The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Has Trump lost his hold on the GOP? Hardly.

Former president Donald Trump at a May 28 rally in Casper, Wyo., to support Harriet Hageman, the primary challenger to Liz Cheney. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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For approximately the millionth time since 2016, we are once again reading that former president Donald Trump is losing his chokehold on the Republican Party. As a Never Trump ex-Republican, I would love to believe that’s true, but I find the evidence unconvincing.

Commentators’ newfound optimism centers on Georgia, where last week two of Trump’s primary targets — Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — handily defeated Trump-backed challengers. Both men had dared to certify the 2020 election results showing that Joe Biden had won their state. Trump’s ire did not turn out to be a strong enough reason for GOP voters to turn against these popular incumbents, and their survival might reduce the pressure on Republicans to steal the 2024 election for Trump.

But it would be quite a stretch to read into the results any indication that the GOP is becoming more sane or centrist. Both Trump and Trumpism, the man and the movement, remain more entrenched in the party than ever, nearly 17 months after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that should have signaled the former president’s political oblivion.

Even Raffensperger, who has been deluged with death threats from Trump supporters, has said he wouldn’t rule out voting for his tormentor in 2024. Kemp, for his part, carefully refrained from criticizing Trump. “I’ve never said a bad word” about the Trump administration, he told reporters, “and I don’t plan on doing that.”

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This should serve as a reminder that Kemp is no moderate. He bragged about ending covid-19 lockdowns in Georgia, resisting mask and vaccine mandates, loosening restrictions on concealed firearms, passing an antiabortion bill, standing up to “woke” corporations and prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” regarding race.

This isn’t a post-Trump agenda. It’s Trumpism — and it’s become the formula employed by nearly every successful politician in the Republican Party outside a few blue enclaves.

GOP candidates differ in the fervor with which they embrace Trump. But almost no Republicans are running on an anti-Trump platform. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is the rare exception. She shows with her courage how cowardly and submissive the rest of the party has become. But she is paying a stiff price: A recent poll shows her running far behind a Trump-backed primary challenger.

In 2016, conventional wisdom had it that there was an anti-Trump “lane” within the party. That wasn’t accurate then and is less true today. There isn’t even an anti-Trump bike path.

Recent polls indicate that Trump is the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination. His nearest challenger, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, is at least 20 points back. I doubt that DeSantis or any other major figure will challenge Trump if he runs. To do so would be to invite a level of abuse that, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has discovered, could do long-term damage to their standing with the MAGA base.

You can see the way things are going in the GOP by watching what the supreme opportunists do. Republicans once harshly critical of Trump — e.g., Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance — have turned into abject sycophants. Their toadyism has paid off: With Trump’s support, Vance won the Ohio Senate primary and Stefanik replaced Cheney as the No. 3 House Republican.

Trump has remade the GOP in his own orange image. It is simply inconceivable anymore to hear an ambitious Republican politician espouse pro-immigration, pro-free-trade or pro-gun-control views that would have been considered unremarkable a generation ago. More and more Republicans are emulating Trump’s devotion to waging a nonstop culture war. “Owning the libs” has become more important than getting anything done.

Many Republicans are still more hawkish than Trump when it comes to Russia, but that also appears to be changing. The Heritage Foundation, a one-time bastion of Reagan conservatism, is embracing Trump’s isolationist agenda by opposing aid to Ukraine.

To the slight extent that the Republican Party has separated itself from Trump recently, it’s hardly a comforting development: A lot of the GOP base, it turns out, is more rabid than he is.

After the mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 and El Paso in 2019, Trump briefly flirted with toughening gun laws before giving it up in the face of adamant Republican opposition. And when Trump — who is proud of his role in developing coronavirus vaccines — admitted in December to having been vaccinated, he was booed by a right-wing audience. But Trump is too craven to challenge his base. He simply adjusts his positions to mirror their manias.

The only scenario in which Trump is unlikely to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is if he doesn’t run. But it’s not as if moderate Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland is going to be the nominee. A Trump mini-me, most likely DeSantis, will almost certainly get the nod.

Whatever Trump’s personal fate, Trumpism has become the new Republican orthodoxy. Two primary election results in Georgia and a lot of wishful thinking will not change that dismal reality.

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