Skip to main content

Trump made 'ugly' work for him in the past, but now it may be backfiring


The walls are closing in on Donald Trump's presidential ambitions. The judge in his Manhattan hush money trial announced the case will begin in earnest April 15.

Moreover, an appellate court’s reduction of his nearly US$500 million bond is a Pyrrhic victory as it revealed how cash-strapped the ex-president really is. This all comes amid the backdrop of a primary season that illustrates the presidential nominee with enormous work to do in unifying the GOP behind his candidacy.

Adding insult to injury, the constant infighting and chaos coursing through the GOP-led House of Representatives only underscores the dysfunction and turmoil consuming the ex-president.

Despite the polls showing a neck-and-neck race for control of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it is becoming abundantly clear Donald Trump’s only pathway back to the White House is by making the race ugly; very ugly.

A difficult proposition considering President Biden's fiery and energetic State of the Union address has changed the political landscape. The Biden campaign posted an astounding US$10-million dollar haul 24-hours after his annual address. Some polls even showed President Biden with a post-SOTU bump.

Moreover, the Biden-Harris campaign has dispatched the president and vice-president to all six key battleground states since the State of the Union as Trump has been sidelined due to numerous court proceedings. As a result, “The Biden too old” narrative is slowly dissipating and the democratic base is regaining its confidence as it looks to November.

U.S. President Joe Biden salutes as he exits the Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House, Sunday, March 24, 2024, on return to Washington from Delaware (Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo)

History has shown, presidential incumbents are always formidable opponents. The bully pulpit, the trappings of office, and a seemingly endless fundraising stream are always enormous obstacles to overcome.

Even with Donald Trump’s universal name recognition and remarkable ability to control the news cycle, he still lacks the radiance and sheen of Commander-in-Chief.

His inability to implement executive actions such as forgiving student loans; standing on the global stage next to world leaders; or presenting newly constructed infrastructure projects in key communities; all limits the goodwill Trump as challenger can build with voters, especially during an election year.

Now, out of power, hemorrhaging money and fighting to stave off lengthy prison sentences, the only option left for the embattled ex-president is a return to the 2016 playbook. As an outsider, the real estate mogul used his keen media savvy and penchant for mudslinging to sully and cripple his opponents.

A protestor demonstrates outside Manhattan criminal court while awaiting the arrival of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Monday, March 25, 2024, in New York (Seth Wenig / AP Photo)

Like in 2016, Trump must make it a campaign of darkness and disarray. Take away the electorate's desires for a hopeful future. Strip the voters of the excitement of a new beginning. Demoralize. Demean. Deject. Give voters every reason to stay home in hopes of being the last candidate standing.

A labelled insurrectionist. Twice-impeached. Fraudster. Criminal defendant. Each of these individually would cripple any candidacy, but combined can incapacitate a campaign. Yet, a man who has suffered very public and embarrassing defeats only to re-invent and re-brand himself with spectacular comebacks, should never be counted out. Still, this time, ugly is his only way forward. Ugly is how he surprisingly achieved accidental success in 2016. Ugly is how he will succeed again.

Still, much stands in Trump's way. Unlike his very first run for the White House, Donald Trump has a record as former president that the Biden campaign will certainly exploit with its massive war chest. Moreover, unlike in 2016 and 2020, the GOP of 2024, while undoubtedly in Trump's control, is far less unified heading into November.

Already a legion of former Trump administration officials and other notable Republicans are publicly withholding their endorsements. Exacerbating this disunity, House Republicans are exiting in record numbers before their terms end as disaffection for the Republican Party grows. As a result, the Trump campaign, this time, is fighting a two-front war: facing off against a well-funded Democratic incumbent and a conservative insurgency. Even with ugly, winning will not be easy.

Already Donald Trump is feverishly at work trying to "ugly" President Biden which so far has proven ineffective. Outside a Manhattan courtroom after the announcement of his trial, he blamed the April 15 start date, the first of four criminal court cases, directly on Biden.

Considering the charges stem from an investigation before Biden even ran for the White House, such an argument strains credulity. Moreover, a disjointed and weak House Republican leadership, eager to do Trump’s bidding, has failed to bring a credible case of impeachment against the president.

Also, the Hunter Biden investigation has backfired as the president’s son is now on the offensive and hitting back at his critics. Even the GOP priority issue, immigration, lost its sting when it was uncovered that Trump influenced House Speaker Mike Johnson to forgo passage of bipartisan immigration reform legislation that would stem the crisis at the southern border.

The Trump campaign's efforts to ugly the race and Biden, specifically, appears to have had a boomerang effect. Ironically, it is the ex-president that is being sullied and defiled, as Biden remains above the fray.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks after voting in the Florida primary election in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 19, 2024 (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo)

Massive defamation judgments; continued courtships of autocrats and brutal dictators; claims of unchecked power with no safeguards; all paint a picture of a maniacal would-be tyrant plotting to retake the vestiges of American political power to enact a dystopian framework for the nation without any recourse for remedy or change.

That such terrifying claims are sticking to the GOP presidential nominee and not his rival and are being lobbed from corners within the right, shows this campaign of ugly has more work ahead.

Trump's success in the past was to paint a picture of ugly and hang it on an opponent and make it stick. Now, the ugly appears to be sticking to Trump himself. For years, Donald Trump was impervious to ugly. He was a master of deflection and transference. It worked against Hillary. It might have worked in 2020, but for a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

Now, desperate and staring down the abyss of ruin, ugly appears to be backfiring. Unfortunately, for Trump, ugly is all he has left.

Eric Ham is a bestselling author and former congressional staffer in the U.S. Congress. He served as a contributor to and The Washington Diplomat. He resides in Washington, DC. Top Stories

Local Spotlight