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Republican politicians can be forgiven for thinking that the GOP is Trump’s world, and they only live in it at his sufferance.
He not only survived Jan. 6 and his second impeachment — he has thrived since.
Even the senior-most GOP politicians still seek Trump’s backing. Sen. Chuck Grassley, along with other top elected Republicans in Iowa, attended Trump’s rally in Des Moines the other day, where the 88-year-old senator, running for his eighth term, happily accepted his endorsement.
Trump’s rallies are still remarkably well-attended — part political events, part Grateful Dead concerts, part Andrew Dice Clay sets. The recent one in Alabama may well have been the largest political rally in state history, with roughly 50,000 people on hand.
Trump is making progress in his project of hunting down and killing the careers of Republicans who supported his impeachment, with the retiring Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez a notable scalp.
Big majorities of Republicans tell pollsters they want Trump to run for president. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans in a Hill/HarrisX poll, and 67 percent in a Morning Consult/POLITICO poll said they want the Trump Train to depart the station once again. Morning Consult/POLITICO found that Trump has an 82 percent approval rating among Republicans.
A Pew poll came up with less encouraging numbers for Trump, with two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying he should stay politically active, but only 44 percent saying he should run for president. Still, Pew found that 63 percent of Republicans say the party should not be accepting, or at least too accepting, of GOP officials who openly criticize Trump.
And yet, despite all this, there are reasons to believe Trump’s dominance is exaggerated and that it is slowly degrading, such that by the time the 2024 Republican primaries roll around, he’ll be challengeable and beatable if he runs.
There’s no denying that by almost every metric, whether fame, fundraising or demonstrated power to destroy opponents, you’d rather be Trump than any other Republican thinking about running in 2024.
That doesn’t mean he’s as all-powerful as he seems right now.
It’s not unusual for a former president to own his party until someone comes and takes it from him — Bill Clinton prior to Barack Obama, for example.
What’s different is that parties typically aren’t kind to one-term presidents who lost their reelection bids, and generally former presidents aren’t so bent on exercising control over their parties once they vacate the White House.
Part of the reason Trump has clung to his fanciful stolen-election narrative is to avoid the stench of defeat of a Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, one-termers who became widely respected elder statesman but were pegged as stone-cold electoral losers after 1980 and 1992, respectively.
On top of this, Trump has an intact political operation that is paying a lot of attention to his potential endorsements and how they will or won’t enhance his own power.
This obviously makes Trump an important player, and maybe more. But there are indications of an undertow and factors that might increase it in the years ahead.
Trump’s media footprint is much reduced. The press is publishing fewer Trump stories, and there are fewer clicks on those stories. Data from SocialFlow shows engagement with Trump stories plummeting in March of this year and it took another jag down in August and September.
After a foray with starting his own website went nowhere, Trump has relied on sharply worded press releases that don’t have the same news cycle-dominating impact of his tweets of his yore. His graceless slam of Colin Powell upon the former secretary of State’s death once would have blotted out the sun in the media for 12 hours or so, but created a relatively muted reaction this week.
As for Trump’s polling numbers, Republicans might tell pollsters they want him to run again as a way to stick a finger in the eye of the media or as a general statement of warm feelings toward him. Even if these findings are based on entirely forthcoming and sincere sentiments, wanting Trump to run is a threshold question that falls short of a commitment to vote for him 2 1/2 years from now.
Trump presumably will be vulnerable to electability questions in a GOP primary. He lost last fall in part because Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton among suburban voters and independents. Biden is alienating these voters, but there’s nothing to indicate that Trump has done anything since November 2020 to make himself less repellent to them.
Indeed, there’s a massive wall of resistance to Trump in the rest of country that will be hard to ignore. Biden didn’t get 81 million votes because he’s an electoral juggernaut. According to exit polls, nearly 70 percent of Biden voters were voting against Trump, and that sentiment is still out there — one reason Democrats are desperate to keep running against Trump, whether it’s in the Virginia gubernatorial race or local school board campaigns.
GOP politicians have every reason to do what they can to keep Trump and his voters on board in the interest of a unified base in the run-up to the 2022 midterms. But if Republicans take Congress next year and are worried about keeping it in 2024, they will be wary of once again needing candidates to run better than Trump in swing districts to keep their gavels.
Trump, for his part, is not exactly exuding the overwhelming concern with the interests of the party one would expect of a party leader. At a rally in Georgia, he mused that it might be better if Stacey Abrams were governor rather than Brian Kemp, the Republican who became persona non grata for not going along with Trump’s schemes to overturn the 2020 result in Georgia. He’s also threatened that Republican voters won’t show up in 2022 or 2024 if the alleged theft of 2020 is not taken care of, in some unspecified way.
This is in keeping with Trump’s increasingly self-referential message. In 2016, he talked of fighting for his voters and hammered neglected issues of concern to them, foremost among them, trade and immigration. Now, he urges those voters to fight for him based on the imperative of denying his loss, which is of overwhelming concern to his ego and continued political viability.
Needless to say, this priority is backward-looking. It’s very doubtful that, come 2024, Republican voters are going to be as obsessed with an election four years prior as Trump is now.
At the end of the day, what primary voters in both parties most want is to win. And this is Trump’s true Achilles' heel. The fact is that he lost to Joe Biden, and, despite last-minute changes in election procedures and the media and social media landscape being stacked again him, it was fundamentally his doing. His chief vulnerability is that, eventually, on a debate stage or someplace else, someone will put this to him directly, and it will land.
Perhaps if Trump decides to make the plunge in 2024, he will clear the field and sweep to his third consecutive GOP presidential nomination. His surface-level strength at the moment, though, might obscure a weakness that will tell over time.