He is not simply the Republican Party’s undisputed leader. He’s also indifferent about anything other than his own self-interest. They’re both political assets.
Those who believe Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party has been primarily negative are continuously on the lookout for indicators that it is fading.
In a piece for the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis sees several such indicators, ranging from empty seats at recent Trump events to the struggles of some of his endorsed candidates. National Journal author Josh Kraushaar believes Trump has given his party’s opponents an opportunity by backing former Senator David Perdue’s primary challenge to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. They will free other Republicans from the obligation to remain supine in front of Trump if they assist Kemp in surviving it.
Many anti-Trump Republicans were encouraged by Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s governor’s race in November, as it signaled that their party might reclaim some of the votes Trump repelled while keeping the ones he recruited.
The obvious bad news for Trump’s opponents — and this is something neither Lewis nor Kraushaar denies — is that Trump remains the party’s most powerful leader. The less visible bad news is that he is also more powerful than he appears.
This hidden strength exists for two reasons. The first has to do with Republican voters’ desire to win the election in 2024.
Anti-Trump Republicans will try to persuade them that if Trump is nominated again, they would lose to the Democrats.
Trump has consistently been unpopular, he lost re-election, and he has increasingly focused on his personal grievances rather than problems that directly affect the majority of voters.
A candidate’s political reputation is usually so seriously damaged after losing a presidential election, especially a re-election, that he can’t run again four years later. Trump’s delusion about winning a landslide in the last election only to have it stolen from him is partially about avoiding exile to loserdom.
But it’s not just 2020 myths that will persuade Republican voters that he’s a potential 2024 candidate. There’s also the fact that he’s a plausible presidential contender in 2024.
In a December Wall Street Journal survey, he was only one point behind Biden in a rematch. Last month, a different survey put Trump ahead by two points.
Of course, it’s still early, and Democrats’ popularity may be at an all-time low.
The main takeaway from these polls is that Trump isn’t a sure loser. If Democrats struggle in 2024, his fervent supporters and those who grudgingly prefer him to the Democrats may once again combine to give him an electoral majority.
The second reason Trump has more power over Republicans than appears is that the depth of his support is just as important as the breadth of his support. Some Republicans hoping for Trump’s downfall have found solace in polls showing that people are increasingly likely to identify as Republicans rather than Trump supporters. (Trump-first voters outnumbered Republican-first voters 59-30 in October 2020; this month, the split is 42-50.)
Let’s imagine the Trump-first number drops even lower, to 10% of right-leaning voters. If Trump is willing and able to convince that 10% not to vote for Republican candidates he dislikes, Republicans won’t be able to win races in a lot of places. And we know he’s willing to do it.
Trump threatened to destroy the Republican Party by founding a new one on the last day of his presidency, according to ABC’s Jonathan Karl. That was two weeks after he had cost Republicans two Senate seats and, as a result, control of the chamber by attacking Georgia Republicans and casting doubt on the integrity of the electoral process.
Since then, Trump has openly stated that if Republicans do not “fix the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020,” Republican voters will not show up in 2022 or 2024, which may easily be seen as a threat against Republicans who do not believe in his landslide fantasy. If Kemp beats Perdue in the primary, Trump will almost certainly campaign against him in the general election without fear of a Democrat benefiting. If Kemp loses, Republicans searching for Trump lessons will focus on the end of his governorship rather than his primary victory.
In short, Trump is well-protected against the electability argument advanced by his Republican opponents, and he stands apart from his potential opponents in his indifference for anything other than his own self-interest. Whether you like it or not — and I don’t — these are two political assets for him that have a fair chance of sticking around.