OPINION - Donald Trump is looking like an insurgent again, as Biden's poll ratings stall


The last time Donald Trump won the presidency was in 2016, in unnervingly similar circumstances to 2024. He was an insurgent candidate then, who was regarded by voters as a celebrity entertainer and property mogul, not a politician. The scenes inside a Manhattan courtroom, with exotic appearances by Stormy Daniels, the porn star who allegedly received $130,000 in covert hush money from Trump, and fixer Michael Cohen, the “rat” who flipped on his boss, could not have been better designed to recapture that upstart, outsider energy.

The glee felt by Trump’s opponents at the prospect of the former president finally being held to account for his alleged crimes is misplaced. The non-stop attention paid to the case is undercutting Joe Biden’s chief charge that Trump is an existential threat to American democracy and can never again be trusted with the keys to the White House. He doesn’t look very dangerous, stuck in court for days on end.

Trump is the candidate entangled in four criminal cases, while Biden is a free agent, adding grist to the argument that Trump is the victim of a political witch hunt aimed at preventing the US public from voting for the president they want. A criminal conviction may not do much to shift this perception. Republicans have convinced themselves that Trump is the true defender of the people’s choice, notwithstanding the former’s attempts to overturn the results of the last election — and reluctance to uphold the result of the next one, if it goes against him.

Last weekend 80,000 people flocked to a Jersey shore to hear Trump, one of his biggest ever crowds

Cohen, formerly Trump’s personal lawyer, has been doing an effective job in court of linking the trail of payments to him marked “legal expenses” to alleged reimbursements from Trump for his efforts to buy Daniels’s silence and influence the outcome of the 2016 election. This is the nub of the case. Although the defence has aggressively portrayed Cohen as a serial liar, he has testified to being “knee-deep into the cult of Donald Trump” at the time and described himself as willing to do “anything” for his boss, including lie on his behalf.

In Cohen’s telling, Trump appeared — not for the first time — to be more mafia don than presidential material. Cohen said he came under intense pressure not to “flip” or “cooperate” with the FBI, until the scales fell from his eyes. “To keep the loyalty and to do the things that he had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass, and I suffered the penalty, as has my family,” Cohen said.

He was sentenced to jail in 2018 for three years for the hush money payments, among other charges, and never received a White House pardon, unlike other Trump associates.

Going against Trump attracts consequences. It was shocking to hear yesterday that Daniels has been wearing a bullet-proof vest to and from the courthouse, because she feels so scared of retribution from a Trump-supporting nutcase. But oh, the drama, in contrast to the stiff, waxen image presented by Biden. The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial has been entertaining. Is this why the president’s polling numbers have stalled, after slowly rising earlier this year?

A New York Times/Siena poll last weekend sent a shudder through Democrats after showing Biden losing to Trump in five battleground states: Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania. The two rivals were tied among young voters and Hispanics, a huge change from 2020 when Biden won 60 per cent of their support. “Even many of those who dislike Mr Trump grudgingly acknowledge that he would shake up an unsatisfying status quo,” the polling analyst Nate Cohen reported.

In the course of the trial, we’ve learned some fun facts, such as Trump has the American football hero, Tom Brady, on speed dial, along with Ari Emmanuel, one of the most powerful Hollywood agents, and Britain’s own Mark Burnett, the whizz producer of The Apprentice, who did more than anybody to bolster his image. The sleazier side of the trial, involving allegedly sleeping with Playboy model Karen McDougal and Daniels, both “beautiful” women, as Trump reportedly told Cohen, has only added to his allure for some supporters.

Superfans have been criss-crossing the US and queuing at dawn to get the best seats at Trump rallies. Last weekend, 80,000 people flocked to the Jersey shore to hear him, one of his biggest-ever crowds. And why not? He was offering them a free celebrity show. Even a night at the local fleapit is more expensive. At the beachside, Trump went into a riff about America’s most famous cannibal, while talking about immigration. “Has anyone ever seen The Silence of the Lambs?” he asked. “The late, great Hannibal Lecter. He’s a wonderful man.” Forget feeling outraged — Trump is a seasoned comic performer.

The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial has been entertaining. Is this why Biden’s polling numbers have stalled, after slowly rising earlier this year?

Trump has also succeeded in converting the rest of the Republican party into stage props. He arrived in court yesterday with a Hollywood-style entourage, composed of various stooges who hope to star in his presidential sequel, Make America Great Again II. There was Ohio senator JD Vance, North Dakota governor Doug Burgum and former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, all in lookalike dark suits and red ties, lining up like contestants in one of Trump’s Miss Universe pageants, hoping to be picked as his 2024 running mate.

The trial will be over soon, perhaps more quickly than anticipated. The verdict, for Democrats, can’t come fast enough. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll, published yesterday, suggests that voters are now convinced that Trump did “falsify records to pay off a porn star” by 52 per cent to 22 per cent. But the same poll still showed Biden and Trump neck-and-neck on 45 per cent. It hasn’t put them off voting for him. Not yet, at any rate.

Sarah Baxter is director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting