Stirewaltisms: Trump’s Faction of One


I think Yuval Levin is quite right that former President Donald Trump’s prodigal endorsements in 2022 Republican primary contests will be a major force in Trump’s shift from being the leader of the GOP to the leader of a faction of the party.

I would think this was so even if Yuval was not my boss at the American Enterprise Institute. (Though his efforts to maintain strategic reserves of cold Fresca for our refreshment here would be reason enough to defer to his judgment.) The obvious truth about Trump is that he has never wanted to be the leader of the whole Republican Party, let alone the whole country. Trump is a chauvinist in every sense of the word, but particularly in his excessive, prejudiced preference for his group.

It would be hard enough to lead a party if one’s chauvinism was ideological or demographic. Parties, or at least parties that can win in a diverse, continental nation, have to include many different groups. But in Trump’s case, it is far worse. “His group” is quite literal here: People who follow him, flatter him, pay him, etc. The barriers to being one of Trump’s people are low, but the requirements for continued membership are severe. One must agree with Trump, even when Trump contradicts himself. When Trump fails or falters, defeat must be called victory and discarded promises must be called strategic genius.

This marries up with another tendency of Trumpism: the cult of victimhood. Leaders of large institutions must have the capacity to accept blame. It is the price of power. Trump does not do accountability. Witness the Alabama Senate primary to which Yuval pointed. As it became clear that Trump’s endorsee, Rep. Mo Brooks, was a dog who would not hunt in the race to replace retiring Sen. Richard Shelby, Trump ditched Brooks. No doubt Trump was peeved by the fact that Brooks once told a Trump crowd to move on from Trump’s effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election, but Trump has stuck with other candidates who were even more honest about the election than Brooks, like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Brooks’ real sin was being a loser. Sticking with a losing candidate is what an accountable leader does, but not Trump.

Now comes the furor over Trump’s endorsement of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary over hedge fund honcho David McCormick. Both are nouveau nationalists who seem to have reinvented themselves to seek the support of Trump and his voters. Both are crazy rich. Both have hired or sought the favor of Trump insiders. But Oz is a celebrity, which makes him Trump’s peer in a way that all of McCormick’s success and accomplishments never could. Imagine the tie-ins with Trump’s new media company! But Oz is also the demonstrably worse choice for Republicans in Pennsylvania.

Democrats may be bound for a similar mistake in choosing a colorful, complicated nominee in Lt. Gov. John Fetterman over the more reliable Rep. Conor Lamb, but Republicans should not assume that Democrats will err. Oz is an odd duck and has never been around politics and public service in any serious way. He would be the first Muslim ever to serve in the Senate, and seeking to break a cultural barrier has long been thought by uncharitable souls to be a problem for some Pennsylvania voters. That’s not to say that McCormick is an ideal pick. The source of Oz’s wealth comes with lots of baggage. McCormick’s does, too.  Oz is a carpetbagger who moved to the state to run. McCormick, though born and raised in Pennsylvania, is open to that charge, too. Even so, it’s not a close call. McCormick is better vetted and more experienced and therefore a safer choice in a race that promises to be bruising. 

But the Pennsylvania endorsement looks like world-class strategy compared to Trump’s inflation of an ugly primary for Georgia governor in which Republicans will burn enough money to cover Sanford Stadium with gold plating and risk a general election defeat over a personal vendetta Trump has against the state’s popular conservative governor, Brian Kemp. That is the last thing Republicans should do in a key state that has been trending blue of late. This wasteful primary could have long-lasting consequences for a state party that desperately needs to unify.

But what does Trump care about all that jazz? Think back to the stories about Trump reportedly threatening to leave the Republican Party in his pique over what he deemed insufficient support for his bid to steal a second term. In his book, ABC News’ Jon Karl said that when RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel begged Trump not to go because it would doom the party, the former president replied: “Exactly. You lose forever without me. I don’t care.” Now, when Trump found out that such a schism would cost him millions in the contributions he was hoovering up from Republican donors, he reconsidered. But the sentiment is right on: I don’t care. Good candidates, bad candidates, smart endorsements, foolish endorsements: I don’t care.

Trump, the solipsistic chauvinist, doesn’t care what happens to the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, Georgia, or anywhere else in the next generation, the next decade or even this November. What matters to him is how his faction of one is faring right now. If Oz is another dog that won’t hunt, don’t be surprised if Trump dumps him, too.

Democrats went through lesser versions of this with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Obama was famously disdainful of party building and saw himself more as an individual phenomenon. Clinton was more of a party man, but like Trump, drove his party off a cliff in pursuit of his selfish desire to hold power. It’s 25 years later, and Democrats are only getting more embarrassed about having protected a president without the decency to resign from office after his assignations with a 21-year-old intern were discovered. But those guys are pikers on selfishness compared to Trump, who is proud to say that he has no loyalty to his party and, even when he was the sitting president with approval rates among Republicans over 90 percent, acted like he was some insurgent.

The bleating from Republicans who joined Trump’s smash-and-grab job on the GOP about how Trump is now not acting judiciously to care for the party’s future is preposterous. But as Yuval shows us, it points to the most likely way that Republicans will remake themselves:

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