Politics & Policy

Is Trump’s Power over His Party Fading?

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Iowa States Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, October 9, 2021. (Rachel Mummey/Reuters)
His rallies and polling numbers are still strong, but there could be weakness under the surface.

Republican politicians can be forgiven for thinking that the GOP is Trump’s world, and they only live in it at his sufferance.

He not only survived January 6 and his second impeachment — he has thrived since.

Trump’s rallies are still remarkably well-attended, he is making progress in his project of killing the careers of Republicans who supported his impeachment, and big majorities of Republicans tell pollsters they want Trump to run for president again.

And yet, there are reasons to believe Trump’s dominance is exaggerated and that it is slowly degrading, such that by the time the 2024 Republican primaries roll around, he’ll be challengeable and beatable if he runs.

It’s not unusual for a former president to own his party until someone comes and takes it from him — Bill Clinton prior to Barack Obama, for example.

What’s different is that parties typically aren’t kind to one-term presidents who lost their reelection bids, and generally former presidents aren’t so bent on exercising control over their parties once they vacate the White House.

Part of the reason Trump has clung to his fanciful stolen-election narrative is to avoid the stench of defeat of Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. On top of this, Trump has an intact political operation that is paying a lot of attention to his potential endorsements and how they will or won’t enhance his own power.

This obviously makes Trump an important player, and maybe more. But there are indications of an undertow and factors that might increase it in the years ahead.

Trump’s media footprint is much reduced. Data from SocialFlow shows engagement with Trump stories plummeting in March of this year, and it took another jag down in August and September.

As for Trump’s polling numbers, Republicans might tell pollsters they want him to run again as a way to stick a finger in the eye of the media or as a general statement of warm feelings toward him. Even if these findings are based on entirely forthcoming and sincere sentiments, wanting Trump to run is a threshold question that falls short of a commitment to vote for him two and a half years from now.

Trump presumably will be vulnerable to electability questions. He lost last fall in part because Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton among suburban voters and independents. Biden is alienating these voters, but there’s nothing to indicate that Trump has done anything since November 2020 to make himself less repellent to them.

GOP politicians have every reason to do what they can to keep Trump and his voters on board in the interest of a unified base in the run-up to the 2022 midterms. But if Republicans take Congress next year and are worried about keeping it in 2024, they will be wary of once again needing candidates to run better than Trump in swing districts to keep their gavels.

Trump has an increasingly self-referential message. In 2016, he talked of fighting for his voters and hammered neglected issues of concern to them, foremost among them trade and immigration. Now, he urges those voters to fight for him based on the imperative of denying his loss, which is of overwhelming concern to his ego and continued political viability.

At the end of the day, what primary voters in both parties most want is to win. And this is Trump’s true Achilles’ heel. The fact is that he lost to Joe Biden and, despite last-minute changes in election procedures and the media and social-media landscape being stacked again him, it was fundamentally his doing.

His chief vulnerability is that, eventually, someone will put this to him directly, and it will land.

Perhaps if Trump decides to make the plunge in 2024, he will clear the field and sweep to his third consecutive GOP presidential nomination. His surface-level strength at the moment, though, might obscure a weakness that will tell over time.

© 2021 by King Features Syndicate

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