The worst-kept secret in U.S. politics is finally out: Donald Trump is running for president. Again.
Trump’s big reveal Tuesday night was originally timed to capitalize and take credit for the red wave that Republicans (and many other observers) expected to crash on Election Day. But, of course, the GOP itself crashed, with many of Trump’s hand-picked candidates headlining the disaster.
An ordinary politician, mindful of the party’s flop and the need to focus on winning Georgia’s Senate runoff, might have postponed a big roll-out. But when asked if he would delay it during a Fox News interview the day after the midterms, Trump scoffed: “We had tremendous success — why would anything change?”
In the land of “alternative facts,” everything is a “yuge” success. So the Mar-a-Lago freak show went on as scheduled, serving as a grim reminder for Republicans yearning to crawl out of the abyss of his shadow: It’s not simply that Trump is the leader and face of the GOP (which he still is) but that the Republican Party has become just another property in the former president’s branding empire.
Trump rolled out the big news in a long-winded speech, which was remarkable for being simultaneously unhinged and low energy. Even he seemed bored at times by his meandering, delusional text. “I am asking for your vote, I am asking for your support, and I am asking for your friendship and your prayers on this very incredible but dangerous journey,” he said.
Never mind that he was the author of the party’s flaccid midterm performance. He foisted election-denying clowns, conspiracy theorists and other assorted kooks in a trainwreck social-science experiment, testing whether anything could mute the fundamentals in an off-year election with an unpopular president and scary-high inflation.
During his campaign announcement, Trump took digs at President Joe Biden and the economy by bragging about all the great things he had done for the U.S. as president. No surprise: many of them were false (like giving himself credit for refilling our oil reserve) or exaggerated.
Naturally, he took zero responsibility for the Republicans doing poorly and touted his endorsements for the candidates who did win, which were almost all in safe races.
He made only a half-dozen endorsements in the three-dozen most closely contested House races — and five of his candidates lost. He was the political black hole from which so few GOP candidates escaped. The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta drilled into the exit polls in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Democrats had significant wins. He made an astonishing discovery: 25% to 30% of voters said that they had cast votes against Trump. “This is a quarter of the total electorate, consistently across three of the nation’s most polarized battleground states, acknowledging that they were motivated by the idea of defeating someone who wasn’t on the ballot, and who currently holds no office,” he wrote.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Philip Wallach crunched the numbers in the 114 closest House districts, finding that “candidates bearing Trump endorsements underperformed their baseline by a whopping five points, while Republicans who were without Trump’s blessing overperformed their baseline by 2.2 points — a remarkable difference of more than seven points.” I could go on, but you get the idea.
The GOP’s Trump-induced midterm self-immolation triggered a well-worn GOP ritual: A Trumpian implosion prompts a round of Republican soul-searching (as in searching for an actual one) with various party actors and observers either pronouncing or hoping for an end to Trumpism. But the cycle ends with a steady stream of party bigwigs bending the knee. After Jan. 6, 2021, for example, it took House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy hardly more than three weeks (roughly two Scaramuccis) to get from laying responsibility at Trump’s feet to abasing himself before them during a visit to Mar-a-Lago.
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Since 2015, Trump’s survival has astonished commentators who’ve questioned whether the political laws of physics apply to him. You can ascribe his durability to the most fundamental rule of politics: He who has the voters wins. And Trump remains beloved by the voters who turn out in GOP primaries and adore him for the belief that he feels their pain.
It goes hand-in-hand with one of the Republican Party’s modern driving principles: that there’s nothing wrong with the GOP that can’t be fixed by curating the electorate. Rather than reshape its policies to better suit voters’ needs and desires, the party of the free market relies on the heavy hand of government — in the form of things such as radical gerrymandering, lifetime judicial appointments, voter suppression laws and, now, wanting to raise the voting age — to ensure that the right voters cast ballots. “Understand something: when Republicans say they want to 'move on' from Trump or ‘learn lessons’ from their midterm debacle, what they actually mean is they just want to put a better veneer on their radical & extreme agenda,” GOP flack-turned-critic Kurt Bardella tweeted over the weekend. “They’re not interested in actually changing.”
Indeed, the clearest indication of the GOP’s thorough Trumpification is the man to whom the Republican establishment is turning its lonely eyes: Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor’s appeal isn’t that he’s substantively or stylistically different from Trump but that he’s a perfect version, one perhaps more stable and more genius. “What they [GOP voters] like is that he’s a fighter and he’s yelling at people, and it’s very clear that Ron DeSantis’s whole brand is a Trump imitation,” anti-Trump GOP strategist Sarah Longwell told The Washington Post. “The question is: What happens when he goes head-to-head with the guy he’s imitating?”
Well, with Trump’s official 2024 bid, we are one step closer to seeing what will happen. The Republican 2024 primary field could evoke the scene from “Being John Malkovich,” when the great actor crawls inside his own head, and everyone is him.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time, Trumpty Dumpty’s (as The New York Post recently called him) great fall will shatter his grip on Republican hearts and minds. Maybe DeSantis will slay Trump at the ballot box. But what will be left? A Trump party in all but name.