Donald Trump's Persistent Grip on the Right
He’s had a bad summer, but he’s also defied the conventional wisdom that defeated presidents are anathema.
Donald Trump has had a very bad summer. This has given some people hope that the end of the Trumpian captivity of the Republican Party is within sight. I wish I could share their optimism.
It’s certainly true that his post-presidency isn’t going great.
Because he didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the worst elements of his base, he refused to defend the vaccines he once trumpeted as a signature accomplishment of his administration. He’s determined to make his bogus stolen election fable a political litmus test, rendering himself a human wedge issue within the GOP, dividing the party, alienating some Republican voters and mobilizing Democrats.
Denied access to social media and too incompetent to create alternatives, he issues email statements that read like a cross between his old tweets, a Downfall meme video, and a grammatically challenged papal pronunciamento, but they barely move the needle in the media or on Capitol Hill.
His road show with Bill O’Reilly has struggled to sell tickets. He endorsed a candidate in a Texas congressional runoff election who lost handily to another Republican. He’s railed against the bipartisan infrastructure deal wending its way to passage, and Republicans who support it have largely shrugged.
His aides tell the media he’s against the infrastructure deal for very serious macroeconomic reasons—inflation, a misguided legislative framework and so on—but his emailed quasi-tweets sound like it’s just sour grapes about four years of “infrastructure weeks,” which became a punchline. It’s been like that. Private Trump can be cunning, while public Trump shows nothing but resentment.
It’s clear that his role in daily GOP politics has diminished. How could it not? He isn’t president anymore (QAnon claims notwithstanding). But on the other hand, he remains remarkably popular with many Republicans, and he’s a fundraising juggernaut (sluicing some of the money through his properties). If he announced his candidacy for 2024 tomorrow, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be the clear frontrunner.
Like everyone else, I have no idea if Trump is actually going away. But what vexes me about the “whither Trump” debate is that it overlooks the scope of the damage he has wrought.
It’s worth recalling that Trump didn’t have much of a pre-presidential strategy either, and yet he won. He may be a weaker force than he was five years ago, but the party and the right are far more receptive to him now than they were back then.
Normally, defeated presidential candidates and presidents—never mind ones who cost their party control of Congress—are anathema. That’s not the case with Trump, because he has profoundly changed the party and the right.
In 2016, nearly the entirety of the party establishment and conservative media were arrayed against him. Now, much of that infrastructure has been remade in his image, to the point where, if he were to run, he might get the nomination by acclamation. CPAC is now essentially a subsidiary of Trump Inc. Fox News primetime is entirely in his corner, and two imitator networks—Newsmax and One America News Network—are operating like press release machines for him.
Some conservative intellectuals and pundits who dislike Trump are happy to ignore him for the most part, hoping his appeal withers. Meanwhile, a whole cottage industry has sprung up to defend not just the man but the worst aspects of his presidency, defending his lies about the election and even prattling on about the need for an “American Caesar” in Trump’s mold. On college campuses, “nationalism” is the new hotness on the right, “owning the libs” is what passes for serious thought, and fueling secession and sedition is a hallmark of patriotism.
In 2016, there was no Trumpy farm team of activists and intellectuals to draw on for his administration. Now, there’s a whole major league full of them.
Some are running for the Senate in Ohio. Some are already in Congress. And with the complicated exception of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the party establishment is an amen corner. The chair of the Republican National Committee is an unrepentant Trump flack. The House GOP leadership is essentially a cadre of Renfields to Trump’s Dracula.
It’s not that all of these “leaders” actually believe what they’re saying—many don’t, I can assure you. It’s that nearly all of them—sincere Trumpists and fakers alike—believe they must give “the people” what they want, and they’ve persuaded “the people” to want ever more crazy. And that means the damage Trump has wrought will endure long after Trump.