When was the last time you listened to Donald Trump speak at length? There’s a qualitative way to think about this question, about the substance of what he’s saying: He is still talking — perhaps more than people realize — about how the last election was stolen from him, and he treats the 2020 election as a Year Zero event that has ruined the world.
But there’s a second — quantitative — way of looking at this question.
In 2015 and 2016, as he was becoming the Republican nominee the first time, Mr. Trump quickly transformed into an all-encompassing, central figure, in an evolving, building story that started like a dark joke that Mr. Trump was in on, then swooned into a reality. Around this time eight years ago, terrorist mass shootings took place in Paris and California as the race for the Republican nomination became increasingly dark. It seemed to click into place then that Mr. Trump’s fluid plans, reactionary ideas, jokes and lies could coexist with and shape grave events. The combined effect of all this was to concentrate the country’s attention like a supernova; reaction to Mr. Trump became a constant feature of politics and also people’s personal lives.
But the path toward his likely renomination feels relatively muted, as if the country were wandering through a mist, only to find ourselves back where we started, except older and wearier, and the candidates the same. “The street still hopes for somebody else,” one Trump-critical donor recently said of Wall Street donors, a kind of dreamy summary of where things stand. Sarah Longwell, who’s overseen regular focus groups, noted on her podcast this fall that many voters seem not to have clocked that Mr. Trump and President Biden are likely to be the nominees. “People are constantly telling me, ‘But couldn’t this happen? But couldn’t this happen?’” If Mr. Trump were to win the first two contests by large enough margins, the general election could essentially begin as early as next month.
Why does the volume around Mr. Trump feel different? For one thing, he has opted out of two old ways he achieved omnipresence, no longer tweeting and no longer appearing at Republican debates. Eight years in, there is also a lack of suspense about whether Mr. Trump could become the Republican nominee or the president.
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