After five months—long months if you liked the guy, short ones if you didn’t—former President Donald Trump returned to form on Saturday, holding his first major political rally since addressing a wound-up crowd of supporters in front of the White House on January 6.
“I want to thank Ohio for the incredible turnout … and all of the unbelievable, hardworking patriots who are here tonight at the very first rally of the 2022 election,” he told the thousands of fans who descended upon the Lorain County Fairgrounds from across the country. “The number one priority for everyone who wants to save America is to pour every single ounce of energy you have into winning a gigantic victory in the midterms and in 2024.”
Democrats currently hold just a 220-211 advantage in the House, and Vice President Kamala Harris has to break ties in a 50-50 Senate—Republicans are well-positioned to regain control of both chambers next year. Trump reserved a few shots in his freewheeling, 90-minute speech for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tim Ryan—and he unleashed plenty of criticism for the Biden administration’s border policies—but the former president made the trek to Lorain County with a Republican in his crosshairs.
“A guy named Anthony Gonzalez, who is bad news,” Trump said, referring to the two-term congressman whom he labeled a “tough cookie” and a “friend” in 2019. Gonzalez is a hometown hero—an all-state high school football player who excelled at Ohio State and was drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts in 2007—but the crowd instinctively knew to boo. “He’s a grandstanding RINO, not respected in D.C., who voted for the unhinged, unconstitutional, illegal impeachment witch hunt. … He’s a sellout, and a fake Republican, and a disgrace to your state.”
I called Gonzalez to get his reaction. The most powerful Republican in the country had flown to the congressman’s backyard, branded him a traitor, and endorsed his primary challenger, a former Trump administration staffer named Max Miller.
That was news to Gonzalez. “Took my wife on a date,” he told me a couple minutes after 9 p.m., just as Trump was finishing up. “Didn’t pay any attention.”
When I filled him in on all the insults that he’d missed, there was a pause—and then a chuckle: “That’s actually not so bad!”
But upon being informed Trump spent what seemed like 45 minutes relitigating the 2020 election—and that MyPillow CEO and prominent election fraud truther Mike Lindell received an enormous standing ovation during the rally—Gonzalez grew more somber. “I couldn’t care less about what the former president says about me. I really couldn’t,” he said. “What I do care about is the fact that he continues to double and triple down on the election lies that led to insurrection on January 6 and very likely could lead to more violence in the future.”
“The most important thing that all elected Republicans can do right now is tell the truth to the country and our voters about the fact that we had a legitimate election and President Trump lost,” he continued. “Anything short of that is an abdication of duty.”
A whole lot of Gonzalez’ colleagues are failing the test he lays out, and it’s easy to understand why: To do otherwise is to willingly invite the wrath that he is now facing.
For all the disdain Trump has for Democrats and “the media,” the former president is most at home attacking his fellow Republicans. One day before going after Gonzalez, Trump issued a statement calling for a trio of no-name GOP state officials in Wisconsin to be primaried because they “are actively trying to prevent a Forensic Audit of the election results.” The day before that, he blasted out the phone numbers of two Republican state senators in Michigan, encouraging his followers to call them and “get them to do the right thing, or vote them the hell out of office!” The day before that, he mocked Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and pledged never to endorse him, “permanently put[ting] to rest” his career aspirations.
Asked by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl on Sunday about Trump and the GOP, retiring Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio didn’t hesitate to say the former president is “definitely the leader of the party”—and he’s probably right. Top congressional Republicans are embarking on regular pilgrimages to his various clubs, aspiring primary candidates are clambering to out-MAGA one another in the hopes of earning his endorsement, and the latest survey from Echelon Insights—a Republican polling firm—found that 59 percent of GOP voters would definitely or probably vote for Trump in the 2024 primary, compared to just 35 percent who would definitely or probably vote for a different Republican. The largest applause line on Saturday came from Rep. Jim Jordan, when he suggested that Trump run again in 2024 and go back to the White House.
But there are plenty of reasons to believe Trump’s grip on the GOP is more tenuous than his boosters hope and his detractors fear. That same Echelon Insights survey found that 53 percent of Republican voters now consider themselves to be primarily a supporter of the GOP rather than Donald Trump, up from 30 percent last October. Social media engagement around Trump and Trump-related topics has plunged 95 percent since January. Potential 2024 candidates are getting a tiny bit bolder: Former Vice President Mike Pence told a crowd at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last week that he was “proud” to have played a role in certifying the 2020 election on January 6.
The resumption of his rally schedule, therefore, serves a dual purpose for the former president. Not only do blockbuster events generate stories (like this one) and reinsert his name into a political discourse that has been remarkably Trump-free since February, but they work as deterrence against further GOP independence. Speak up? You’re next.
The latter is what will make Gonzalez’ race, and a handful of other Republican primaries across the country, so fascinating to watch in 2022. He’s been left for political dead—a pundit on Newsmax described Saturday’s rally as a “public execution” in which “the guillotine is going to fall on Congressman Gonzalez”—but if he manages to hold off a hand-picked Trump challenger while continuing to speak truth about the 2020 election, it could puncture Trump’s powerbroker image, and open the floodgates for Republicans who feel similarly to finally find their voice.