Donald Trump’s star power isn’t crashing, as many of his detractors wish. But it’s fading as Trump clings to the past and some Republicans gradually lose interest.
Trump’s worst moment in the 2022 election cycle, so far, came in Georgia on May 24, when Trump-backed candidates for governor and secretary of state lost to incumbents running for reelection. Trump lost usually-red Georgia to Joe Biden in 2020, and then made his notorious plea for Georgia officials “to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” The Fulton County prosecutor is now probing whether Trump committed election fraud by trying to overturn the state’s legitimate election results. Georgia is shaping up as Trump’s Waterloo.
This year’s midterms are the first tangible test of Trump’s post-presidential king-making power in the Republican party, and while Trump remains influential, he’s not dominant. Trump helped "Hillbilly Elegy" author JD Vance win the Republican primary for a Senate seat in Ohio, but the candidate he backed in the Pennsylvania Senate primary next door, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, is in a race so close a recount is underway, with a good chance Oz will lose. Trump has supported a few candidates who dropped out of races, and a few others with weak opponents who probably would have won without Trump’s backing. The Washington Post gives Trump a “win rate” of more than 60%, but some of those wins were gimmes.
Candidates have to do one thing to win Trump's endorsement
The notable thing about the evolution of Trumpism is it’s only about one thing these days: Trump’s 2020 election lies. It’s the main thing Trump talks about now, and candidates must support the fantasy that Trump won in 2020 to earn Trump’s endorsement. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama is a very Trumpy right-wing Republican who backed Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election result. But when Brooks said earlier this year it was time to forget about 2020 and focus on the next two years, Trump yanked his endorsement. Brooks now trails in the Republican primary for an Alabama Senate seat, with a June runoff to determine the GOP candidate.
Do Republicans really think the most important issue in 2022 is what happened in 2020? That’s one huge question the midterms will answer, and this could end up being Trump’s biggest comedown. In the Georgia governor’s race, former Senator David Perdue, Trump’s pick to bump off incumbent Brian Kemp, repeatedly said Kemp “allowed radicals to steal the election” in 2020. Kemp stomped Perdue by 52 points, suggesting the vast majority of Georgia Republicans don’t believe Perdue, or don’t care. Again, that's how Republicans voted, not general-election voters including Independents and Democrats.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, he had a broad range of what you might call policy positions, effectively branded as the “America First” platform. Trump wanted to drastically reduce illegal immigration, slash the trade surplus with China and Mexico and bring back steel and coal jobs in the heartland. Many of his proposals were controversial, but they promised a sharp divergence from establishment government that didn’t seem very different whether Democrats or Republicans were in charge. Trump convinced many Americans, especially white, working-class voters, that he’d look out for them better than elites from the Bush or Clinton dynasties would. It worked.
Trump's grievances still dominate his thinking
What does Trump stand for now? In some respects, it’s hard to know, because Trump has lost his megaphone at Twitter and Facebook, where coarse pronouncements would regularly trigger an entire media firestorm. Trump now posts on his own social network, Truth Social, which generates very little echo coverage.
But anybody who wants to can join Truth Social and see what’s on Trump’s mind these days. Trump has weighed in 131 times since March, not counting reposts of memes or fawning coverage. Nearly 40% of Trump’s posts have been endorsements or comments on candidates he has backed. About 10% are complaints or lies about the 2020 election; 9% bash Biden; 9% bash a variety of other Trump critics; 8% promote Truth Social or criticize Twitter, its main competitor; 7% bemoan the “witch hunt” into Trump wrongdoings that began with Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. As for truthiness, Trump claimed inflation is 11% when it was actually 8.3%, and he claimed he has the support of 98% of the Republican party, when polls show it’s more like 60%.
Trump has published three posts, about 2% of the total, containing some kind of policy idea. He said the 2017 Trump tax cuts, many set to expire in 2025, should be extended. He redefined Trumpism as consisting of low taxes, light regulation, strong borders and other familiar Trump principles. He also suggested he wouldn’t have approved the $40 billion Congress recently appropriated to aid Ukraine and said Europe should pay more. In other forums, of course, Trump at first praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, then backed away from that praise.
Sum it all up, and Trump’s complaints about 2020 and 2016 vastly outnumber any new ideas about how to make things better, today. That tells you where Trump’s head is at. If he does run for president again in 2024, he could reanimate his America First policies, but we all know that Trump nurses grievances, and they simply seem to dominate his political thinking at this point. Trump is a lot grumpier than he was in 2016, if that’s possible, which means his supporters must be willing to live in the past with him. Some will undoubtedly ride with Trump to the grave, but there are also many voters who disliked the man but voted for a fresh start, or something new. Trump isn’t that, anymore.
Trump still has one potent political weapon: A huge war chest of funds he has raised since losing in 2020. Trump’s Save America fund has pulled in at least $124 million since Trump founded it in November 2020, making it the biggest fundraising haul ever by a former president, according to Reuters. Trump could use that money to help fund candidates he backs, if he wanted to. But for the most part, he doesn’t. Through late March, Trump had only spent about 11% of the money, preferring to back his choices with endorsements rather than dollars.
That could mean a couple of things. Trump might be saving the money for his own presidential run in 2024. He could spend more heavily as the 2022 general elections draw near, to help Trump endorsees beat Democrats and prove Trumpers can still make it into office. Trump is also notoriously stingy and he might be holding the money for other purposes. He can’t use the money for personal or family expenses, but Trump has a history of blurring ethical lines and it’s not out of the question he might try.
Many analysts think Trump is likely to run for president in 2024, but that could be a matter of how Trump-backed candidates do in 2022. Traditional Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would love to reclaim the party from Trump, and Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, campaigned for the Trump foe Kemp in Georgia, Pence’s clearest break with Trump yet.
If Trump’s candidates largely sweep in 2022, that could clear the way for a Trump presidential campaign in 2024. But a setback for Trumpism in 2022 might be all it takes to knock Trump out of the ’24 race. Trump has a pathological aversion to losing, which is where his 2020 election lies came from, and voters may finally be saying, enough of that. Trump might live in 2020 for the rest of his life. Some of Trump’s former supporters seem to be saying, you can have it.