witch hunt”.
Beyond his legal woes, Trump has also experienced setbacks to his political leadership. A disappointing Republican performance in November’s midterm elections, for example, represented a significant knock to his “America first” brand of politics.
Trump had successfully boosted loyalists and toppled critics within the Republican Party during the primary season. But candidates he supported, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia, ultimately lost key Congressional races.
The failure of Trump-backed candidates was especially damning when contrasted with the success of Republicans who distanced themselves from the former president. For example, in Georgia – where Walker lost a Senate run-off election – Governor Brian Kemp comfortably won reelection despite falling out with Trump after the 2020 vote.
As polls in the midterm election closed, a Fox News headline captured the disillusionment some Republicans felt with Trump’s leadership. “Trump blasted across media spectrum over Republicans’ midterms performance: ‘Biggest loser tonight’,” the headline read.
Trump launched his campaign for the 2024 presidential race on the heels of the midterms but the announcement failed to spark much enthusiasm outside of his far-right base. The New York Post, a right-leaning tabloid, summed up the news with the quip: “Florida man makes announcement”.
Then, on November 22, the former president suffered a self-inflicted political wound when he hosted a private dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Guests included the white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper Kanye West, known as Ye, who had recently provoked controversy by making anti-Semitic remarks.
The episode sparked criticism from Jewish groups, Democrats and even some Republicans.
The rise of Ron DeSantis
Trump has always counted on the loyalty of his Republican base to see him through trouble. In 2016, he quipped that he could “shoot somebody” in New York City’s busy Fifth Avenue without losing voters.
But six years later, many Republicans are turning to a new leader to steady the ship – namely Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who handily won reelection this year. He is one of several names being floated as a possible Republican challenger for the 2024 presidential race, alongside former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Trump’s ex-Vice President Mike Pence.
If DeSantis were to face Trump in a Republican primary, a Wall Street Journal poll this month showed him with a 14-point lead over the ex-president.
DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally not long ago, was first elected governor of Florida in 2018. His push against pandemic restrictions and championing of conservative policies – including in public education – quickly turned him into a rising star in the Republican Party.
A US Navy veteran and former congressman, DeSantis has also shown a willingness to engage in far-right policies and Trump-like provocations. In October, for instance, he helped orchestrate a flight that transported asylum-seekers to the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, a move Democrats denounced as a “political stunt”.
Trump has repeatedly criticised DeSantis for not ruling out a presidential run in 2024, giving the governor the nickname “DeSanctimonious”. For his part, DeSantis has dismissed former president’s attacks, saying that taking “incoming fire” is part of leadership.
Trump, however, still has many committed allies on Capitol Hill and in right-wing circles. Ohio Senator-elect JD Vance, for example, defended Trump in the wake of the lackluster midterm results.
“Any effort to pin blame on Trump, and not on money and turnout, isn’t just wrong. It distracts from the actual issues we need to solve as a party over the long term,” Vance wrote in the American Conservative last month.
Trump himself has been talking up his achievements and lambasting polls that show him trailing behind DeSantis. “We are a Nation in serious decline, a failing Nation,” he wrote on his Truth Social platform this week.
“Somehow, we will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Can Trump bounce back?
Despite the gloom hanging over Trump, the twice-impeached former president has earned a reputation as a political survivor. So what makes this time different?
Stockton, the political science professor, said Trump has lost his appeal as an outsider.
“He was the newest thing and he excited people compared with all of those boring, but competent, rivals that he had. And so he swept them aside,” Stockton said, describing the 2016 campaign.
“That’s not going to happen again. He’s no longer the new thing. He’s now the old thing.”
But James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based think-tank, said he would not count Trump out.
Zogby explained that the former president uses criticism and investigations he faces to stoke bitterness among his base. The scrutiny allows Trump to portray himself as a victim, persecuted by a wide range of enemies, from Democrats to moderate Republicans.
“He keeps coming back precisely because he’s tapped into a level of resentment among a large swathe of the Republican Party and it’s become almost like a cult,” Zogby told Al Jazeera.
“In that sense, the more attacks against him, the more resentful his supporters are of the very groups that are targeting him – the mainstream media, the government, the Democratic Party, et cetera.”