In February 2012, a few days before the Nevada caucuses, Donald Trump endorsed Mitt Romney for president and most Republicans didn’t care. A Pew survey at the time found that a Trump endorsement would make “no difference” to 64 percent of definite and likely GOP voters, according to CNN, while 20 percent said it would make them less likely to support Romney and only 13 percent said it would make them more likely. Pundits speculated that Trump’s cosign might help the Massachusetts governor overcome his reputation as the preferred candidate of Beltway elites, given the reality TV star’s status as a political outsider. Then as now, Trump had an uncanny knack for attracting attention. He had done so recently to tremendous effect by peddling the “birther” conspiracy theory about President Obama, a lie that was amplified by Fox News and came to be believed by a majority of GOP voters. It behooved Romney, from a politics standpoint, to align himself with that lie’s most prominent champion. As a small bonus, Trump’s endorsement came with a commitment that he wouldn’t run for president himself.
What a difference eight years make. Now it’s impossible to imagine such indifference among Republicans toward the outgoing president, who has inspired in many of them a fanatical devotion. Trump is the party, more than anyone could have imagined when Romney sought out his support in 2012, and as a result, it’s become almost as hard to imagine his influence disappearing with his electoral defeat.
Indeed, it probably won’t. If the past four years in GOP politics have been a showcase for the party’s prostration before Trump, the past week has looked at times like its grand finale, assuming the president’s seeming efforts to trial balloon a coup attempt are unsuccessful. Whether due to his own self-delusion or, as the Washington Post’s Dana Millbank has speculated, because he wants to keep fundraising with no obligation to use the money to investigate voting irregularities, as he claims he will, Trump is refusing to concede defeat in a presidential election that Joe Biden appears to have won decisively. The president is alleging instead that a historic fraud was perpetrated against him, and that a thorough audit of the election results will reveal that Biden only won if “illegal” votes are included in the tally. Rather than disabuse Trump of this notion, the vast majority of elected Republicans are playing along. This theme hit a fever pitch this week in Georgia, where the two incumbent GOP Senate candidates are facing runoff elections in January that will decide the partisan makeup of the U.S. Senate. On Monday, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler submitted a joint statement calling on Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to resign, claiming without evidence that he’d administered an opaque and fraudulent election in a state that a Republican presidential candidate hadn’t lost since 1992. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution later reported that Trump had threatened both with negative tweets if they did not issue the statement. Both concluded, probably correctly, that in order to win next year they need Trump to feel invested enough in their success to encourage his supporters to get out and vote.
This portends less a tumultuous end to Trump’s life in politics than a new beginning. Underpinning the senators’ obeisance is a recognition that, even in what appears to be his inevitable defeat, the president holds enormous sway with the GOP base. It’s far from clear that getting on his bad side is an unambiguous death sentence for Republican candidates — although Jeff Sessions, former Trump attorney general turned Trump punching bag, might disagree after his sound defeat by Tommy Tuberville in the Alabama Senate primary. But until the opposite proves to be true, erring on the side of caution means helping Trump undermine the democratic process for as long as it is prudent, and most Republicans are happy to oblige. This may well be the case indefinitely. All things considered, it’s starting to look less and less likely that this poisonous dynamic will end when the fate of the Senate is decided after the New Year, or even after Trump’s presumed departure from the White House on January 20. The reason is straightforward. Trump has an enormous following whose fealty to him seems at most times incidental to the fact of his presidency, indeed who worshipped him as much when he was an aggrieved contender as when he was playing the triumphant commander-in chief, and again now that he’s an aggrieved loser who won’t admit he lost. His approval ratings as president were impervious to nearly every disaster he unleashed on the American people — including his feckless and callous handling of a deadly pandemic — for anywhere between 35 to 40 percent of the public. Now he has proposed two future plans: he reportedly says he’s considering running for president again in 2024, and has often said that he might launch a media venture to compete with Fox News. The full implications aren’t yet clear. But when a scorned ex-president with a massive and devoted following whose most notable skills are nursing grievances and attracting attention broadcasts a plan to dedicate the next several years to resolving a grievance and getting more attention, it’s probably time for both parties to start considering how their political futures might be shaped by his continued grip on Republican voters especially, even once he’s out of office.
Of course, Trump is not known for following through on all of his outlandish promises. But he’s not known for reneging on all of them either, as the reality of his presidency can attest. And all evidence points to him being more in his element in this potential version of the future — whining publicly about having been cheated, riling up his similarly aggrieved followers, and generally drawing more attention to himself — than he ever was governing the country. Even if a full-fledged Trump media venture doesn’t come to fruition, he will remain a media entity unto himself. Even if he never runs for president again, he is laying the groundwork to become a political martyr for the right, which is the next best thing. That status is formidable. Ridding the White House of Trump, if the American people are successful in doing so, is unlikely to mean ridding our national politics of his influence, let alone the man himself. One can only begin to imagine the legions of Republican primary candidates cast in his mold seeking out his approval in the coming years, or who must pay tribute to him before he blesses their endeavors and the accompanying votes of his disciples, clogging our airwaves and degrading our ballot options. The role is there, waiting for Trump to play it should he so desire. And more to his liking, it holds the promise of substantial political influence without any of the downsides, like actually working and being accountable to other people. Americans rejoicing in his defeat should prepare accordingly.