The Memo

The Memo: Is Trump the GOP’s future or in rearview mirror?

One year after leaving office, former President Trump is in an odd spot.

On one hand, Trump is clearly the dominant figure in the Republican Party. He would be the overwhelming favorite to win the party’s presidential nomination in 2024, should he enter the race. 

His most vociferous internal critics are on the retreat. Three of the 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump’s second impeachment in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection have already decided against running for reelection.

On the other hand, Trump’s banishment from Twitter and other social media platforms after his incitement of Jan. 6 has made it more difficult for him to be quite as central to the political conversation as he once was. 

Some Republicans in the Senate have become willing to raise their heads above the parapet to criticize him.

And the jury is still out as to whether the former president’s campaign-style rallies can command the same media attention as they did when he first ran for president or while he was in office. 

Fox News notably did not carry Trump’s rally last weekend in Arizona live, earning the ire of former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon, who wrote on Gettr that the network had “showed no respect to anyone in the MAGA movement.”

Trump-skeptical Republicans, meanwhile, look hopefully at Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November, seeing a template for how a path might be charted between full-on “Never Trump” antics and a wholehearted embrace of the former president.

Youngkin never disowned Trump but kept him at arm’s length — and wound up scoring a victory in a state that President Biden had won by 10 points just a year before.

The clashing currents around Trump make it complicated to define his standing precisely or simply.

“He is still the biggest dog there is, no question — he commands the most attention and has the most intense following among Republican voters. That’s not in dispute,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “But we are seeing more and more Republicans who are trying to put Trump in the rearview mirror or who want a different path for the future.”

Some of those Republicans serve in the Senate. 

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), usually a low-profile figure, caused an uncharacteristic stir earlier this month merely by telling ABC’s “This Week” that the 2020 election was “fair” and that “we simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.”

Trump shot back, calling Rounds a “jerk” who “went woke” and was “a weak and ineffective leader.”

But Rounds did not cower from his original comments, suggesting instead that other members of his party should get “louder” in pushing back against false claims. 

Notably, Rounds received support from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who told CNN that the South Dakotan had “told the truth,” adding, “I agree with him.”

McConnell has also recently been more supportive of the House select committee investigating the insurrection, despite Trump’s frequent fusillades against the panel.  

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also lent support to the panel’s work during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

“Look, there was an attack on the United States Capitol. There was an effort to try and prevent the peaceful transfer of power. That’s unacceptable,” Romney told Chuck Todd. “And we need to understand why there was not a rescue effort launched well before what finally came. And they’re delving into that. I think it’s an important and legitimate effort.”

Still, Trump allies roll their eyes about criticisms from the likes of McConnell and Romney, who they see as emblems of exactly the kind of GOP establishment that Trump has always opposed. 

They also note that Rounds is not up for reelection until 2026 — a lifetime in political terms.

“It is real easy to be critical of someone when you don’t have to worry about electoral consequences for five or six years,” a Trump World adviser told this column. “It’s the senators who have an election in a few months who are the ones to watch.”

Among Trump’s allies, confidence in his political standing is rising, not eroding. 

The former president has not suffered the downfall many in the media predicted in the immediate wake of Jan. 6. His Twitter ban may have made him quieter, but it has not sapped his relevance in any fundamental way. And — most importantly of all in the eyes of those who carry hopes of a Trump restoration — his hold on his base appears as firm as ever.

“People are totally underestimating the degree to which regular Republican Party voters associate the Republican Party with Donald Trump. They are, to many Republican voters, one and the same. And there is no one else of whom that is remotely true.” the Trump World adviser added.

Those within Trump’s orbit also deride the chances of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of supplanting the former president in GOP voters’ affections. 

Recent media reports have dwelled on a rivalry between the two men, seen through the prism of DeSantis’s presumed 2024 ambitions. But whether the Florida governor has the stomach to take Trump on directly in a nomination fight — and whether he would prevail if he did — remains in serious doubt.

It bears emphasizing that Trump is broadly unpopular with the public at large. An Economist-YouGov poll last week indicated he was viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of adults and favorably by just 40 percent. 

But for now, any erosion of his standing with Republicans remains slight or nonexistent — despite what the skeptics might hope. The same Economist poll showed 81 percent of Republicans view him favorably.

“A lot of this stuff is wish-making — from people on the left who want to believe Trump was just an aberration, and from people on the right who never liked Trump to begin with,” the ally and adviser said. “It’s just a lot of people trying to wish something into reality.”

 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

The Memo