History will record the Republicans who threw their lot in with Donald Trump as a gaggle of crooks, opportunists, throne-sniffers, and willing authoritarians. But every person is the hero of their own story. And the story Trump’s hangers-on have told about themselves all along has cast their service to the 45th president as a noble sacrifice on behalf of party and country. Their sage council has steered Trump away from the precipice time and time again; only their calming presence stands between the party and the devastation that would come from Trump surrendering to his own impulses.
Trump’s enablers tend to pipe up in the media at moments when they fear their advice is being spurned and wish to distance themselves from the coming train wreck. A spurt of leaks in recent days has reported the alarming fact that Trump is not only still obsessed with efforts to overturn the 2020 election, but convinced these efforts will actually re-install him in power by August.
CNN’s new report, packed with detailed reporting from Trump’s frantic inner circle, is a classic of the genre. Unless you’re one of those liberals who expects reporting from Trump’s inner circle to explicitly say “these are bad people who are trying to do bad things,” which I am not, the reporting offers a fascinating window into the sad, creepy world of Trump sycophantism.
The main thing to grasp about the Trump advisers is that their concern about his election lies has absolutely no moral component whatsoever. Their sole concern is that, by emphasizing his message that the election was stolen, Trump will inadvertently discourage the Republican base from showing up in the midterm elections. “I don’t think it’s wise to let him spend the next 17 months talking about how our elections are rigged ahead of a midterm election where turnout is going to determine how well Republicans perform,” one Trump-whisperer tells CNN. “We all saw what happened in Georgia.”
The problem is not that Trump is introducing a fatal poison into the political atmosphere by convincing his party he rightfully won the election, setting in motion a process of retaliatory escalation that democracy scholars fear will prove fatal for American democracy. The problem is that the message simply doesn’t attract the right voters. “The conspiracy theories and election-fraud rhetoric are helpful for keeping a certain audience engaged but they do virtually nothing to move other voters — especially those who care about pocketbook issues — into our column,” explains one person close to Trump.
Banana-republic plots have their time and place, but it’s not cutting the ice with moderately conservative suburban voters age 60 and under, so a more effective message needs to be found. “At some point, the election-integrity stuff just becomes dull,” an adviser says. “We’re six months out and I think we’re starting to see that happen. He can keep running through the greatest hits but he needs to weave in some new material too.”
As a solution, the advisers are attempting to steer Trump toward more conventional Republican talking points, which they have branded as “fresh” and exciting,” in contrast to the putative staleness of Trump’s ongoing campaign to subvert the republic. Trump “has received advice from several corners of his orbit to deliver a forward-looking speech featuring fresh lines of attack against President Joe Biden and bold references to GOP policy priorities,” reports CNN.
And yet this fresh, bold agenda has failed to seize the former president’s imagination: “Sources familiar with Trump’s thinking describe him as bored by the issues his advisers wish he would focus on — from threats to America’s energy infrastructure to increased inflation and other economic concerns.”
And while CNN’s reporting doesn’t question their judgments, you can see how Trump has a point here. Talking about last month’s pipeline hack, which caused gasoline shortages in a handful of states for a few days, and slightly above-trend inflation seems, to me, less exciting than the prospect that Cyber Ninjas will uncover a massive election-fraud conspiracy and reinstall Trump as president this summer. But since Trump’s advisers can’t persuade him that his planned coup stands no chance of success, and also have no moral objection to the issue, they’re stuck trying to make the case that election-conspiracy talk is just too boring.
Naturally, as you’d expect any time Trump’s supplicants are attempting to gently steer him away from an act of self-harm, Lindsey Graham is playing a key role. “While the South Carolina Republican has been realistic about Trump’s fixation on 2020 — recognizing that it’s a fool’s errand to get him to steer totally clear of that topic — he has encouraged Trump to deliver a speech that is ‘two-thirds forward-looking, one-third grievance,’ the source said.”
The sheer comic futility of the effort is almost poignant. Graham can’t get Trump to stop accidentally discouraging the party’s voters by obsessively undermining democracy. But maybe he can do just a little less of the coup stuff? What about two-thirds gas prices, one-third coup? Is that fair?
No? Oh well. They tried.