Since early June, when the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 attack held its first prime time hearing, a growing number of commentators have argued that Donald Trump is losing his grip on the Republican Party. They point to the declining number of Republicans who support a third Trump presidential bid in 2024. They mention the rising popularity of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. They cite focus groups that would like to move past the former president. They name the GOP primaries where Trump’s candidate lost. They note that the Jan. 6 Committee has prompted conservative media outlets such as the Washington Examiner, New York Post, and Wall Street Journal to publish editorials calling Trump unfit for office. All this, the pundits conclude, is evidence that Trump’s days as Republican leader are numbered. Either he won’t run in 2024 or he will lose the GOP nomination.
That is what Washington hopes for. Yet Trump’s political career has been declared dead many times over — and Trump somehow keeps his fortunes alive. There is little evidence that his current situation is any different. At this writing, Trump hasn’t announced he is running for president. He may ultimately decide against it. But he gives every indication that another campaign is in the works. Republicans who pine for a “Trumpism without Trump” will have to wait. The original article isn’t going anywhere.
Trump’s GOP is a bottom-up enterprise. Its donors, think tank wonks, and journalistic spokesmen don’t decide what the party looks like. Republican primary voters do. And most of them continue to support Donald Trump. Most Trump-endorsed candidates have been winning their primaries, including several on Tuesday. Trump holds a massive lead over possible alternatives in 2024. The current RealClearPolitics average of polls has Trump beating DeSantis by 26 points. And DeSantis is Trump’s only potential opponent with double-digit support. Former vice president Mike Pence, who has been moving toward his own presidential bid, comes in a distant third place.
It is hard to see how a campaign announcement would hurt Trump’s standing. In fact, Trump would begin the race in a commanding position. Unlike in 2016, none of his rivals could say that he lacks the experience for the job. Trump’s core supporters are as devoted to him as ever. Drive along a rural highway and you are likely to spot roadside “Trump 2024″ signs. There are no Pence banners hanging from barn roofs. DeSantis is well liked, for sure, but among the MAGA faithful he is more often mentioned as a potential running mate for Trump rather than the next president himself.
Much of the case for Trump’s perceived weakness hangs on a recent New York Times/Siena College poll that found Trump marshaling only 49 percent support among GOP voters. “His share of the Republican primary electorate is less than Hillary Clinton’s among Democrats was at the outset of the 2016 race, when she was viewed as the inevitable frontrunner, but ultimately found herself embroiled in a protracted primary against Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont,” wrote correspondent Michael C. Bender. All true‚ but what does it prove? Clinton won the primary in question. The GOP contest might not be the coronation ceremony that Trump envisions. He could win the crown all the same.
Trump’s resilience may seem puzzling. Why does a sizable chunk of the Republican Party remain in his corner, when those voters could back a more disciplined candidate who shares the former president’s policies and attitude? The question assumes that voters are logical and that charismatic leadership is easily transferable. Neither assumption is true. The connection between populist tribunes and their followers is personal rather than intellectual. The leader becomes a symbol of resistance against everything the crowd despises.
And the crowd takes on the persona of its leader. Since Trump became president, Republican voters have become more hostile to international trade and more favorable to Vladimir Putin. The GOP did not issue a platform in 2020 for the first time in its history, leaving Trump to define the party’s mission. No one batted an eye. Nor did losing to Joe Biden damage Trump’s reputation among his loyalists: Most Republicans believe his falsehoods about the election.
Populist firebrands do not depart quietly. They are forced out of politics either through violence (Huey Long, George Wallace) or repudiation (William Jennings Bryan, Joseph McCarthy). Trump’s bond with his voters likely will last until he exits the political scene. That is not something he seems interested in doing.
Trump remains the Republican Party’s most dynamic — some might say demagogic — orator. DeSantis speaks forcefully and intelligently about his record in Florida, but also quickly and with little emotion. Pence’s manner and speech resemble a Hollywood actor’s imitation of an American president. In late July, when he addressed the conservative Young America’s Foundation in Washington, Pence earned strong but polite applause. The same day, in the same city, Trump gave a long talk at a meeting of the America First Policy Institute. The worshipful crowd was filled with donors to his past campaigns and with staff from his former administration. The audience was putty in Trump’s hands. It laughed uproariously when Trump mocked a trans athlete who won a women’s weightlifting competition.
DeSantis boosters have said that in a primary the governor could attack Trump from the right. According to this logic, challengers for the nomination might try to out-MAGA Trump by asking him why he didn’t fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, why he didn’t finish the southern border wall, why the “law and order” president sided with Kim Kardashian on criminal justice reform. The strategy appears sound. But, as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
If there is one thing we have learned about Trump, it is that he leaves no criticism unanswered. Any serious rival to Trump will have to withstand his inevitable personal attacks. Pence has been on Trump’s bad side for close to two years. He knows what he will have to deal with. DeSantis might not be prepared for the moment when the former president goes for the jugular. It won’t be pretty. Recall the path of destruction Trump cut through the 2016 field of Republican candidates, men and women whose reputations he tore apart and who, in most cases, ultimately capitulated to him.
The biggest threats to a Trump restoration are the federal and state investigations into his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The specter of the riot in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, haunts Trump. His actions after losing to Joe Biden are among the reasons most Americans do not want him to run for president again. How an indictment of Trump would affect his standing within the GOP is harder to discern. It may inspire Republicans to look for alternatives. It may also rally the party base around him. Silvio Berlusconi and Benjamin Netanyahu, two foreign leaders whom Trump resembles, have endured years of indictments and trials. Most likely, Trump will too.
“Do I go before or after? That will be my big decision,” Trump told New York magazine last month. He was referring to November’s midterm election and the timing of a presidential announcement. Trump may put off an official launch for financial reasons: As soon he becomes an actual candidate, he will lose direct control of the $100 million in his Super PAC. The Republican National Committee will stop paying his legal bills. But he won’t delay forever.
Polls showing Trump losing to President Biden are unlikely to dissuade him. Those polls show Trump within the margin of error — and in several polls Trump is slightly ahead of Biden. Besides, Biden might not be the Democratic nominee in 2024. And Trump may be eager to use lines of attack on Vice President Kamala Harris that worked on Hillary Clinton.
Very soon, then, Republicans and conservatives will be forced once more to define themselves in relation to the man who has dominated their party, their movement, and their country for the better part of a decade. A good part of the GOP, and most Americans, may be tired of the controversies, psychodramas, scandals, conspiracy theories, and turbulence. They may be prepared to vote for an alternative and deny Trump the nomination. Plenty of Republicans may back DeSantis against him in a primary. Some of them even may be ready to sit out another general election — or vote for the Democratic alternative — to escape four more years of the man from Mar-a-Lago. What they cannot escape is reality.
Trump is coming back.
Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.”