Wednesday, January 26, 2022

January 26, 2022 

Is Trump fading? What would it mean?

In an interview last year, Mickey Edwards, former national chairman of the American Conservative Union — echoing the observation by Andrew Bacevich in American Conservatism about the state of politics on the right — declared: “The Republican party really no longer stands for any kind of principles, conservative or otherwise.” 

Instead, Edwards said, the Party “seems now to be completely following the lead of one man wherever he goes, which is the definition of a cult. . . . And that includes denying truth, denying fact, denying reality.”  Republicans speaking at CPAC “are living in an alternate reality in which facts don’t matter, the Constitution doesn’t matter.”  Instead, “all that matters is, ‘Trump is for this, we’re for this’.”[1]  That’s the usual, and perhaps correct, or at least partly correct, interpretation of the Trump phenomenon.  It would describe the “Front Row Joes,” people who were such avid Trump fans that they would travel long distances to attend Trump rallies, and camp out in front of the arenas just to be in the front row.[2]

However, there is another possibility: the base has followed Trump not because he has a coherent program or because he is in any real sense a leader, but because he points in the direction they are already inclined to go, and re-enforces their inclination to take that path;  in effect he opens that path for them.  If he were to veer off course or fall behind, he might be abandoned.

This is not to say that Trump’s followers have a clear vision of where they want to go, or even that they all want to go in the same direction. They share an attitude rather than a program: a fear of social change, a mood of grievance over imagined disrespect or oppression, over loss of control or status.  This manifests itself in resentment toward liberals, “elites” and the government, and enhances any tendency to indulge in conspiracy theories.

There are some signs that Trump’s hold on them may be weakening.  He is in an awkward position as to vaccination.  He downplayed the risks of Covid infection, which resonated with the suspicious, anti-government mood of his fans, and with the hyper-libertarian attitude of many of them.  However, he wants credit for developing the vaccines.  Accordingly, he remarked at a recent rally that “we did something that was historic, we saved tens of millions of lives worldwide” and, in answer to a question by Bill O’Reilly, stated that he had received a booster shot. Some in the audience booed.[3]  That is a hint that the biases and fantasies of the base might be stronger than fealty to Trump.

That possibility was reflected in a rant by Alex Jones, reacting to an interview of Trump by Candace Owens.  In the interview, Trump again paraded his triumph in producing the vaccines: “I came up with a vaccine, with three vaccines. All are very, very good. Came up with three of them in less than nine months. It was supposed to take five to 12 years."  Ms. Owens tried to criticize the vaccines, but Trump cut her off.  Perhaps he was merely supporting his boast about producing the vaccines, but what followed is one of the most sensible statements he ever has uttered: “Oh, no, the vaccines worked, but some people aren't taking them. The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don't take their vaccine.  But it’s still their choice, and if you take the vaccine, you're protected. Look, the results of the vaccine are very good, and if you do get it [Covid], it's a very minor form. People aren't dying when they take the vaccine."[4]  His  only nod toward the anti-vaxxers was in the reference to choice.

Sensible comments are not welcome on the right.  Jones exploded in “an emergency Christmas Day warning to President Trump.“  Referring to the interview, he charged: “You are either completely ignorant about the so-called vaccine gene therapy that you helped ram through with Operation Warp Speed or you are one of the most evil men who has ever lived to push this toxic poison on the public and to attack your constituents who they [sic] simply try to save their lives and the lives of others."  He added, in more mangled syntax, “We're about to lay out the basic, incontrovertible facts that you told Candace Owens just a few days ago is nothing but a raft of dirty lies."[5]  It will be interesting to see what he produces, if anything.

Candace Owens has no more regard for good advice than Jones.  She dismissed Trump’s comments by saying that he is too old to know how to find the truth. “He comes from a generation—I’ve seen other people that are older have the exact same perspective, like, they came from a time before TV, before internet, before being able to conduct their independent research.” (We old folks can’t navigate our way to dangerous nonsense so, sadly, rely on science). She thinks “many people are horrified by his remarks.”[6]

Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter has repudiated Trump for sounder reasons.  In a tweet, referring to Governor DeSantis, she said: “He was a loyal booster when Trump ran in 2016, but then he learned our president was a liar and con man whose grift was permanent.”  In an interview, she summed up her view: “Trump is done”.[7] 

Although Trump was not a leader in the strict sense, he was both a focal point and a spokesman for the angry and disaffected, His loss of the bully pulpit and his ban from Twitter has made him less visible, less influential and less able to keep the troops in line., even leaving aside his apostasy on vaccines.  A poll of Republican voters often had shown them more committed to Trump than to the Party.  At the end of October, 2020, the percentages were Trump 54%, Party 38%.  In January 2021 that dropped to Trump 46%, Party 46%, and now stands at Trump 36%, Party 56%.[8]  No doubt that reflects in part that he no longer is President but, as the trend of the poll is toward a greater gap, it also may reflect a degree of desertion.  Seemingly inconsistent is another recent poll: “In a hypothetical race of eight potential candidates, Trump leads 57%. DeSantis grabbed 12% in the survey and former Vice President Mike Pence placed at 11%. None of the other candidates reached double digits.”  That might show lasting influence or it might reveal the weakness of Republican leadership and, hence, shortage of alternatives.[9]

There has been mild pushback within the Party.  Trump had planned a contentious, self-justifying press conference for the anniversary of the January 6 invasion of the Capitol but canceled, apparently in part due to negative comment by Republican Senators.[10]

The mysterious “Q” of Qanon fame, reportedly has gone silent. Without Trump and Q to speak for them, many on the distracted right are attacking each other, either out of loss of focus or as rivals for leadership.  Some figures on the right, including Trump, have serious legal problems.[11]   Trump is  feuding with DeSantis, who has become the champion of Covid skeptics. 

Many Republicans reject Trump’s big lie about the election,  A few days ago Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, interviewed on ABC, said that, after investigating claims of election fraud, he found “there were none of the irregularities which would have risen to the point where they would have changed the vote outcome in a single state. . . .We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.”  Trump responded in typical fashion: “Is he crazy or just stupid? The numbers are conclusive, and the fraudulent and irregular votes are massive. . . . I will never endorse this jerk again.”  Perhaps Trump expected that his outburst would cause a terrified retraction; not so. Rounds responded:. "I'm disappointed, but not surprised by the former president's reaction," but "the facts remain the same. The former president lost the 2020 election."  Mitt Romney backed him up: “Mike Rounds speaks truth knowing that our Republic depends upon it. Republicans like Govs Hutchinson, Baker & Hogan; Sens McConnell, Thune & Johnson; Bush & Cheney; plus 60+ courts and even the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial page agree: Joe Biden won the election.”[12]

To be sure, there are those still in Trump’s thrall.  Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that he might not support Mitch McConnell for leader if he doesn’t bow to Trump: “If you want to be a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with President Donald Trump, . . . the most consequential Republican since Ronald Reagan.”   That was an interesting choice of words: Trump is “consequential.”  One possible interpretation: “he may be a fool, but we daren’t ignore him.”  Whatever Graham’s meaning, McConnell has to fall in line.  “I’m not going to vote for anybody that can’t have a working relationship with President Trump, to be a team, to come up with an America First agenda . . . .”[13]

Also, the Republican establishment is about to implement a Trump loyalty test.  Trump dislikes the Commission on Presidential Debates.  Therefore the Republican National Committee is considering amending its rules “to demand any contenders for the presidential nomination pledge to skip general-election debates” sponsored by the commission, even though, as an article reporting the change put it, the move “could potentially kill the next presidential nominee’s chance to reach voters.”.[14]

Despite such desperate tactics, the Trump magic may yet fade.  His tendency to attack anyone who doesn’t fawn over him may drive other Republican leaders away.  The faithful might dismiss indictments as mere politics, might overlook business failures and otherwise continue to be blind to his phoniness.  However, the basic fact about Donald Trump is that he always is interested in one thing only: himself.  At some point, that may register and, if it does, some of his followers may be open to more sensible arguments.  The end of his influence could merely cause a transfer of loyalty to another demagogue, or it might be the beginning of a return to political sanity.


1.  Report of interview by Erin Burnett of CNN:

2.  See Michael C. Bender, Frankly, We Did Win This Election (2021).


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