No matter what happens with Donald Trump, the conventional wisdom will be wrong again

Michael Lindenberger
The Kansas City Star (TNS)

So Trump is in, again.

Anyone surprised? Me? I figured he was in as soon as the federal prosecutors began circling.

We already know being president was good for the Trump bottom line, what with the foreign powers lining up to stay at his hotel rooms, when they could find room amid all the Secret Service agents scrambling to check in — and pay top dollar for every night.

But then again, a lot of folks are already counting him out — and that’s a mistake. Back in 2015, every establishment figure in the GOP dismissed him and his chances, with a few exceptions like hoary ol' Newt Gingrich, who called him a historic, nigh near messianic figure. One by one, Trump destroyed every big-deal politician who challenged him, right down the line until he was the only GOP figure standing at the national convention in 2016. Even Ted Cruz, by then Trump’s favorite whipping boy, had to bow out and eventually kiss the ring.

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on Nov. 15, 2022, in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump announced that he was seeking another term in office and officially launched his 2024 presidential campaign. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

Trump was down again just days before the November election when the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, as Hillary Clinton surged in the polls.

You know the rest of the story: Come January, he was the president of the United States and delivering one of the darkest and most insular inaugural addresses since George Wallace practiced in front of his bathroom mirror.

Trump is an old hand at upsetting conventional wisdom, and that’s something we’re chock full of these past few weeks. A safe bet? Whatever the narrative is currently forming around Trump, Ron DeSantis, and, well, Joe Biden for that matter, it’s wrong. We keep forgetting, but conventional wisdom about politics, especially two years out from an election, is almost always wrong.

There will be another story line in a week, and trust me: Whatever it is, Donald Trump is going to be at the heart of it.

It’s not that Trump is likely to do any better in a general election in 2024 than he did in 2020, should he win his party’s nomination. But counting him out of the nomination, just because the GOP’s bigwigs are stirring in protest after the midterms’ disappointing results is foolish. Trump is likely to upset conventional wisdom as thoroughly this time as he did last time.

Justice won’t stop: As for Tuesday’s announcement, why would anyone be surprised? He’s looking for a way out of jail and we all might as well get ready for the cavalcade of Trump supporters, and the candidate himself, arguing that history and protocol demand that the Justice Department pause its criminal investigation of him and of his businesses.

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The DOJ, the argument will run, should stay out of partisan politics, lest it be accused of tampering.

We should all be ready for that argument — ready, that is, to dismiss it out of hand. Two years out from an election is hardly the standard for the DOJ to stand down. Running for president is not a Get Out of Jail Free card. Nor is there any justification or precedent for Justice to pause its many-sided investigation into whether he is a criminal.

Those inquiries should continue, carefully of course, but continue — wherever the facts lead them. Slowing or stopping the investigation in the face of Trump’s decision to become a candidate would be to allow the subject of this criminal inquiry to control its timing and even whether it continues at all.

That is manifestly unjust, no matter how much Trump and his surrogates make the case that an investigation is now mere politics. Let’s hope Attorney General Merrick Garland sees that for the nonsense it is.

No, the former president will have to face the consequences for his actions before, during and after when he was leader of the free world. Anything less would itself be a crime.

But all this wishful thinking on the part of the Never-Trumpers, eying the civil war brewing in the GOP, is just that: wishful thinking. Trump will remain a factor until his voters give up on him. DeSantis winning in Florida is hardly proof of that.

Shoot, the most vociferous blame so far coming from fired-up GOP leaders hasn’t been aimed at Trump at all. It’s been by hapless Rick Scott and angry Ted Cruz, pointing fingers not at Trump for supporting unelectable candidates, but at Senate majority leaders for daring to state the obvious: That this time around, the GOP talent pool was exceptionally shallow.

Truth is, the mad scramble among GOP leaders in the coming weeks won’t be the show that matters. That’s going to be the decisions ordinary MAGA supporters will be making on their own. Like another authoritarian populist, one who unlike Trump began with powerful idealism only to succumb to the power he grew to wield, Huey Long of Louisiana drew his strength not from the support of fellow Democratic honchos. They mostly despised and feared him. He drew his power from the people under his spell.

Echoes of Huey Long: The great novelist (and even greater poet) Robert Penn Warren spent most of his life distancing his great 1946 novel of American politics — “All the King’s Men” — from what he called the “legendry of Huey Long.” But near the end of his life, in an introduction to the 35th anniversary edition of “ATKM,” he offered some perspective. He never could have written the novel without living through the Long era in Louisiana, he conceded. Living there offered an introduction to American-style fascism just before World War II introduced the world to its more developed cousin, first in Italy — where Warren wrote the first draft of what would become “ATKM” even as the bootheels of Mussolini’s Black Shirts clickety-clacked on the cobblestones outside his apartment in Rome — and then in Nazi Germany.

In 1981, he reflected on a hitchhiker he picked up in the late summer of 1934, as he drove from Tennessee across the piney woods of Mississippi into Louisiana, where he was headed to join the English faculty at Huey’s University, as nearly everyone in those days called LSU.

“He was a ‘wool hat.’ He was a ‘redneck.’ He was ‘poor white trash.’ He was a citizen of Louisiana, and he probably couldn’t write his name,” Warren wrote. “Or barely. He was also a portent and a sage as I was to decide later. … He was what made Huey possible. He was what Huey had been smart enough to see would make him possible. He was what people in offices in the Capitol at Baton Rouge, or in drawing rooms in New Orleans, or in the shade of the live oaks of a plantation garden had never thought about at all.

“He was also my introduction to the legendry of Huey. He told me how Huey would build you a road. How he would build you bridges with no toll. How he was going to fix your teeth free. He told me what Huey had said to a certain ‘son-a-bitch.’ Then he vengefully spat. ‘That Huey,’ he said, ‘he gits ‘em tole, and tole straight.’”

Well no one ever got rich calling Donald Trump a straight shooter, but he sure God tole off the eminences grises of the Republican Party en route to winning the nomination six years ago, and everyone else who American voters had felt looked down on them. He tole em, and tole em straight off.

There are a heck of a lot of Trump supporters who are neither poor, white or lower-class. They include millions of voters of various economic and educational backgrounds who nevertheless feel marginalized, left out or threatened by the fast-changing culture and demographics of this wondrous country. Trust me, Trump will be a factor in the Republican Party until those voters give up on him.

Or until he is sent to prison for just cause. Whichever comes first.

— Michael Lindenberger is vice president and editorial page editor of The Kansas City Star, and a member of its editorial board.