The situation is a familiar one. Donald Trump’s actions cost Republicans electoral victories in the most recent election. Establishment Republicans are covertly—or overtly—laying blame on the former president. Infighting within the party between Trumpian allies and more establishment-aligned Republicans is in full swing, and only likely to accelerate. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post has declared war, or something, on Trump. The larger political ecosystem is asking whether Trump will finally fade into political nonexistence.
That was the situation multiple times during Donald Trump’s presidency, and it’s the state of play in a big way since the most recent midterm elections. Tonight, Trump will make some kind of announcement—almost certainly that he’s running for reelection again, defying growing rumblings within the GOP that it may actually, finally, kinda-sorta be time to move on from Trumpism. Whatever he says tonight, the true purpose is to suppress any urge within the Republican Party to move on from Trump. The question hanging over the event is whether Trump’s announcement will really silence the growing number of critics and Republicans who want to move on from the Trump era.
Over the past few days, Republicans who usually defer to venerating Trump in public have instead been a little more comfortable airing their annoyance with the former president. “Those that were most closely aligned with the former president underperformed,” Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy said of Trump during a Sunday interview with Chuck Todd. When Todd asked if Cassidy was blaming Trump, Cassidy didn’t quite double down. But he didn’t quite … not. “We as a party need to have a debate about ideas,” Cassidy said. “We need to explain to the American people where we think our country should go.”
Trump has been under immense pressure to delay his announcement this evening. Aides have been urging him to hold off until at least after the Georgia runoff election for fear that a Trump 2024 presidential campaign would doom Herschel Walker like it did, so many believe, Kelly Loeffler two years earlier in the same situation. The Club for Growth released polling Monday showing Trump trailing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by double digits in Iowa (11 points) and New Hampshire (15 points). The polling memo was a clear and vocal nudge for Trump to do exactly what he’s never done: Chill out and step aside.
Meanwhile in the Senate, allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell feuded with Senator Rick Scott’s team (Trump favors Scott over McConnell for caucus leader) over Scott’s tenure leading Senate Republicans’ campaign arm in this past election, where his record was extremely mixed.
It’s a mess. But even as Republicans begin to blame Trump for having a hand in disastrous outcome after disastrous outcome in the last few elections, it’s clear the former president wants to show that all of his critics are losers and suckers for defying him. What’s more, he still has enough influence within the GOP to fuel infighting for months—or maybe even years—to come.
“We’ve all lived through this: Access Hollywood tape, impeachment, January 6. ‘He’s done, that’s it. No more Donald Trump; everybody’s going move away from him,’” Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin, who has done polling for Trump, said. “The more he gets attacked by the establishment on the Democratic side and the Republican side, the stronger he gets. I don’t think most people and a lot of people in politics … understand why he’s as popular as he is.”
Already Trump allies are mobilizing. Kevin McCarthy has been in touch with Trump over the past few days as he plots what could be an extremely difficult bid to continue to lead the Republican caucus. The fact that McCarthy, who at times has both criticized Trump for inciting the January 6 riot and defended him for some of his most egregious behavior, is in close contact with the former president right now shows that McCarthy still thinks Trump can help him shore up his right flank. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a Trump acolyte, announced on Monday that she’s running for another term as chairwoman. McDaniel will almost certainly win, and that means another close Trump vassal will helm the party’s primary political arm. In the Senate, Scott, alongside Senators Mike Lee and Ron Johnson, has been circulating a letter seeking to delay leadership elections to try and muster some kind of Trumpier alternative to McConnell. Leaders of conservative outside groups penned their own letter supporting a delay. That won’t happen—McConnell has the votes, and Senate Republican officials see it as little more than quixotic grandstanding. But it shows that instead of dispersing, the Trump mob is just regrouping.
In the right-wing media, opinion on Trump is split for now. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in recent days have not so subtly been presenting DeSantis as the leader of the party. Murdoch himself has reportedly told Trump his empire won’t back another Trump White House bid. But the pro-Trump media ecosystem persists. Steve Bannon still has his influential podcast and shows no sign of moving away from Trumpism. Likewise with The Federalist website, whose lead item Tuesday morning urged readers not to “bicker” about Trump and DeSantis but instead focus on ousting McConnell. Similarly, Newsmax’s website had a banner headline on Tuesday that read “McCarthy Still Best to Lead GOP as Speaker,” with a picture of Trump and McCarthy standing next to each other.
Some lawmakers representing some of the Trumpiest states in the country are openly beginning to split from Trump. Senator Cynthia Lummis, of deep-red Wyoming, was asked on Monday by Politico if she would endorse Trump again. She was pretty direct. “I don’t think that’s the right question. I think the question is, Who is the current leader of the Republican Party? Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis,” Lummis said.
Even so, Trump’s critics are under no illusion that if Trump’s upcoming presidential campaign were to end in disaster he would just go away. Instead, he would fume and seek revenge through other means, said former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens. Stevens laid out a scenario where Trump did crash and burn in 2024. Even then, Stevens explained, he would still have weapons to wield within the GOP.
“Say DeSantis runs against him. DeSantis manages to beat him. In a normal primary, when the race ends the war ends,” Stevens said. “But with Trump he would spend every waking hour trying to make sure that DeSantis never got elected president. There are very easy ways to do that: Don Jr. runs in Florida, gets four points. Mastriano runs in Pennsylvania, gets four points.”
Stevens’s view isn’t unique. More and more Republican insiders don’t want to head into 2024 under Trump. One keyed-in establishment Republican official I talked with predicted,“If we nominate Donald Trump, he’s not going to be our next president, he will lose.” But that official, like others, does not see Trump’s influence dissipating in any meaningful way anytime soon. Trump allies, like Scott, are likely to crash and burn in their next acts—if Scott runs for Senate Republican leader against McConnell, he will get crushed. But the former president’s grip on significant portions of the party will endure. The question is for how long, and if he leads them into civil war, will they follow?