Like a lot of people, I get a ton of thirsty emails from Donald Trump. On Saturday, he sent this note: “See you in Sunrise, FL, in a little while and tomorrow, Orlando. Big crowds!”
He was referring to the first installment of his road show with former Fox host Bill O’Reilly. Attendance was lackluster.
It would be silly to read too much into this. While I would consider tickets to an O’Reilly-Trump roadshow expensive at any price, including free, these tickets—at least prior to last-minute discounts—were pretty steep.
But other evidence suggests Trump’s appeal is becoming more selective—to borrow a term from “Spinal Tap.” His ability to draw big TV viewership started to crater back in June.
Trump’s clout with GOP voters, while still significant, seems less formidable all the time. Sean Parnell, his handpicked candidate in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate primary, dropped out of the race. Prominent Trump toady Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who opposed certification of Biden’s victory, is falling behind his Republican primary opponent Katie Britt despite Trump’s endorsement of Brooks. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama recently raised eyebrows by attending a Britt fundraiser. Sen. Lisa Murkowski may have a tough reelection fight ahead of her, but Murkowski, not her Trump-backed opponent, will have the support of the national Republican Party.
Trump still polls well among Republicans, but according to a Pew survey in October, about half don’t want to see him run again. In November, the Des Moines Register’s widely respected Iowa Poll found that 61 percent of Iowa Republicans said they are more aligned with the party than with Trump, while only 26 percent said they were more aligned with Trump than with the party.
And, of course, there was the big GOP victory in Virginia last month, led by gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. The message for Republicans in competitive states: Don’t repudiate Trump, but don’t embrace him too much either, and larger numbers of Trump-hostile Republicans and independents will return to the GOP fold.
Some of this is Trump’s own fault. He reserves most of his passion for his bogus claims about the election being stolen. And while he’s persuaded a dismaying number of Republicans to tell pollsters they believe that the 2020 election was “rigged,” the only pundits and politicians still talking about it are fringe characters, like pillow magnate Mike Lindell, bilking the true believers for donations and clicks. Trump’s new social media startup looks like a similar effort on a larger scale. Even Rupert Murdoch has told him to move on.
Now, it’s easy to tell the opposite story—that Trump remains the leader of the Republican Party and the presumptive nominee if he runs. We hear it constantly because there’s a weird convergence between Trump-friendly media and Trump-hostile media; they share an obsession with Trump’s stranglehold of the GOP. The anti-Trump outfit the Lincoln Project is virtually begging Trump to run again.
The thing to keep in mind, however, is that the Trump-addicted audience is a smaller slice of the electorate than either side would like to admit. It’s big enough to drive cable news coverage (and donations), but those outlets service a very thin slice of the public.
Perhaps the most telling sign is that even Trump himself doesn’t think it’s a foregone conclusion he could secure the nomination. He’s reportedly livid with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for not publicly declaring he won’t run for president if Trump does. Part of that is Trump’s ego-driven desire to demonstrate his dominance, but it’s also a sign that he feels the need to clear the field rather than compete in it. He could certainly be goaded into running again, just as he was in 2016. But the more likely scenario is that Trump will continue to keep everyone guessing until the last minute to maximize attention and profit. The best way to ensure he doesn’t run again is for Republicans like DeSantis to signal he’ll have to work for it and thus risk looking like a loser—twice.
The next Trump chapter in American politics probably won’t be satisfying to either his passionate supporters or opponents. The anti-Trump folks aren’t likely to get to see him in an orange jumpsuit and his cultists won’t live to see some sort of coronation. He’ll fade away, leaving his nominal party and country worse off for him ever having come down that escalator in the first place.