The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2024 election isn’t about normal things. It’s about Trump.

Rather than policy debates, the GOP primaries and the general election could focus on the ex-president’s fitness for office

Donald Trump during a live town hall moderated by Kaitlan Collins that ran on CNN on Thursday. (Courtesy of CNN)
7 min

Donald Trump’s televised town hall on CNN framed an important question for voters: What will, or should, the 2024 presidential election be about? Will it be about the normal issues and concerns of most elections — topical issues such as the economy, immigration, abortion? Or should it primarily be about the existential threats posed by the reckless former president?

Voters will make their own calculations about what’s important as they weigh their choices. But after the performance Trump put on during the CNN town hall on Wednesday, there is no escaping that he has an agenda that is anything but normal. This includes pardoning those convicted during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol; reveling in attacks and mocking victims of sexual abuse; and promoting an anti-democratic view of the office of the presidency. There is no turning a blind eye to what this would mean if he were reelected.

The former president might not become the Republican Party’s nominee. He lost the last election and hurt the party in 2022. A jury this week held him liable for sexual abuse and ordered him to pay writer E. Jean Carroll $5 million in damages. Earlier, he was indicted on criminal charges over falsifying business records as part of a hush money scheme to silence an adult film actress. Pending are three other investigations that could result in additional indictments, all more serious than the hush money case in New York.

By the time the primaries take shape early next year, Republican voters could have genuine reservations about his electability in a general election. He could face a competitive contest for the Republican nomination, but only if one of his challengers is able to meet the moment and consolidate anti-Trump support among GOP primary voters. At this point, he remains the party’s dominant figure and its most likely nominee.

Trump’s CNN town hall: Defending rioters, mocking sexual assault, threatening default

President Biden has no serious opposition for the Democratic Party nomination. He has weaknesses — low approval, questions about his age in particular, criticisms of his record — but those are all issues up for consideration during the general election. That means America could be heading for a rerun of the 2020 election, with the two nominees having traded places as incumbent and challenger.

A Biden-Trump contest is one that many — maybe most — Americans are unenthusiastic about. Maybe it will never materialize. If it does, however, a rematch between these two politicians would be an election with clear choices and enormous consequences for the future of the country that go beyond normal considerations of presidential elections.

In many ways, the election next year will look and feel like all elections: the return of in-person national conventions; boisterous campaign rallies; saturation advertising especially in the battleground states (more negative than positive by far); heavy efforts to mobilize the parties’ bases with a modicum of outreach to the small percentage of genuine swing voters. Put aside the elephant in the room and it’s just like elections always were.

The 2024 election will be about some traditional issues. The state of the economy will weigh on voters as they assess their own futures and the candidates. Biden has put forward a freedom agenda, looking to cast Republicans as extremists for what they are doing in the states and nationally with respect to abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and the like, and pledging to protect those rights. Trump, if he is the GOP nominee, will hammer Biden on the border and immigration, on crime in cities, on the economy, though Biden will return fire on that.

The two would outline drastically different policy agendas that would move the country in opposite directions. The policy debate will be familiar and not unimportant, but it will not be the most important element of the election.

Fact checker: Trump fills his CNN town hall with a fire hose of old and new false claims

Trump’s town hall on CNN was a bright spotlight reminding everyone that this is a different era politically. He is anything but a traditional candidate, and, therefore, the stakes in these elections have been and will be unlike those that voters have had to confront. Both in office and out of office, Trump has changed the debate — by elevating its significance while debasing the terms.

His core supporters remain loyal. That was clear from the reaction of the largely Republican audience in New Hampshire during his town hall. They laughed and applauded as he bulldozed his way through. This is what his Republican challengers will have to overcome during the primaries, a Trump skilled in the repudiation of any who oppose him.

Some Trump supporters will say they have qualms about him. “Oh, his tweets,” was the standard way of expressing those qualms when he was in office. It was an easy way to suggest reservations about him even when they were bought into his agenda and quite willing to vote for him.

For some Republicans, opposition to the Democrats’ priorities has been enough for them to stick with Trump. No doubt that is still the case. But it was perhaps easier for them to compartmentalize policy choices on the one hand vs. Trump’s anti-democratic instincts that have been on display since after the 2020 election. It’s not that Trump has changed; it’s that he takes every opportunity to reiterate those anti-democratic instincts, making the threats he represents more difficult for anyone to ignore.

His statements at the town hall were replete with false claims. He lied when he said the election was stolen. He still claims that those supporters who stormed the Capitol are patriots and good people. He still will not commit to accepting the outcome of the 2024 election. As he puts it, he will accept the outcome if he thinks it is fair. And he has made clear that he intends to attack the institutions of the federal government if he is reelected to the presidency.

Most Americans know where they stand on Trump and have for years. Close to a majority simply oppose him outright, and they have turned out in big numbers in three consecutive elections: 2018, 2020 and 2022. A portion of the electorate, the hardcore loyalists, will follow him wherever he takes them. Another portion — many of whom identify with the Republican Party but dislike his conduct — may still be torn.

Republican voters will render the initial judgments, both in their perceptions of Trump vs. his rivals but as well as in how much they perceive him as outside the mainstream of American politics. Some of his rivals may attack directly. Others are likely to tiptoe around the big question about his fitness for office and the dangers another term in the White House would represent.

If he becomes the nominee, a broader electorate will judge him, and he said a number of things during the town hall that could hurt him, among them claiming credit for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The instincts of many people will be to approach 2024 as something familiar and with choices comparable to those of the past. But Trump’s candidacy presents a unique challenge to the electorate, to elected officials, to strategists and operatives, to the media.

He is who he was. If there was any doubt about that, his performance on CNN erased it. That is the frame of the 2024 election.