Is Trump's Stranglehold on the GOP Weakening?

The former president suffered some political setbacks last week but his dominance of the GOP remains formidable

Donald Trump, as I keep insisting on this blog, is not going away. It was never plausible that Trump would retire with a Cincinnatus-like dignity. But he’s really outdone himself in his post-defeat activities by working to remain the kingpin of the GOP, challenging the legitimacy of his defeat and giving every indication that he intends to run again in 2024. Further, the fact that only a handful of elected Republicans are willing to challenge Trump’s mythmaking about the election is worrying as are other signs of continued Trumpification.

The last week has been heartening because it offered the first concrete evidence since the election of the limits of Trump’s power in shaping the GOP. A candidate Trump endorsed in a primary in Texas (Susan Wright) lost her bid to be the party’s congressional candidate. And in defiance of Trump’s explicit demands, 17 Republican senators supported a move to push ahead with a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

In the New York Times, Ross Douthat has a balanced take on the meaning of Trump’s setbacks:

The weakness Trump showed this week is real, but it isn’t new. His power over the G.O.P. has always been limited: As president he often found himself balked on policy by congressional Republicans, and his impressive endorsement record reflects a lot of cautious winner-picking, not aggressive movement-building.

Limits on his power, however, are not the same things as limits on his support. The rule in the Trump era is that you can oppose Trump indirectly or win without his endorsement — but save for a few unusual cases, you can’t challenge him personally and expect to have Republican voters on your side. In areas that involve the details of policy or the machinery of governance, Trump can be defeated. In any referendum on the question “Should Donald Trump be our leader in the battle against liberalism?” his winning record is unmatched.

Douthat’s point about Trump’s support being a matter of personal fealty is a strong one. I’d add that if that’s the measure of Trumpification, we should be paying attention to the way an emerging cohort of party leaders at state level have gone out of their way to make displays of loyalty. As Politico reported in July:

In Oklahoma, the newly installed party chair is endorsing a primary challenge to GOP Sen. James Lankford, the home state incumbent who crossed Trump by voting to uphold results of the November election. In Michigan, the state party chair joked about assassinating two Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump. Arizona’s state chair accused Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of nothing less than killing people by restricting the use of hydroxychloroquine, a Trump obsession, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

There and elsewhere, state party chairs have been at the center of a raft of resolutions to censure or rebuke GOP lawmakers deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump.

In red states, blue states and swing states, these leaders — nearly all of whom were elected during Trump’s presidency or right after — are redefining the traditional role of the state party chair.

Douthat’s argument about Trump’s hold on the GOP is demonstrated by the continued servility of GOP leaders like one time congressional star and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows:

As I’ve argued before, Trump is carrying on as if he’s the head of a government in exile. That’s bad enough. The fact that enablers like Meadows are indulging Trump in this fantasy is even worse. A Trumpified GOP will remain a reality for the foreseeable future.

Coming Attractions

I’ve been blogging at a slightly slower pace over the last week for a variety of reasons (travel to visit family and work on longer writing projects, some of which will show up on this newsletter). This slightly slower pace will continue till mid-August but I will get in at least three posts a week. Among other things I have some (I think) stellar podcasts coming up dealing with topics like the mourning of Anthony Bourdain, the renewed push against the Civil Rights Act, and evolution of Naomi Wolf. Stay tuned!

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