The Memo: Trump seizes spotlight to distract from defeat
It’s like he’s never been away.
Former President Trump will return to a campaign-style setting on Saturday, when he addresses the North Carolina Republican Party’s convention.
It will be only Trump’s second major public speech since his remarks near the White House on Jan. 6 — an address that became central to his second impeachment, on the charge of inciting the insurrection that followed.
Trump’s appearance in Greenville, N.C., presumably won’t have quite so big an impact.
But it is almost certain to include wild allegations glossing over the reality of his November defeat. Jabs at Facebook and Anthony Fauci are also likely, given that the former announced Friday it would uphold its ban on Trump until at least 2023 and the latter is the subject of renewed controversy over the origins of the coronavirus.
There are larger issues at play too. Trump’s speech is sure to stoke more speculation about his intentions in 2024. And it will sharpen the question of whether the former president’s refusal to concede defeat or cede the limelight hurts his party.
“If he did disappear, there would not be many Republican members of Congress looking for him,” said former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who has become one of the former president’s sharpest GOP critics. “They don’t like him, they don’t like what he is doing to the party. One of the reasons I am publicly saying this is because I know it is difficult for many members to say.”
Other skeptics inside the GOP focus on Trump’s willingness to encourage extreme or conspiratorial elements that could harm the party’s long-term health.
Another former Republican member of Congress told this column in recent days that the former president was, in the big picture, “not the cause of our problems but an accelerant of them.”
Some Republicans who hold a more sympathetic view of Trump still worry that his fixation on the 2020 election turns off persuadable voters, even as it delights the base.
Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, told Yahoo News in a story published Friday that Trump’s return to a more active and public role “will be massive and it ought to be in a good way.” But Dawson also noted that it was important for Trump to stay “on message,” adding, “reliving history is not a good political strategy.”
It has always been debatable how much Trump cares about the Republican Party, aside from as a vehicle for his own ambitions. He has repeatedly feuded with its congressional leaders past and present, and has deviated from its traditional positions on everything from foreign wars to trade.
His supporters argue his personal traits and breaches of orthodoxy have enabled the party to appeal to a new cohort of working-class voters — including Latinos, with whom the GOP boosted its vote-share last November.
But his detractors claim he has fostered a cult of personality that has unmoored the party from any real ideological foundation. They point to the GOP’s failure to even formulate a policy platform for the 2020 election as just one example.
Does Trump care? Maybe not. Some internal dissenters, like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), have been marginalized. Others, like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), are plainly in a minority even among their party colleagues in the Senate. And Trump remains the dominant figure among the base. An Economist/YouGov poll conducted May 29-June 1 indicated that 77 percent of Republican voters hold a favorable view of him.
Trump’s return to public events is also about something else, however — an all-out effort to avoid the slow slide from relevance suffered by most losers in past presidential elections.
To his critics’ chagrin, Trump’s push to maintain his influence appears to be succeeding — even though they say his tactics are exacting a price on American democracy itself.
The speech in North Carolina — a state that Trump retained narrowly in November — comes amid media reports that he believes he could be “reinstated” to the presidency as soon as August.
Trump purportedly contends that a so-called audit of votes in Arizona’s largest county will make the Grand Canyon State — won by President Biden by less than half a percentage point — reverse its results. This will then, in Trump’s reported telling, become the first domino to fall, setting in chain a series of events that will lead to his restoration to power.
None of this is remotely likely to happen, as even many on the right acknowledge.
The notion of a Trump reinstatement would be “a rejection of reality, a rejection of law, and, ultimately, a rejection of the entire system of American government,” Charles C.W. Cooke wrote in the conservative National Review on Thursday.
The Arizona “audit,” meanwhile, is so risible — it has involved, among other things, searching for traces of bamboo in ballot papers — that even one Republican state senator has complained it “makes us look like idiots.”
But all of that may be beside the point. As any illusionist knows, the key to most tricks is to get the audience to look in the wrong place. Trump, by keeping the focus on the idea of a restoration, or claims of fraud, or feuds with Facebook, keeps the focus off the realities behind his loss.
Trump lost the popular vote twice, never registered an approval rating of more than 50 percent in major polling averages, and saw his party lose control of both the Senate and the House during his tenure.
He often notes that, in November, he got the highest total number of votes of any Republican presidential nominee ever. He never notes Biden got 7 million more.
Most politicians with that kind of record would be shuffled off stage as their party turns the page.
But there’s no turning the page from Trump, so far, by the GOP.
“If anyone in the past was saying the kinds of things he is saying, we would be laughing at them or putting them away,” Comstock said.
Trump has avoided that fate. It looks like he can continue to do so.
It is a victory, of a kind, in the wake of a clear defeat.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.