Opinion | The What-Ifs of Trump’s New Hampshire Win

Opinion | The What-Ifs of Trump’s New Hampshire Win

You can tell it’s a good profile because the details cut in different analytical directions. If you think that Trump’s victory was always assured because Republican voters exist in a bubble of delusion and unshakable loyalty, you’ll find evidence for that assumption in Johnson’s belief that Jan. 6 was a setup organized by Trump’s enemies and in the familiar script he uses to make a populist case for Trump — that he’ll fight the self-dealing insiders, “go in and lead” and “take care of the average guy.”

But if you’re struck by Johnson’s professed (if temporary) Trump fatigue and his willingness to seriously consider Haley despite his obviously Trumpy politics, then Kruse’s piece suggests a few interesting might-have-beens. For instance:

What if Trump had been indicted only in the classified documents case? The pileup of indictments was clearly an inflection point in the primary campaign, sending Trump surging toward a secure front-running position. In Johnson’s narrative, you get a concise summary of the mentality that helped drive that surge of support: “For a guy like me, I am looking, and I’m saying, ‘Why is everybody so hellbent on getting Trump in jail or getting him not to win?’” His answer is that institutional Washington, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies especially, must be “afraid as hell” of Trump coming back, because he doesn’t tolerate their uselessness or play by their bureaucratic rules. They’re “throwing so much stuff at this guy, and it’s almost like I’m rooting for him,” Johnson tells Kruse. “This is a whole system of government going after one man who, probably, I bet, right now, 85 million people want to be president.”

But then when Kruse goes case by case through the indictments, Johnson has to concede that the classified documents case is genuinely troubling, even as he dismisses the others as either prosecutorial overreach or (in the case of the Stormy Daniels hush-money indictment) just “totally ridiculous.” He still makes excuses for Trump’s conduct with the documents, but listening to him fumble, you get the sense that a world where prosecutors pursued only that case — which is, indeed, the only slam-dunk case, the only indictment that doesn’t involve some creative legal theories — might not have generated the same base-rallying, Trump-against-the-world political effect.

What if Biden’s polling numbers had been better? Kruse notes in passing that an early indicator that Johnson would revert to backing Trump came when they talked about general-election polling and Johnson mentioned watching the news and seeing a poll showing Trump beating Biden handily. (“Trump’s ‘going to win, man,’” Kruse quotes his subject saying.) And you could argue that Biden’s bad polls were almost as important as the indictments to Trump’s resurgence and subsequent resilience. They changed the narrative created by the 2022 midterms, in which Trumpist nuttiness clearly hurt the G.O.P. and helped the Democrats hold the Senate, by making Trump look like a potential winner once again.

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