On Thursday the Trump campaign sent out a begging-bowl email to hundreds of thousands of supporters, previewing the former president’s rally in Arizona this weekend and teasing the recipients with a portent of momentous things to come.
Donald Trump “wants to make sure it’s one of his best rallies yet”, his loyal followers were told. “He is preparing the speech that he will give in front of the American people.”
“The speech he will give” was a nudge-nudge wink-wink suggestion that the one-term president is poised to announce another run on the White House in 2024. The tantalizing hint was the latest in an intensifying stream of similar baits – most recently in remarks to Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine this week – that are driving Republican party leaders to distraction.
With inflation running at 40-year highs, and with Joe Biden suffering record lows in his approval ratings, the Republican script for winning back the US House and Senate in November’s midterm elections writes itself. The last thing the party needs, many top Republicans believe, is Trump muddying the message by talking about himself and 2024.
“Trump never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” said Frank Luntz, the pollster who has a long track record of advising Republican campaigns. “He has the chance to participate in an amazing, historic Republican resurgence, and instead he’s making everything all about him. That could cost Republicans the majorities.”
Luntz said that Republican leaders have told Trump “in no uncertain terms that anything that takes attention away from inflation and Biden’s failures could hand the election to the Democrats. But they know there is nothing they can do to influence him, and that he doesn’t really care.”
The incentive to announce early is self-evident: Trump is a past master at deflecting public attention from inconvenient truths. It is no coincidence that his dalliance with a third presidential bid comes just when he is taking a battering at the hands of the congressional hearings into the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Millions of Americans have watched live as the January 6 committee has exposed the lengths to which the then-sitting president was prepared to go to hold onto power having lost the 2020 election. He tried to grab the steering wheel of his armored vehicle to turn it towards the Capitol and join the insurrectionists; he splattered White House walls with ketchup in a fit of rage; and when his vice-president faced a mob of violent white supremacists chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” he told aides that “Mike deserves it”.
“It’s the cumulative weight of the evidence that’s piling up,” said Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative commentator who edits the Trump-critical news site the Bulwark. “The most damaging evidence is coming from people within Trump’s orbit. That’s potentially the greatest danger for Donald Trump: it’s the people closest to him, people who were inside the Oval Office, who are saying it was a big lie.”
People like Trump’s then-attorney general Bill Barr who testified that he told the president to his face that his claims that the election was stolen were “crazy stuff” and “bullshit”. Or Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, who declared in a heated Oval Office meeting a month after the election that seizing voting machines was a “terrible idea” and “not how we do things in the United States”.
It is not yet clear whether the hearings have managed to launch a torpedo sufficiently explosive to sink USS Trump. But the vessel is clearly taking on water, as is demonstrated by the polls.
A revealing survey from the New York Times / Siena College this week showed that more than half of Republican primary voters want to move on from Trump. Though the former president remains dominant in the field of possible candidates, there is one obvious and growing threat: Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who is quietly but steadily gaining strength.
“Trump is dropping,” Luntz said. “Six months ago he was at 60%, and no one else was in double digits. Now he’s in the upper 40s and DeSantis has climbed into the 20s. You see poll after poll suggesting a majority of Republicans not wanting him to run again.”
That explains the baby steps that some Republican leaders have begun to take to detach themselves from Trump ahead of a possible 2024 head-to-head. Last month DeSantis, who initially adopted the mantle of Trumpism but is now forging his own iteration of it, pointedly let it be known that he was not interested in Trump’s endorsement in his gubernatorial re-election race.
Pence, in May, campaigned with the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, in his primary re-election contest in which Trump had backed a rival candidate (Kemp went on to win).
Such activity, tentative though it may yet be, is matched by moves among those who are arguably the real powerbrokers in the Republican party: the major donors. “Donors are increasingly flocking to and chatting about Ron DeSantis – he is increasingly sucking up all the oxygen,” said Dan Eberhart, a Denver, Colorado-based businessman who is himself a longtime Republican donor.
“They are tired of rehashing the 2020 election. They like Trump’s policies, but not the drama. If he runs they will vote for him, but their preference would be to have someone else like Trump on the top of the ticket,” Eberhart said.
One of those critical battleground states is Arizona which Biden won in 2020 by just 10,000 votes. A fascinating insight into the sea-change that is happening in the Grand Canyon state is given by Rusty Bowers, Republican speaker of the Arizona House.
In the fourth day of the January 6 hearings last month, Bowers related in searing detail how he had refused to play along with Trump’s plot to overturn Biden’s victory in his state. Asked at the hearing what he thought of a Trump-backed scheme to send fake electors to Washington countering Biden’s win, he called it a “tragic parody”, citing the words he wrote in his journal at the time: “I do not want to be a winner by cheating”.
This week Bowers elucidated his thinking on the future of Trump and the Republican party in Arizona to the Guardian. In response to Guardian questions about Trump’s possibly imminent announcement of another presidential run, he talked about the growing exhaustion that he and many other Republicans are feeling.
“I know I am no-one in the great scheme of things, and Mr Trump still has a lot of sway here with the extreme part of the Republican party,” Bowers began. “I personally am more upset that we have inflation robbing us of our financial security and many of our seniors are very worried.”
He went on to say that “many Republicans are tired of the friction between the poles of the parties and would like us to focus on getting water supplies increased for our arid state, getting common sense solutions to the border which has gone crazy and which causes much of the angst that the extremists take advantage of. I am in that camp and know there are many with me.”
He ended with this reflection: “While the fringes focus on the past, we want to tackle the present and future progress we need.”
If those are the expressed views of one of the most powerful Republicans in a key swing state, it is a fair assumption that similar ennui is setting in across the country. The question is, will any of the leaders of the party have the guts to act on it?
“This is an ideal off-ramp for Republicans to take from Trump, but they’ve had so many other off-ramps they’ve refused to take,” Sykes said. “The one thing we’ve learned is that the Republican party is ultimately invertebrate – it just cannot stand up to someone like Donald Trump, even in these circumstances.”
Luntz’s assessment was more bullish about the prospects of Trump being ousted. “No one attacks Republicans more viciously than Donald Trump, not even top Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” he said.
“Eventually that will come back to bite him.”
July 16, 2022 at 11:57AM Ed Pilkington