Trump is losing his stranglehold on Republicans


This is not an obituary of Donald Trump. He still has a plausible shot at becoming the first ex-president to be re-elected since Grover Cleveland in 1892. But politics is about momentum — and the energy behind Trump is dissipating. The bad news for Trump’s detractors is that his “Maga” base is not fading. The Kraken lives on. It just no longer shows such deference to the man in Mar-a-Lago. 

Trump’s handicap is that he is obsessed with one issue — that he was cheated by Joe Biden of his rightful election victory in 2020. Most Republican voters share in that belief, which is a litmus test for candidates. Yet the stolen election myth is their politics’ starting point, not its be-all and end-all. By confining himself to rigged elections, Trump is forgetting Maga’s animating spirit, which is hatred of America’s cultural elites. 

When Trump’s monomania backfires, it leaves him looking weak. His sole reason for endorsing David Perdue as Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate was that he agreed the incumbent, Brian Kemp, was wrong to certify Biden’s victory in 2020. Backing Perdue was Trump’s revenge for Kemp’s disloyalty. But Kemp will win easily. It is even possible that Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, who resisted Trump’s direct plea to “find” his missing votes, will also be re-elected. 

The more this happens, the less fear Trump will instil in his party. Once a strongman loses the ability to terrorise, a loss of respect is rarely far behind. Kemp’s selling point was that he fed Maga’s cultural agenda. He has made it far harder for Georgians to get an abortion, much easier to carry concealed guns and more difficult to vote, which is red meat to the base. Kemp’s only sin is in not catering to Trump’s injured pride, which can evidently be ignored. 

To be sure, some of Trump’s picks, notably JD Vance for the Senate nomination in Ohio, and Doug Mastriano as gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, have gone on to win. But the latter was heading for victory anyway (Trump put his money on that horse just before it crossed the finishing line). And his losses are now competing with his wins. Other failed gubernatorial endorsements include Nebraska and Idaho, neither of whom came close. So, what does Trump’s declining clout mean for 2024? 

The answer is not necessarily good news for Biden. The reason Biden won in 2020 was because Trump was his opponent. Nothing motivates Democrats and independents as much as disdain for Trump. Yet Democrats lost ground almost everywhere else, including in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately for Biden, Trump’s name will not appear on any ballot in this year’s midterm elections, which threaten to become a Republican rout. 

If Biden could share his election fantasy, it would probably be a rematch with Trump in 2024. That looks less likely, although still probable. When Trump was president, his incompetence outstripped his malevolence. Trump could have won re-election by backing sensible advice to contain the pandemic and agreeing to a stimulus that would have put more money in voters’ pockets. He might well be president now if he had listened to people around him. 

Trump had become a prisoner of the Kraken that he unleashed, however. That meant disdaining masks, rubbishing the medical establishment and refusing to take calls from Democrats offering him money on a platter. Now he is the one following the base more than the other way round. At a rally last December, Trump sang the praises of the Covid vaccine only to be shouted down by his own crowd. He has since kept silent on the vaccine, which was arguably his administration’s biggest feat. With followers like this, a leader must fall into line. 

The risk to Trump — and, by implication, to Biden — is that he will be challenged by a younger and more competent version of himself, such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis, or Mike Pompeo, his former secretary of state. Erstwhile sidekicks, such as Mike Pence, the former vice-president, and Chris Christie, New Jersey’s former governor, have made it clear they will run in 2024 regardless of whether Trump does. If the former president’s touch keeps failing, the trickle may become a flood. 

Even then, Trumpism cannot be uninvented. Democrats should not be consoled. The spirit that carried Trump to the White House is far more dominant among Republicans today than it was in 2016. Trump may care for little more than his drive to rewrite America’s election rules. But the party of the traditional Republican elite — the ones who did not want Trump in their clubs — is now a museum piece. Whatever happens to Trump in 2024, he can draw satisfaction from that.

edward.luce@ft.com



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