Washington, DC – “Florida man makes announcement.”
That’s how the New York Post, a right-wing tabloid, described the launch of Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign last year: with the headline equivalent of a shrug.
It was a low point for Trump. Disappointing results for his handpicked candidates in the midterm elections had bruised his reputation as a Republican kingmaker, and conservative commentators like Ann Coulter had turned their backs on him.
For a moment, it appeared as if Trump had finally lost his momentum — that his immunity to scandal and setbacks had worn off. His third campaign for the White House debuted to little fanfare.
But now, Trump is leading the race for the Republican nomination by proverbial miles, with public opinion polls showing him dozens of percentage points ahead of his closest rivals. More worryingly for Democrats, surveys also suggest President Joe Biden is trailing him in a potential match-up in the general elections.
And that comes in spite of Trump’s legal troubles. This year, Trump became the first former United States president to be charged with a crime. But four indictments later, his campaign is still going strong.
The bottom line: Last year’s reports of Trump’s political demise may have been greatly exaggerated. “Teflon Don” is back.
So how did Trump bounce back from the problems he endured in 2022? Why haven’t his legal woes derailed his presidential campaign? And can his opponents stop his march back to the White House?
The short answer: The former president’s personality and agenda remain popular with many Americans. While voters rejected many Trump-like candidates in the midterms, it was not necessarily a rebuke of the man himself. The criminal charges he faces also boosted the conservative perception that Trump is a victim of a “corrupt” system. It is too early to tell whether Trump will maintain his momentum, but the lack of a strong Republican alternative and Biden’s dwindling popularity are playing into his hands.
Trump appeared to be at a crossroads after the 2022 midterm elections. An anticipated “red wave” of Republican victories failed to materialise, with many Trump proteges floundering.
Trump had previously played a decisive role in electoral contests across the country. He helped allies win Republican primaries and pushed out critics in the party.
So when the Democrats managed to keep control of the Senate and Republicans won a smaller-than-expected majority in the House of Representatives, Trump became the face of his party’s lacklustre performance.
But Rina Shah, a political strategist and commentator, said many Republican candidates who were backed by the former president last year tried to emulate him without having his qualities.
“Trump has what appears to be just the right mix of strength, vigour, charisma — that approachability yet unapproachability,” Shah told Al Jazeera.
For the popularity of Trumpism to be judged accurately, she added, Trump himself needs to be on the ballot.
Shah explained that many voters perceive Trump to be a success story: A self-described billionaire who swept into office over more experienced political candidates. He has convinced his supporters that he alone can fix politics in Washington, DC.
Trump seized on some Americans’ dissatisfaction with the political system by framing himself as a political outsider. He recently said he would be a “dictator” — but only on his first day in office, so that he could close the border and drill for more oil.
Critics have blasted his statements as indicative of an authoritarian streak. But his strongman bluster and propensity for raging against the establishment have proven to be an appealing combination, both in the US and abroad.
Trump employed that approach in 2016 when he defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for the presidency. And in the years since, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Javier Milei in Argentina have used similar strategies, even embracing comparisons to Trump.
“DC remains broken, and for that reason, Trump can continue to bang the same drum,” Shah said.
“His talking points are not fresh. It’s the same stuff he’s been saying for years. It’s even more fascist-sounding. It’s even more dictatorial-sounding. But it still seems to apply to those who are aggrieved with the system.”
By the end of 2022, however, he appeared to have lost some of his vigour, said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.
“He didn’t seem to have anything new to say. He looked like he was going through the motions,” Olsen told Al Jazeera. But that changed in 2023. “By the middle of the spring, he had rediscovered his energy.”
It was a return to form for Trump. He kicked off his campaign tour in March with a major rally in Waco, Texas, delivering a speech that drew on fears of a corrupt “deep state” and US cultural decline.
The US, he warned, had shrivelled into a “third-world banana republic”, and only he could fix the mess.
Trump once again looked like the answer for those seeking a “dramatic change”, Olsen said.
Olsen also pointed out that, by that point, Trump had rivals on the campaign trail to bash. Former United Nations envoy Nikki Haley had announced her campaign in February, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was poised to launch his bid. Those rivalries gave fuel and focus to Trump’s ire.
“I think he got [his energy] back because he was under attack on the left and from the right — because there’s nothing he likes better than a good fight,” he said. “And to back down in the face of a fight is something he finds shameful.”
And then came the legal drama.
In March, Trump was criminally charged in a New York state case over allegations that he illegally paid off an adult film actress in 2016, ahead of the elections. Less than three months later, he was charged in a federal case over accusations that he had retained secret government documents.
In August, he would face two more sets of changes — one at the federal level and one in Georgia — over his efforts to overturn the 2020 elections.
With each indictment, Trump’s star rose higher with Republican voters. So much so that Republican Congressman Thomas Massie jokingly suggested that DeSantis should also get himself charged to keep up with the former president.
“We got to find some judge in Florida that’ll indict DeSantis quick, to close this indictment gap,” Massie was quoted as saying by the Miami Herald in July. “It’s a truism that anytime someone is being persecuted, their camp rallies to their defence.”
The charges, however, are serious: They could theoretically put Trump behind bars for years. Prosecutors have said they are confident the evidence they gathered is sufficient to convict him.
But as the stack of charges grew higher, the former president’s supporters interpreted the indictments as proof that a corrupt legal system was out to get him.
Olsen said that while some of Trump’s fans may have considered voting for someone else, “the indictments made them rally around him”.
The state charges in New York and Georgia were brought by elected Democratic prosecutors, and the federal indictments were put forward by special counsel Jack Smith, who was selected by Attorney General Merrick Garland, himself a Biden appointee.
Trump has denied accusations of wrongdoing in all cases, painting them as a Democratic-led witch hunt.
Most recently, Colorado’s top court barred Trump from being on the ballot in the state during the presidential election next year. Trump is expected to appeal before the US Supreme Court.
The Republican competition
Trump’s court cases have prompted many of his Republican rivals to leap to his defence. In March, DeSantis called the New York indictment “un-American” and promised that Florida would not aid in the ex-president’s extradition.
Long seen as the man to take on Trump in the Republican primaries, DeSantis has struggled to equal the former president’s rallying power. Instead, the Florida governor has faced questions about his likability.
There were also vulnerabilities in DeSantis’s campaign that helped Trump emerge as the runaway frontrunner in the Republican race.
A much-anticipated campaign launch on Twitter (now X) in May was marred by technical difficulties. The Florida governor’s focus on “culture war” issues failed to meaningfully expand his base. And his calls for changes to popular social safety net programmes opened him up to criticism from Trump and others.
“The joke is that there are two kinds of people in Florida: Those who think DeSantis is a great leader and those who know DeSantis,” said Ronald Stockton, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Stockton added that the weakness of the Republican opposition helped revive Trump’s campaign, as more and more figures in the party started seeing him as the winning horse.
Haley, the former UN envoy, is also pushing to be a serious Republican alternative to Trump, but current polls suggest it is unlikely she will catch up to the former president.
What about Biden?
Trump is not only polling well against his Republican opponents but also against his Democratic rival, Biden. Several recent polls show him edging out Biden in key swing states like Michigan, Nevada and Georgia.
Stockton, Olsen and Shah all said Trump’s strong numbers against Biden are due to voters seeing the incumbent president as old and weak.
“It’s really entirely about Joe Biden’s vulnerability in terms of age, just not looking physically as strong as Trump,” Shah said.
Biden, 81, is older than Trump by less than four years, but to many, he shows his age more than the former president.
“Trump looks like a man who is really ready for a four-year presidency,” Stockton said. “And Biden doesn’t. He just looks weak and he looks ineffective. He is not but he looks that way. And so, that’s a real factor.”
There is also policy. While some indicators point to a healthy economy, many Americans are still reeling from inflation. The influx of arrivals at the southern US border — including more than 2 million migrants last year — has also been a weak spot for Biden.
Republican officials have been transporting migrants northward towards Democratic-controlled cities and states, putting a strain on the social services systems in these places.
Biden has been trying to curb unauthorised migration, angering many of his fellow Democrats, particularly progressives. But he still cannot match Trump’s harsh rhetoric on the issue.
“Trump is seen as very good on the economy. He’s seen as very good on immigration. And he’s seen as non-interventionist internationally,” Stockton said.