The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
People who think that Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party has been mostly malign are always looking for signs that it is fading.
Matt Lewis, writing in the Daily Beast, sees several such indicators, from the empty seats at recent Trump events to the struggles of some of the candidates he has endorsed. Josh Kraushaar, a columnist for National Journal, thinks Trump has handed his opponents in the party an opportunity by backing former Senator David Perdue’s primary challenge to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. If they help Kemp withstand it, they will liberate other Republicans from the need to stay supine before Trump.
A lot of anti-Trump Republicans took heart in November, too, from Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s governor’s race since it suggested that their party can regain some of the voters Trump repelled from the party while holding on to the ones he recruited to it.
The obvious bad news for Trump’s opponents — something neither Lewis nor Kraushaar denies — is that Trump retains great strength in the party and remains its most powerful leader. The less obvious bad news is that he is also stronger than he looks.
There are two reasons for this hidden strength. The first has to do with Republican voters’ interest in winning the 2024 election.
Anti-Trump Republicans will seek to persuade them that they will lose to the Democrats if Trump is again the nominee. Trump has been consistently unpopular, he lost re-election, and he has increasingly concentrated on his personal grievances rather than issues of direct concern to most voters.
Losing a presidential election, and especially a re-election, typically hurts a candidate’s political reputation so badly that he can’t try a comeback four years later. Trump’s nonsense about having won the last campaign in a landslide, only to have it stolen from him, is partly about avoiding an exile to loserdom.
But it’s not just myths about 2020 that will lead Republican voters to think he is a viable candidate for 2024. There’s also the reality that, well, he’s a viable candidate for 2024.
A Wall Street Journal poll in December put him only one point behind Biden in a rematch. A different poll had Trump ahead by two last month. Of course, it is very early, and Democrats may be at a low ebb.
The takeaway from these polls is merely that Trump isn’t a sure loser. If Democrats are struggling in 2024, his enthusiastic supporters might again combine with those voters who grudgingly prefer him to the Democrats to give him an electoral majority.
The second reason Trump has more power over Republicans than it looks is that his influence depends as much on the depth of his support as on its breadth. Some Republicans who wish Trump would fade away have taken solace in polls that show voters increasingly likely to call themselves primarily Republicans rather than Trump supporters. (In October 2020, Trump-first voters outnumbered Republican-first voters 59-30; this month, the split is 42-50.)
Let’s say, though, that the Trump-first number shrinks much further, to 10 percent of right-leaning voters. If Trump is willing and able to convince that 10 percent 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.
Jonathan Karl of ABC has reported that on the last day of his presidency, Trump threatened to destroy the Republican Party by starting a new one. That was two weeks after he had cost Republicans two Senate seats and consequently control of the chamber by attacking Georgia Republican officials and casting doubt about whether elections were administered honestly.
Since then, Trump has openly talked about how Republican voters won’t show up in 2022 or 2024 if Republicans don’t “solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020” — which can easily be read as a threat against Republicans who don’t indulge his landslide fantasy. If Kemp beats Perdue in the primary, Trump will likely campaign against him in the general election without worrying that a Democrat will profit from it. If Kemp then loses, Republicans looking for lessons about Trump will pay more attention to the end of his governorship than his primary victory.
Trump is, in short, well-protected against the electability argument his Republican opponents would most like to make, and he stands apart from his would-be rivals in his indifference to anything but his own self-interest. Like it or not — and I really, really don’t — these are both political assets for him that have a good shot to endure.