early and often

Trump’s Hold on the GOP Won’t Loosen Even If His Candidates Fail

His cult of personality can withstand a few botched endorsements.

Supporters attend a rally hosted by former president Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23 in Ohio. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Supporters attend a rally hosted by former president Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23 in Ohio. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Since Donald Trump first soared to the top of Republican primary polls in 2015, Democrats and disaffected conservatives have kept hope alive that at some point, he would lose his grip on the GOP — or destroy it altogether. Various commentators and politicians have been declaring for the better part of a decade that the Trumpian fever in the GOP would eventually break, or that some new facet of his insanity would drive core voters away, or that losing the popular vote twice would make his fans reconsider their allegiance.

Two years out from the second loss, it’s clear that Trump is going nowhere, and that he’ll likely be dominating the Republican Party until he dies. J.D. Vance’s come-from-behind win in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio is emblematic of Trump’s clout, but it would be foolhardy to measure the former president’s influence merely by the victories of various endorsed candidates. Trump is reckless and grievance-driven and will inevitably back losers. Brian Kemp appears ready to crush David Perdue in Georgia, for example, and Dr. Oz is getting booed by Republican voters at rallies in Pennsylvania. (Though he may still win Tuesday’s primary.) A Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate in Nebraska lost last week, and multiple other endorsees face tough roads in their primaries.

None of this diminishes the inordinate power Trump holds over the GOP. The New York Times recently likened Trump to an old-world party boss, but that isn’t quite right. For one thing, the cult of personality around him looms much larger than anything seen in Boss Tweed’s era. But there’s more to his power than the genuflecting he inspires at Mar-a-Lago.

The ongoing primaries are yet more evidence that Trump has radically reshaped the GOP in his image. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and elsewhere, Republican candidates compete to see who can best ape Trump’s rhetoric and culture-war fury. The runner-up in Ohio was Josh Mandel, a former moderate turned bomb-thrower who was desperate for Trump’s backing. In what is becoming a familiar pattern, Matt Dolan, a wealthy anti-Trump Republican, carved out a niche winning affluent Republicans in Ohio’s cities — but fell short of building a winning coalition, with scant support in rural areas. Except in idiosyncratic places like Utah and Alaska, there are few paths available to any Republican who breaks from the former president in a substantial way.

There are few if any up-and-coming stars in the GOP who don’t model themselves on the 45th president. Ron DeSantis, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and their ilk war against critical race theory and embrace Trump’s lie that the election was stolen. Trump’s reflexive isolationism and nationalism is now de rigueur in large segments of the party; Vance paid no political price for declaring, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine.”

Trump’s popularity and willingness to so deeply involve himself in the internecine battles of his party guarantees that his influence, in the short term at least, cannot wane. And Republicans that manage to defeat a Trump-backed candidate will not, in almost any circumstance, repudiate the former president. He is a serial liar, and his presidency was a mishmash of tax cuts for the rich and attacks on environmental regulations, with no new policies proposed to aid the working-class people who voted for him. Yet what many liberals don’t quite understand is that Trump, for the right, has already joined Ronald Reagan in the pantheon of revered Republican presidents. Both Bushes, for the most fervent Republican voters, are canceled. Reagan himself is fading from memory, his ruthless if elegant conservatism lost in the wake of Trump’s addictive bombast.

And for many of Trump’s most fervent supporters, he delivered where it counted. This fact is crucial as a right-wing, retrograde Supreme Court readies to overturn Roe v. Wade. In four years, Trump appointed three reactionary justices. Liberal commentators were befuddled when Evangelical Christians and various hard-right voters rushed to the polls for Trump in both general elections, but these voters were the most realpolitik Americans of all. They understood a vote for Trump was a vote for the Court. Trump can’t seem to bring himself to celebrate the demise of Roe — perhaps the old pro-choice Manhattan bon vivant lurks inside somewhere — but it doesn’t really matter either way, because he did what he was told. Mitch McConnell savagely roadblocked Merrick Garland so Neil Gorsuch could be sent up to Trump. Amy Coney Barrett, swapped in for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the coup de grâce. For McConnell and the Federalist Society, Trump was the happy patsy.

Will Trump run in 2024? Within the GOP, this is the only question. DeSantis, the Florida governor, is popular, though not nearly potent enough to challenge Trump. Trump wields the power of cancellation and can deploy it at will; just ask Mike Pence. DeSantis won’t risk ruining his stock in the party by becoming Trump’s sworn enemy. Trump, of course, could run and lose again to Biden. He’d whine that the election was stolen once more and convince a generation of Republican voters the American republic just wouldn’t permit someone as glorious as Trump to reign indefinitely. The myth, in that case, would only grow further — Trump transformed into a version of the Lost Cause, that poisonous hagiography which lingered over the post-Confederacy South.

The end of Trump will come with the simple passage of time. No single scandal or electoral defeat will do the trick. At some point, the 75-year-old will be an older man, and after that a dead man. New heirs will assume the Republican throne and wrench the party in yet another direction. Perhaps the nation will depolarize. Regardless, Trump will have made an indelible mark.

Trump’s Hold on the GOP Won’t Loosen If His Candidates Fail