Mark Z. Barabak: Scandal after scandal, Trump has defied political physics. Will this time be different?

From the commentary:

Former President Donald Trump speaks at an election campaign event on Jan. 28, 2023, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at an election campaign event on Jan. 28, 2023, in Columbia, South Carolina.
(Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

From the moment he blustered his way onto the political stage, Donald Trump defied expectations.

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He won the White House despite lacking any government or military experience, a first in the nation's history. As a candidate and then as president, Trump drew supporters ever closer with his brash, impulsive and decidedly unpresidential behavior — not in spite of it.

When he was denied a second term, Trump failed to recede from politics, as his predecessors have. And now he's again broken ground — breaking things being a singular capability — as he faces the very real prospect of being the first ex-president ever criminally indicted.

For those reasons, it's foolhardy to predict the impact of Trump's legal tangle with Manhattan's prosecutor, the first of many potential prosecutions facing Trump. He remains, for the moment, the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination and, if so anointed, stands at least a decent chance of reclaiming the White House in 2024.

There is a strong case to be made, however, that things have changed — that Trump's ability to defy political physics may have ended and his scot-free days are behind him.


In 2016, a Trump presidency was notional. He was perceived as an outsider, which many found compelling — a fist raised against Washington and a loud, uncouth voice speaking for the angry and aggrieved who felt they'd gone too long unheard and unheeded by the ruling class. Some reveled in his bombast and the way Trump blithely bulldozed political norms.

Others considered him better than the alternative, the shopworn Hillary Clinton, or made their peace by assuming that once in office, Trump would change — executing a much-anticipated but ultimately illusory "pivot" — and conduct a more conventional presidency.

Now voters know better.

After all the venomous tweets, the incessant lying, bigotry, narcissism and nepotism, the headstrong mismanagement of a deadly pandemic, after two impeachments and, most egregious, the attempted coup he suborned in the service of a lie he continues to promote, there is no doubting the nature of Trump.

Or what his return to the White House would mean.

Chaos envelops Trump like a bomb cyclone. Controversy trails him like the whiff off a cesspool. He warned of "potential death & destruction" if he were criminally charged, displaying once more his recklessness and titanic ego. The prospect of indictment is a dramatic reminder, if one was needed, of the former president's essential mendacity and moral bankruptcy.

Polls show most Americans have tired of Trump, his wreckage and ruin.

Not those Fifth Avenue Republicans who constitute roughly a third of GOP voters, enough to boost Trump in the primary and make him the candidate to beat for the party's nomination. (Trump's famous statement that he could stand in the middle of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose support now seems less a boast than a matter of fact.)


Those die-hards are the ones that pandering Republicans, like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, seek to appease with their claims of Trump's political persecution and victimhood. Lawmakers representing areas like McCarthy's deep-red Bakersfield district have only that narrow slice of voters to consider.

But it's hard to see Trump gaining support beyond his base if he were indicted in a sordid case involving hush money and extramarital sex, whatever the outcome of the legal process.

And the notion that Trump's indictment would edge him closer to the White House by firing up supporters seems equally far-fetched; it's not as though the blindly faithful get to cast three or four extra votes for their flimflam messiah. (Despite the lies they might have swallowed about the corruptibility of our election system.)

Trump's repellent effect on swing voters and non-MAGA Republicans — especially women living in the nation's abundant suburbs — has been well proved. It cost Republicans in 2018, when they lost control of the House; in 2020, when Joe Biden won the presidency; and in 2022, when the GOP, despite enormous advantages, failed to win a Senate majority and just barely reclaimed the House.

Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster and no fan of the ex-president, has conducted extensive research over the last several months among GOP primary voters, including some who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020.

"They're just tired of the circus," Matthews said.

They may think the many criminal investigations of Trump are "unfair to him," she went on. "They may think it's politically motivated. But the fact is the circus continues."

Perhaps most significant, something else has changed since Trump first browbeat his way to the White House and into the hearts of Republicans: He's now a certifiable, repeat loser.


"They want to win and they want to beat Biden," Matthews said of many of those she's surveyed. "They don't think Trump can do it."

It's easy, amid all the petulance and political machinations, to forget the essentials of the case against the former chief executive.

In 2006, Trump is alleged to have had an extramarital affair with the X-rated actor Stormy Daniels. Ten years later, his presidential bid was on the brink of collapse after the public release of a tape in which Trump is heard bragging of sexually mauling women .

His attorney and fixer at the time, Michael Cohen, took out a home equity loan and paid Daniels $130,000 to keep her mouth shut. Once in the White House, Trump signed checks reimbursing Cohen. The payments were listed as "legal expenses."

It may be a stretch to hold Trump legally accountable, given the shaky foundation on which the New York case rests.

But the court of public opinion is something else, and the case against Trump is open and shut. The closest he should ever come again to the Oval Office is the chair he used as president and brought with him to Mar-a-Lago .

Best to lock him up in his resort compound and pitch the key into the Atlantic Ocean.

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Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on politics in California and the West. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

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