Column: Why I failed to write less about Trump in 2023

My New Year’s resolution 12 months ago was to write fewer columns about Donald Trump. That well-intended goal met the same end as most New Year’s resolutions; I soon fell off the wagon and wrote more columns about Trump in 2023 than I had the prior year.

Like it or not, the former president is the dominant political figure of our time.

He has remade the Republican Party in his image and is almost certain to win its presidential nomination even if he’s convicted in any of the four criminal prosecutions he’s fighting.

He stands an even chance of winning a second term in the White House, a victory that would allow him to put his stamp on American government until 2029.

And he’s promising big things. He says that if he’s elected, he’ll prosecute his opponents (“I say, go down and indict them”), send the National Guard into crime-ridden cities such as Chicago (“worse than Afghanistan”), and bar U.S. entry to people “who don’t like our religion.”

In his first term, Trump battered the guardrails of our political system but didn’t succeed in destroying them. If he wins a second term, he’ll likely be more effective, free of restraining influences in his Cabinet and surrounded by true believers who yearn to turn his promises into law.

This year-end column is my annual exercise in humility — a report on what I got wrong this year and what I got right.

That’s why it begins with a confession: I was wrong when I thought Trump’s legal troubles — and other Republicans — would get in the way of his march to the GOP nomination.

I was wrong when I talked up the prospects of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom I described as the most potent challenger to Trump and “the rising star of the conservative firmament.”

“To many GOP donors and voters, he [looks] like a potential fusion candidate — militant enough to appeal to Trump fans, but conventional enough for Republicans tired of the former president’s chaotic style,” I wrote. As Republican pollster Whit Ayres said: “He’s Trump without the craziness.”

But once voters got a look at DeSantis, he turned out to just be a less charismatic version of Trump.

Still, I persisted in the forlorn hope that the GOP race might turn into a free-for-all.

“This race may be more open than it looks,” I ventured in April.

Wrong again!

Readers often wonder whether reporters are biased. We are in at least one respect: In election years, we root for drama, not orderly coronations.

I stumbled when I wrote about President Biden, too.

In July, I wrote that Biden was betting that the economy would soon turn up and that voters would give him credit. The president and I were both premature about the economy’s upturn — and so far, we’re wrong about the voters.

I did get a few things right. In May, I predicted that a Biden-Trump rematch would “mostly be about which candidate you dislike more,” and that the state of the economy would likely determine the outcome. It didn’t take a genius to figure that out.

The journalism lesson here is an old one: Punditry is often unreliable, especially in primary campaigns.

The glorious thing about primaries is how unpredictable they can be. Well-bankrolled favorites often crumble once the campaign begins. Just ask former GOP hopefuls Phil Gramm (1996), Rudolph W. Giuliani (2008) and Jeb Bush (2016).

There’s also a more important lesson we should carry into 2024.

As Jay Rosen, a journalism scholar at New York University, has been saying, the most important question in this campaign is “not the odds, but the stakes” — “not who has what chances of winning, but the consequences for American democracy.”

That doesn’t mean ignoring the horse race; readers still want to know who’s ahead and why. It means putting the substantive questions first: What would these candidates do in the White House?

A contest between Biden and Trump isn’t a conventional race between a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican. It’s a choice between an 81-year-old institutionalist and a 77-year-old norm-breaker who says he’d like to suspend the Constitution and rule as an autocrat.

Making the stakes clear requires taking Trump’s hair-raising promises seriously. It also requires pressing Biden on what he would do in a second term — a question he has largely ducked, content to run simply as the anti-Trump.

So there’s my resolution for 2024: to make sure every reader has the clearest view possible of the choice this fall — not only the odds, but the stakes.

And yes, that will mean reading more Trump stories written by me — even more than in 2023.

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