The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Think Trump’s influence is slipping? Think again.

Former president Donald Trump delivers remarks at a rally in Conroe, Tex., on Jan. 29. (Michael Stravato for The Washington Post)
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In psychology, the presence of intrusive thoughts can be quite serious. But there is a less clinical equivalent in political writing, at least in the Donald Trump era.

The foreground mind is brewing coffee and focusing on the news of the day. The Chinese regime is confining a symbol of individual excellence and fraternal competition within a bubble of authoritarian control. Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to regard it as a personal test of his style of rule.

Then: “Wait a minute, the 45th president had an Oval Office meeting in which he considered using the military to seize voting machines and overturn the results of the 2020 election! And Republican leaders don’t appear to care in the slightest!”

The foreground mind jerks back the reins. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is asserting his relevance by visiting Kyiv, yet the investigations of malignant Tory partying keep coming.

“But hey. Donald Trump just called for mass protests to punish federal investigators who act against him! And he remains the prohibitive Republican favorite for renomination!”

At a rally on Oct. 9 in Des Moines, former president Donald Trump continued to unleash a litany of false and unproven claims of voter fraud in 2020. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

At some point, the internal conflict ends. Whatever policy decisions the country faces on inflation, or vaccination, or the defense of Ukraine, a significant portion of the American people support a demagogue who threatens the nation’s form of self-government. It is the pall that hangs across our politics. It is the unavoidable voice.

For those prone to thinking that Trump’s influence is declining in the GOP, the unvarnished lawlessness of his recent rhetoric — his direct threat of mob intimidation against federal prosecutors (which, after the Capitol assault, implies the possibility of violence); his pondering of pardons for those guilty of assaulting the Capitol; his baldly stated desire to steal a presidential election with fake electors — is actually good news. If the task is to develop a GOP brand that is distinct from Trump, his extremism makes party discontent more likely. So bring the madness on.

There is a case to be made that Trump’s influence on the GOP has faded a bit over time. His approval rating among Republicans has declined. And many Republicans who approve of him still don’t think he should run for reelection. There is now an example — created by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia — of feeding off Trump’s political energy without being subsumed into his reality. Trump’s social media sway has diminished since the main channels banned him. His endorsed primary slate for the midterm elections is a riskier proposition than his last one (though the endorsement strategies of a president and a power broker are naturally different).

But all this is the slightest diminution from an extraordinary height. Trump remains in effective control of the Republican Party. He has intimidated its entire leadership cadre. He has easily prevented rivals from arising. His control over the content of conservative media has only grown stronger. He has $122 million in the bank, given mainly by small donors (indicating grass-roots strength). A majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. About half of Republicans want him to run for president again, to reclaim his own.

The assertion of declining Trump influence in the GOP is not only easily overstated; it is perennial. It is not so much an analysis as an addiction. At various points since Trump rose in 2015, the argument has been made that he is weaker than he looks — before he went from strength to strength. And the damning nature of his record heightens the case for the durability of his influence. A man who reintroduced raw racism and White grievance into our politics is approved of by more than 80 percent of Republicans. A man who gathered and incited an assault on the U.S. Capitol is approved of by more than 80 percent of Republicans. A man who contemplated a military coup against the Constitution is approved of by more than 80 percent of Republicans. In so many ways, the infection is already deep in the bone.

This is the hardest thing to swallow or ignore. One side of the American political rivalry is producing policy that some find mistaken and damaging, and which should be debated passionately within the bounds of the law. The other side endorses a strongman who attempted to steal an election, employs political violence against opponents, is cultivating GOP governors and state officials to send fake presidential electors to Washington, and is revealing the frightening fragility of the American experiment.

Those I criticize, of course, would describe the moral urgencies very differently. Yet still the parade, for the moment, keeps marching on.