Donald Trump has hit the trail in his comeback campaign for the presidency, to a mixed response.
On the one hand, at this early stage in the incipient race, the former president remains one of the two principal contenders for the 2024 GOP nomination, along with Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida.
The reaction to Trump’s appearances in New Hampshire and South Carolina was ambivalent, with some Republicans expressing doubt about the wisdom of re-embracing a man whose campaign would necessarily be premised on denying the legitimate result of the 2020 presidential election, who faces an array of investigations, and who has proved a drag on the GOP in three successive election cycles. In a new poll of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, DeSantis has bobbed to the top of the pack. Further, only 46 percent of likely Granite State Republican primary voters surveyed think Trump should run again.
The reaction of the Republican establishment is similarly muted. A recent New York Times query of some 59 members of the 168-member Republican National Committee found few ready to sign on with Trump at this point. Most took a wait-and-see posture, noting that the GOP has plenty of other prospective candidates.
In some regards, that’s encouraging, at least for those who believe this country needs a healthy, ideas-based two-party system, rather than having one major party that comports itself as a political cult, as large parts of the GOP did during Trump’s presidency.
Yet few Republicans seem willing to speak the unvarnished truth: No party that believes in American democracy should be contemplating the renomination of a man who schemed to overturn the legitimate results of the last election.
One doesn’t have to wonder about whether Trump is committed to democracy. He is not. The work of the House Jan. 6 select committee and countless investigative stories have left no doubt on that score. Thanks to the testimony of Trump’s own top Department of Justice officials and campaign aides, we know he was repeatedly told there was nothing to the various far-fetched claims of widespread, results-altering voter fraud. We also know that Trump ignored that responsible counsel and instead turned to a wild-eyed group of would-be-usurpers who continued to make stolen-election assertions for which they had no evidence.
We know that Trump, Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, and other members of the former president’s cabal pressured Republican legislative leaders and election officials to change the voter tally in their states to flip them to Trump or to aid their efforts to decertify electors committed to Biden.
Trump and his inner circle then pushed a plan to have then vice president Mike Pence abandon the pro forma role the vice president plays in the counting of Electoral College votes and instead set in motion an illicit scheme to wrongly award the presidency to Trump.
Even if one sets aside Trump’s role in calling his supporters to Washington, riling them up, and then sending a mob to the Capitol as Congress counted those votes, the factual history is crystal clear: Trump betrayed our democracy in an attempt to keep himself in power.
Why is it that so few Republicans are willing to speak that simple truth?
There are only a few possibilities. One is that they find the conduct acceptable. Another reason is fear, said the absolutely fearless Rick Wilson, a former GOP consultant and cofounder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
“They are afraid of the violent, angry weirdos who stormed the Capitol, afraid of them storming their offices or flooding their Facebook pages,” said Wilson, who is now an independent. Elected GOP officials are scared of pro-Trump primary challenges. And amid deep unease about the GOP’s direction, they fear “this white nationalism that is very definitional to today’s Republican Party is most certainly growing in power.”
Put all those fears together and “it’s a bad gamble to go against him right now,” Wilson said.
Then add this tactical calculation that quiets even those who believe Trump is fading. “Thirty percent of the people in the party still support Trump,” said one such national Republican. “If we want to have a good year in ’24, we need to keep them in the party.”
That quiet quiescence about Trump’s disgraceful conduct, however, has the effect of normalizing behavior that should be disqualifying.
Tom Rath, a longtime Granite State GOP pillar, demonstrated real principle in rejecting Trump in favor of Biden in 2020 over character concerns. “He is not a person you build a party around,” Rath told me. “Somebody has got to mention that the emperor is not well-dressed.”
If only there were many more brave and principled somebodies like Rick Wilson and Tom Rath.
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.