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Who Is Trump Reaching?

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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
 2021-06-16
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Erin Schaff / The New York Times ​/ Redux

“The Republican Party is just a name,” Steve Bannon told me last week. I had called him to ask about the influence he believes his old boss still carries inside the GOP. “The bulk of it is a populist, nationalist party led by Donald Trump.” As for the rest of it? “The Republican Party, pre-2016, are the modern Whigs,” he added, referring to the national party that collapsed in the mid-19th century over divided views on slavery.

Bannon might not be the most reliable barometer of the political moment, but some of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics share his belief that the former president maintains a strong grip on his party. “He sparked this [movement], and now others are going ahead and taking the baton of batshittery,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and a staunch Trump critic, told me last week.

Ahead of the midterm elections, the GOP seems to be casting about for an identity. If you open the National Republican Senatorial Committee website, you’ll see a slew of Trump-themed merch: an $18.75 T-shirt with a picture of Trump and a caption reading Still My President, a $4 decal with a picture of Trump: Miss Me Yet? But when you click around to other parts of the site, you’ll see a link to send Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska a campaign donation. “Lisa has dedicated her life to public service,” the pitch reads. Murkowski voted to convict Trump in the Senate impeachment trial over his behavior during the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol; she’s the only one of the seven Republican senators who did so who is up for reelection next year. The former president has targeted her for defeat in the Alaska Senate primary and vowed to campaign against her. “He’s going to do what he’s going to do,” Murkowski told me. “I’m going to do what I’m going to do.” (A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

After losing badly in 2020, the GOP wants candidates who can win in 2022. But the party’s biggest star seems less concerned with fellow Republicans’ electability than with their fealty. Trump aims to punish incumbents who voted for his impeachment and reward those who support the culture war he’s stoked. Republicans want to talk about Joe Biden’s liberal leanings and how inflation is making life more expensive for most Americans. Trump wants to talk about himself and his personal woes.

What will voters want to hear?

On Capitol Hill last week, I asked Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine what she thought about Trump’s ability to sway votes in the midterm elections next year. Smiling, Collins noted that the winner of the New Jersey Republican gubernatorial primary last week was the least Trumpy of the candidates: Jack Ciattarelli, who once said Trump was “out of step with the party of Lincoln.”

“I think we’ve seen in the New Jersey Republican primary that his involvement does not necessarily produce the result that he would like to see, because the moderate candidate won,” Collins told me. “Which I was glad to see.”

Politicians need attention in order to be relevant. In Trump’s case, relevance gets him attention. Republican operatives—and elected officials like Collins—are looking for hints that Trump’s base is starting to erode, even as it remains largely intact. Republican leaders still seem deferential to him, as evidenced by their repeated pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago and refusal to create a commission that would probe the storming of the Capitol. A Reuters-Ipsos survey last month showed that 53 percent of Republicans consider Trump to be the “true president,” with 61 percent believing the lie that the 2020 election was “stolen.” Neil Newhouse, a longtime Republican pollster, recently conducted a focus group for clues as to the sort of gubernatorial candidate GOP voters might prefer. “Eight out of 10 want a person like Trump—though maybe not tweeting as much,” Newhouse told me. “Based on the data we’ve seen, there is really no evidence that his influence is diminishing within the party. Right now, it’s still Trump’s Republican Party.”

Reaching his loyalists gets trickier every day. One by one, the platforms Trump used to command attention are disappearing. He’s banned from Facebook for at least two years and from Twitter indefinitely. Even Fox News chose not to air the first post-presidential speech he delivered, on June 5 at a Republican convention in North Carolina. “I watched it on C-SPAN,” Jeff Greenfield, a longtime network and cable-news journalist, told me. “You might have thought that Fox would have thrown that speech on, because they’ve been worried about whether their audience feels they’re sufficiently loyal [to Trump].”

In early June, Trump abandoned the little-read blog that had become a personal embarrassment, making his go-to means of communication a primitive tool from the pre-internet age: the press release. “We do press releases now because we were banned from Twitter, and Instagram, and Facebook, and others,” Trump said at an outdoor rally in Wisconsin, where he appeared by satellite. “They want to silence us.”

If Trump helps Republicans reclaim the House in 2022, we’ll see even more speculation about his next act. One outlandish scenario floated in recent weeks is Trump becoming speaker of the House. He wouldn’t need to win a Florida congressional seat to get the job; a majority of House members could simply vote to make him leader. The possibility sounds like fan fiction, though Trump hasn’t ruled it out, telling conservative-radio talk-show host Wayne Allyn Root on June 4 that he finds the idea “so interesting.” One person close to Trump told me, “If 150 members of Congress went to Trump and said, ‘We want you to be our leader,’ I think he’d do it.”

But even if Republicans capture the House and Trump agrees to take the role, there is no guarantee he’d win a leadership vote. Every Democrat would vote against him, as would a few anti-Trump Republicans. “Look, I would laugh it off—except this guy just may want to do that,” Kinzinger said. “Right now, he’s a loser, and this is an opportunity for him not to be a loser.” That said, “If Republicans win a significant majority, there is no way in hell I would vote for Donald Trump for speaker. So you have to take into account members like me.”

Nor is it a lock that Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, would willingly step aside for Trump to sweep in and take a job for which the Californian has spent years auditioning. Bannon unspooled a wild chain of events to me, to explain away that hurdle: Trump would serve only 100 days, setting in motion the Republican policy agenda and starting a series of investigations, including an impeachment inquiry into Biden. Then, Trump would step down, turn the gavel over to McCarthy, and prepare for a 2024 presidential run. “He’d come in for 100 days and get a team together,” Bannon said. “They’d have a plan. That plan would be to confront the Biden administration across the board. I actually believe that there will be overwhelming evidence at that time to impeach Biden, just as they did Trump. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

“On the 101st day,” Bannon added, “he’ll announce his candidacy for the presidency, and we’ll be off to the races.”

But serving as House speaker would be a lot of work for a former president who always showed more interest in the ceremonial aspects of his job than in the daily grind. Which raises another question: Would Trump actually run again for president in 2024? He faces a tangle of legal investigations involving his company’s business practices. He turned 75 on Monday and might not be up for the brutal demands that a presidential campaign imposes. “It’s difficult enough to anticipate a political environment four months from now, much less four years from now,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, told me.

“I believe very firmly that the former president will not seek election in 2024,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, told me. “I say that because I don’t think that even he believes he really did win in 2020. And he fears that if he ran in 2024, he would not be able to disguise his near-certain defeat with the narrative that he used in 2020, that the election was stolen.” (When I asked a former Trump White House official about Bolton’s take, the person, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said: “The next time you take political prognostication from John Bolton should be the last time you do it.”)

Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota is hardly a Never Trumper. He’s a Republican who voted to acquit Trump in both Senate impeachment trials. South Dakota delivered a 26-point victory for Trump in the 2020 election. Rounds, though, seems ready for a fresh face. He believes Trump has hurt himself by continuing to insist that the election was stolen. “We simply have found that evidence to be lacking,” he told me. I asked if he believes that Trump’s credibility has suffered. “I do,” he said. When I asked him about the favorites to win the party’s presidential nomination in 2024, he said, “I’m not even sure we’ve seen the eventual nominee on the boards for the Republicans.”

For now, Trump is leaving open the possibility of a comeback, another former aide said. Even mulling a run is enough to freeze a Republican field waiting for a signal about what the former president plans to do—which seems to be how Trump wants it. Trump has been “irritated” by some of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s early signals that he might try for the Republican nomination in 2024, the person close to Trump said. In an interview with Fox Business Network’s Stuart Varney last week, Trump said he would consider DeSantis, among others, as a potential running mate in 2024. “I was at the beginning of Ron,” he said, in reference to DeSantis’s 2018 gubernatorial victory.

“If you listen to him, you’d think he’s going to run,” the Trump associate said. If that happens, Trump wouldn’t be able to count on the same level of free publicity that he successfully exploited in his previous two campaigns.

“There is accountability for the words he has uttered and the actions he’s taken,” Frank Sesno, of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and a former CNN Washington bureau chief, told me. “His lower profile is to a very large extent his own doing.”

For the nation’s news outlets, Trump poses a dilemma. He’s an irresistible draw and without him, cable-TV ratings and online readership are sinking across the board. As Trump climbed to the top of the Republican field in the 2016 race, Leslie Moonves, the former executive chairman of CBS, succinctly described the bargain in covering the onetime reality-TV star: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun … Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” At what point might news executives who have no wish to give oxygen to an antidemocratic, one-term president compromise their values in pursuit of revenue? “There’s a fascination with the bizarre,” Greenfield noted.

For now, Trump is making do with what limited exposure he commands. On June 12, while Biden met with G7 leaders in a seaside resort town in the United Kingdom, Trump appeared on a jumbotron at the Wisconsin rally, hosted by Mike Lindell, better known as the MyPillow guy. The “real president,” as Lindell introduced him, recited familiar grievances about the “rigged” election while touting his record. Thousands of miles away, the actual president plotted ways to end the coronavirus pandemic and to confront an ascendant China. The 46th president was making news; the 45th, creating a spectacle that all but his die-hard fans seemed to ignore. Come December, he and the former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly are going on tour together, starting with an appearance in a Sunrise, Florida, hockey arena. Tickets are selling for $100 apiece. “These conversations with the 45th president will not be boring,” O’Reilly promised in a press release. I was struck by his need to assure us.

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