It’s not a big secret that Donald Trump is a mite self-centered. And so his apparent determination to dominate midterm elections that might otherwise be strictly a referendum on Joe Biden is unsurprising. It is, in fact, doubly narcissistic: He cannot risk the emergence of any Republican messaging or leadership that isn’t a reflection of his glory, and he very much wants 2022 to represent little more than a springboard to his vindication (as a candidate or as a kingmaker) in 2024.
But the depth and breadth of Trump’s self-focus are sometimes hard to grasp, as illustrated by an incident in Ohio that Politico brought to light:
Trump last month called Club for Growth President David McIntosh to complain about a TV advertising campaign the conservative organization was running targeting Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, and asked McIntosh to take the ads down. The commercials attacked Vance by using footage of him from 2016, when he described himself as a “Never Trump guy” and called Trump an “idiot,” “noxious” and “offensive.” The message was designed to hurt Vance in a Republican primary centered on fealty toward the former president. Vance, like others in the race, has cast himself as a staunch Trump ally.
The Club, that venerable bastion of conservative orthodoxy, is backing Josh Mandel in the Senate race, and its ads reflect the fact that, among Republican base voters, criticism of Trump is the political equivalent of blasphemy. But instead of basking in the glow of fires being prepared to roast anyone guilty of disrespecting him, Trump is worried about Vance’s insults being repeated:
According to three people briefed on the call, Trump told McIntosh the commercials could have the effect of driving down his popularity in Ohio, which he won by 8 percentage points in the 2020 election. Prior to the call, Trump had been stewing over the ads and had complained about them to people in his circle.
The Club subsequently offered Trump’s political advisors some polling data showing that the ads hadn’t affected the former president’s popularity in Ohio at all, and they’re still running. But the incident is a reminder that Trump doesn’t think about politics in anything like a conventional manner. It’s all about him.
Trump’s intervention in the race illustrates how he views the 2022 midterm election: as a tool to bolster and measure his own political standing ahead of a potential 2024 bid. The former president has been endorsing Republican candidates across the country and using their successes to trumpet his popularity within the party. And when he believes he hasn’t gotten enough credit he’s lashed out: After Republican Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in last month’s Virginia gubernatorial race, the former president steamed that he wasn’t getting enough recognition.
He cannot be happy with the extremely common spin among Republicans and independent observers alike that Youngkin won by harvesting Trump’s endorsement but then keeping the 45th president at a distance. And so he may intensify his already strong inclination to become heavy-handed in 2022 contests where his reputation as a powerful and vengeful god is at stake.
This will not necessarily be good for the Republicans who subordinate Trump’s interest to their own. A real test case is brewing in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams has just announced a 2022 gubernatorial run and many Republicans would prefer that Trump abandon his vendetta against incumbent governor Brian Kemp and keep the GOP united. Here was Trump’s reaction to the news:
Sure, Trump gave Kemp a well-timed lift in 2018 when he endorsed him just before a highly competitive primary runoff. But the idea that Trump beat Abrams “single-handedly, without much of a candidate” in 2018 is something every Georgia Republican knows is a laughable lie. Yet word on the street is that former U.S. senator David Perdue is now leaning toward the primary challenge to Kemp that Trump has been demanding practically from the moment the incumbent confirmed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s certification of Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia. (Raffensperger already has a formidable Trump-backed primary challenger, Representative Jody Hice, who is heavily favored to dispatch the traitor to MAGA.)
The key point is that for Trump leading his party to a big midterm victory (or more accurately, placing himself at the head of a parade that was already assembled and marching toward victory) is but a brief chapter in the awe-inspiring saga of the Sun King, whose radiance blots out the sky. In every state where his name invoked, it must be with the proper reverence. Another Georgia Republican, Senate candidate Herschel Walker, has shown the way:
If keeping negative words about Trump off the airwaves of Ohio mitigates the pounding J.D. Vance is probably about to receive in a Senate primary, it’s a small price to pay for a much, much greater cause.