Rumors that Republicans are retreating from Donald Trump aren’t just greatly exaggerated. They’re downright delusional.
It wasn’t that long ago when pundits and journalists were claiming that the Republican fever for the disgraced former president had finally broken. “The Trump Abandonment Has Begun” declared a December headline in The Atlantic.
This came after Trump, destined to forever whine about his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, called for the termination of the Constitution; played guess who’s coming to dinner with antisemites and white supremacists at Mar-a-Lago; and saw many of the election-denying candidates he endorsed lose in last November’s midterm elections.
In The Atlantic article, Peter Wehner wrote, “Some are more direct and public in their criticisms of the former president than others, but without question something fundamental has changed.”
Nothing — fundamental or otherwise — has changed. And like most so-called reckonings in America, this one was a flop too.
In a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll last week, Trump’s lead over Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida increased. He has 50 percent of Republican support compared to his one-time protégé turned arch-rival, who has 24 percent. DeSantis still hasn’t officially announced his bid as a Republican 2024 presidential candidate.
To no one’s surprise, Trump World says this proves that any legal moves against Trump, who could face local, state, and federal indictments, will only strengthen his support. Any day now, the former president is expected to be indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for hiding a $130,000 hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress with whom Trump had sex.
Stop me if you’ve seen this insurrection warm-up act before, but Trump is using this potential indictment to incite his followers and, of course, raise millions for his third presidential campaign.
And he has the support of the GOP establishment. Top House Republicans are demanding that Bragg testify before Congress about the Trump investigation, an empty flex but one designed to intimidate other prosecutors looking into Trump’s criminality. They are echoing Trump’s “witch hunt” rhetoric, but claiming that Trump isn’t talking “in a harmful way,” as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy put it, by telling his supporters to “take our nation back.”
To best understand Republicans kowtowing to Trump, remember what Willie Sutton, an infamous criminal, said when a reporter asked him why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” It’s the same for Republicans so frightened of losing their congressional seats, they don’t have the spine to defy an ever-vengeful Trump.
They saw what happened to their fellow House party members like Liz Cheney, Jaime Herrera Beutler, and Tom Rice, who all voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. All lost their seats to Trump-backed primary opponents. And rather than allow Trump to exact revenge, others like Adam Kinzinger, Anthony Gonzalez, and Fred Upton chose not to run for reelection.
Many Republicans are walking the same tightrope they always have by neither fully embracing nor fully condemning Trump and alienating his base. Trump supporters don’t care what legislators or propagandists pretending to be journalists think so long as their true beliefs are kept in off-air conversations or text messages to likeminded co-workers.
At Trump’s Saturday rally in Waco, Texas, it probably wasn’t lost on his followers that this was the same city where, 30 years ago, a self-styled, anti-government cult had a violent standoff with authorities after an attempt to arrest the cult’s leader, David Koresh. It ended two months later with a botched attempt to end the siege and a fire that killed dozens of followers.
In far-right corners, Waco has become synonymous with unconstitutional government overreach. And on the same soil, there was Trump praising the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as defenders of the democracy they tried to overthrow.
But expect no Republican pushback to the dangerous ideas Trump is again fomenting. This is the same party that wanted nothing to do with Trump the candidate in 2015 but faithfully backed him in 2016 as their party’s nominee and as president. They stayed silent when he insulted a Gold Star widow. They said little when Trump accepted the lies of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the findings of US intelligence agencies or when he defended neo-Nazis after a deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Oh, and there was Trump’s incitement of this nation’s most violent tourist visit/block party/church social, or however the GOP is trying to recast the deadly white supremacist insurrection at the US Capitol — the same place where 147 Republicans later voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
At best, prognostications of Trump’s demise are misplaced optimism, the kind of robust magical thinking about the former president that has never panned out. Republicans will stick with Trump because that’s where their political capital is. And they would sooner abandon democracy and the Constitution than reject Trump’s frightening and vengeance-fueled horror show.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.