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If the presidential election were held today, former President Donald Trump could very well win it. Polling from several organizations shows him gaining ground on President Joe Biden, winning five of six swing states and drawing the support of about 20% of Black and roughly 40% of Hispanic voters in those states.

For some liberal observers, Trump's resilience confirms that many Americans aren't wedded to democracy and are tempted by extreme ideologies. Hillary Clinton has described Trump as a "threat" to democracy, and Biden has called him "one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history."

In a different spirit, some on the right also take Trump's success as a sign that Americans are open to more radical forms of politics. After Trump's win in 2016, the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin crowed that the American people had "started the revolution" against political liberalism itself. Richard Spencer declared himself and his fellow white nationalists "the new Trumpian vanguard."

But both sides consistently misread Trump's success. He isn't edging ahead of Biden in swing states because Americans are eager to submit to authoritarianism, and he isn't attracting the backing of significant numbers of Black and Hispanic voters because they support white supremacy. His success is not a sign that America is prepared to embrace the ideas of the extreme right. Trump enjoys enduring support because he is perceived by many voters — often with good reason — as a pragmatic if unpredictable kind of moderate.

To be sure, Trump's wild rhetoric, indifference to protocol and willingness to challenge expertise have been profoundly unsettling to people of both political parties. His term in office was frequently chaotic, and the chaos seemed to culminate in the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021. In the current presidential campaign, Trump has promised to appoint a special prosecutor to "go after" Biden; he continues to argue that the 2020 election was stolen and that America does not have "much of a democracy right now"; his fondness for incendiary language has not abated.

But it is worth remembering that during his presidency, Trump's often intemperate rhetoric and erratic behavior ended up accompanying a host of moderate policies. On matters ranging from health care and entitlements to foreign policy and trade, Trump routinely rejected the most unpopular ideas of both political parties. Voters seem to have noticed this reality: When asked whether Trump was too conservative, not conservative enough or "not too far either way," 57% of voters in a recent poll picked "not too far either way." Only 27% of voters regarded him as too conservative.

Such characterizations may baffle Trump's detractors. But even his most provocative comments since leaving the White House — that he would be a "dictator" for the first day of his second term; that Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, deserves to be executed for "a treasonous act" — likely matter less to many voters than how he governed while in office. Inured to his braggadocio, they see him now as he was then: less an ideological warrior than a flexible-minded businessman who favors negotiation and compromise.

This understanding of Trump, more than any other factor, may explain why so many voters have stuck with him, and why, a year from now, we may be looking ahead to a second Trump administration.

Trump's moderation can be easy to miss, because he is not a stylistic centrist — the sort who calls for bipartisan budget-cutting and a return to civility. His moderation is closer to that of Richard Nixon, who combined a combative personality and pronounced resentments with a nose for political reality and a willingness to negotiate with his ideological opposites. Nixon, an ardent anti-Communist, displayed his pragmatism most memorably by going to China. But his pragmatic nature was evident also in his acceptance of the New Deal order, which many conservatives continue to reject.

Likewise with Trump. Start with his stance on health care, which defies Democratic and Republican positions alike. When asked in 2015 whether he supported universal health care, he said, "Everybody's got to be covered" and "The government's going to pay for it." In office, he proposed an alternative to Obamacare that conservative congressmen denounced as a "Republican welfare entitlement." Last month, when he again attacked Obamacare, he emphasized that he didn't want to "terminate" the program but rather "replace it with much better health care."

Trump's views on Medicare and Social Security have a similar middle-of-the-road quality. "He and I fought about Medicare and entitlement reform all the time," the former Republican House speaker Paul Ryan complained last year. "It became clear to me there was no way he wanted to embrace that." In the current Republican primary race, Trump has attacked Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, as a "wheelchair-over-the-cliff kind of guy," citing votes that DeSantis cast as a congressman for proposals to replace Medicare with vouchers for private insurance and to raise the eligibility age for Social Security.

On trade, Trump broke with the free-market orthodoxy popular among Democratic and Republican elites — but out of favor with much of Middle America. Accusing China of unfair trade practices, he placed tariffs on more than $300 billion worth of Chinese goods. Biden has maintained these tariffs, lending Trump's act bipartisan legitimacy. Trump also pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement supported by the Obama administration. Trump's economic record is now his main selling point in 2024. Voters may regard his businessman's instincts as preferable to the formal training of economists, especially in the face of inflationary pressures that many economists understated.

On foreign policy Trump displayed a prudence and a willingness to negotiate that was at odds with the strident post-Sept. 11 tendencies of both parties. In 2019, for example, he defied hawks such as Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, and John Bolton, his national security adviser, by calling off a planned missile strike in response to Iran's destruction of a U.S. drone. Trump argued that an attack that could kill 150 people wasn't "proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone."

Among Democrats and Republicans alike, the imperative of condemning adversaries as war criminals and terrorists has increasingly overtaken the conventional art of diplomacy. Trump, with his love of dealmaking, has attempted to buck this trend. In July he rejected calls to prosecute Vladimir Putin as a war criminal, warning that politicians who endorsed this effort increased the risk of escalation by making it "impossible to negotiate peace."

On social issues, Trump has also positioned himself as a kind of moderate. Though he championed the overturning of Roe v. Wade and has charged Democrats with supporting laws that make it legal to "rip the baby out of the womb" in the ninth month of pregnancy, he has also broken with abortion opponents. After DeSantis signed Florida's ban on abortions after six weeks, Trump called the move "a terrible mistake." Trump's critics on the right often accuse him of being insufficiently committed to conservative social views. That may be true — but it is hardly an electoral liability. By criticizing both late-term abortions and the most comprehensive restrictions on access, Trump has managed to reflect the muddled views held by much of the electorate.

Consider, too, controversies over gender and sexuality. Trump did not hesitate to approve limits on transgender people in the military. But no one mistakes him for a Bible-believing evangelical or Midwestern moralist. His irreverent demeanor and promises to "protect our LGBTQ citizens" are a reminder that life in New York's real-estate and media worlds taught him a rough form of tolerance, however politically incorrect he may be. (U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was pointing to this reality in 2016 when he accused Trump of embodying "New York values.") In this way, Trump represents a conservatism that has come to terms with the fact of diversity, even as it resists the left's understanding of everything "diversity" should mean.

People on both sides of the political aisle, overlooking Trump's moderation, have assumed incorrectly that his rise has been powered by appeals to fringe ideologies. The presidential campaign of DeSantis offers a vivid example of this mistake.

The campaign has boasted of DeSantis's uncompromising conservatism and sought to deploy the quasi-ironic aesthetic radicalism of the online right. One video it created this year criticized Trump for promising to protect LGBTQ people, and bragged that DeSantis had signed "extreme" and "draconian" laws. Another video made by a campaign aide superimposed a sonnenrad, a symbol associated with neo-Nazis, over DeSantis's face. DeSantis's subsequent slide in the polls reflects a host of factors, including his reserved personality, but his dead-on-arrival attempt to channel the energy of the online right suggests that its "meme magic" isn't the reason for Trump's success.

To be sure, Trump has had contacts with members of the bizarre right-wing fringe, most famously in a dinner last year to which the performer Kanye West (now known as Ye) brought Nick Fuentes, an outspoken racist and antisemite. But Trump differs in significant ways from the extremists with whom he is sometimes identified. For example, he has pushed for criminal justice reform, signing the First Step Act — a bipartisan measure denounced by DeSantis as a "jailbreak bill" — and explicitly promoting it as part of his outreach to Black Americans.

More recently, Trump shared on social media the results of a Reuters investigation that found he was the only living American president who wasn't descended from slaveholders. ("I hope that every African American in our country is reading this right now," he wrote. "Remember!") In the eyes of some conservative critics, Trump had lent credence to the case for reparations. It is well known that the left objects to Trump's record on race, but — more quietly — so does the right. This underappreciated fact may help to explain why Trump has increased his support among Black voters.

How does one square Trump's moderation with his frequent rhetorical excesses? In his 1987 book, "The Art of the Deal," he offers a clue. He describes his approach to negotiation with a story about preventing a bank from foreclosing on a widow's farm. When Trump's initial pleas are ignored, he threatens to accuse the bank of causing the suicide of the widow's late husband. Faced with this unpleasant prospect, the bank relents. Trump observes, "Sometimes it pays to be a little wild." Whether or not this story is perfectly factual, it illustrates what Trump aspires to be: a canny negotiator whose outrageous statements help to achieve reasonable settlements.

Of course, Trump has not been moderate at every moment or on every issue. Looking ahead to a second term, he and his policy team promise to use the U.S. military to attack drug cartels in Mexico and overhaul civil-service rules to allow him to aggressively reshape the federal bureaucracy. His vow to appoint "a real special prosecutor to go after" Biden should prompt a more serious consideration of the arguments some have made that special prosecutors are inconsistent with our legal traditions.

Claims from Trump campaign officials that some of the most ambitious of these proposals are "purely speculative" and "merely suggestions" may be an attempt to obscure the full extent of Trump's ambitions. Or perhaps those proposals reflect his longstanding negotiating strategy of talking big before making more modest deals. A second Trump term may indeed be more radical and less pragmatic than the first; it's a possibility voters can't dismiss, but also one that his first term gives them reason to discount.

Immigration is the issue on which the promise and limits of Trump's form of moderation will be put to the test. He now pledges a more comprehensive and effective crackdown on illegal immigrants than he achieved in his first term, including the construction of detention camps. According to a recent survey, 53% of registered voters trust Trump more than Biden on immigration, with only 41% preferring Biden.

Perhaps that disparity reflects a lack of knowledge about the extent of Trump's plans. Or it may indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. In October, staff members from Customs and Border Protection interacted with more than 240,000 people who attempted to enter the United States along the southern border, and between October 2022 and September of this year, 169 people whose names matched those on the terrorist watch list were arrested while trying to cross.

Indeed, it is easy to overstate how radical Trump's record is on immigration. Biden kept in place Title 42, a COVID-era measure that Trump had used to speed deportations, and expanded its use before ending it this year. In 2021, Biden declared that "building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution," but he has nonetheless extended Trump's signature policy. Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden's homeland security secretary, acknowledged in October "an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers" so as to "prevent unlawful entries." Even Trump's promise to construct detention camps is not entirely at odds with current policy: This fall, the Biden administration reopened two camps to house minors who have crossed the border.

It is also worth considering that many voters may not consider Trump's excesses to be as unusual as his opponents do. They may regard the events of Jan. 6, for example, as comparable to the violence that occurred after the death of George Floyd (when protests outside the White House resulted in the injury of more than 60 Secret Service agents and more than 50 members of the U.S. Park Police). They may regard Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election results as not altogether unlike Clinton's statement that she "would not" rule out questioning the legitimacy of the 2016 election over claims of Russian collusion. Whether or not such equivalences are warranted, they are available to voters who remain angry that Trump's opponents, including elected officials, challenged the legitimacy of his presidency even before he first took office — and seem no less committed to the project today.

The idea that Trump poses an existential threat to democracy is now closely intertwined with taking certain extraordinary legal steps against him. Though the legal merits of the four criminal cases brought against Trump vary, their political effect, given their timing and Trump's continued popularity, is the same: They imply that defending democracy requires burdening, shutting up or even jailing one of the two highest-polling candidates. This is also true of lawsuits filed in several states arguing that Trump is ineligible to hold office.

If support for Trump really did indicate an incipient radicalism in the American electorate, such legal actions would be more understandable. Their political costs, however grave, would be easier to justify. But even those who think that some of the indictments of Trump are well grounded might conclude that the costs of prosecution, given the possible appearance of a partisan motive, are too high — that they pose the sort of threat to democratic norms that they purport to guard against.

For those sincerely concerned to preserve our democratic traditions, there is no need to take such drastic measures. As disruptive as Trump can be, his success testifies to American voters' desire for moderation and skepticism of extremist ideologies. In November, Americans may well decide that they again prefer Joe Biden to Donald Trump. But if the U.S. really is a democracy, they will be permitted to make that choice freely.

Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of the online magazine Compact. This article originally appeared in the New York Times.