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Opinion Rising GOP anger at Trump shows a deeper problem for the party

Former president Donald Trump at a rally in Waukesha ,Wis., on Aug. 5 (Morry Gash/AP)

As Donald Trump’s legal travails deepen, a strange split-screen effect has taken hold throughout the GOP. On one screen, Republicans are increasingly anxious about revelations involving Trump, while concocting ever more inventive ways to achieve distance from them.

On the other, GOP candidates in crucial midterm contests are, if anything, getting more Trumpy. They’re not just aggressively defending Trump; they’re also enthusiastically embracing the many pathologies he brought to our politics, and even imitating his mannerisms.

This captures an essential tension about this moment. Many Republicans apparently remain deeply convinced that Trump and his preoccupations are an indispensable source of political energy for their 2022 campaigns. Yet coming revelations about Trump might keep rendering that energy more toxic in swing states and districts.

Two useful reports — one in Politico, the other in the New York Times — provide new information that illuminates that tension. Politico details “growing angst and concern” among Republicans about Trump’s ever-ballooning role in news cycles.

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Some Republicans are urging the party to pivot away from defending Trump, Politico notes, to change the subject back to issues such as inflation. One GOP fundraiser describes the party’s mood about Trump as “enormous frustration.”

Republicans have adopted several strategies after the release of the redacted affidavit for the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, which deepened our understanding of Trump’s misconduct and potential crimes associated with hoarding highly classified documents.

Some Republicans are blaming the media for hyping the revelations, per Politico. Others insist there’s something vaguely amiss about the timing of the search. Still others say the documents aren’t harboring serious secrets, which is contradicted by already-known facts.

But the responses mostly have a halfhearted quality. Among those Republicans, at least, gone is the full-throated rage that initially treated Trump as uniformly a victim and the search as wholly illegitimate.

Why? Well, as the Times piece documents, Trump is again a big story on terms unfavorable to Republicans. The political dynamic has shifted amid numerous factors: Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices overturning Roe v. Wade, revelations about Trump’s effort to destroy our democracy and, now, the drumbeat of devastating facts about his harboring of state secrets.

While holding the House will still be tough for Democrats, it’s now in play, and keeping the Senate is very plausible. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg tells the Times, the combination of Republicans initially running “toward MAGA” and Trump’s reemergence with a vengeance have given Democrats “more ammunition to label their candidates as extreme.”

Many of the aforementioned “frustrated” Republicans appear to agree. But here’s the rub: Some GOP candidates have a different theory of the case. They genuinely appear to see Trump and Trumpism as key sources of political energy and inspiration.

Take Blake Masters, the GOP nominee for Senate in Arizona. Masters is under fire for blaming racial diversity at the Federal Reserve for economic woes. Now, Masters has responded with a video that seems designed to capture a kind of unadulterated Trumpism:

Note that Masters says “fake news!” with a bombastic vehemence that appears to consciously imitate Trump. And Masters attacks Vice President Harris with the ugly claim that she is “so incompetent she can’t even get a sentence out.”

That’s gutter trolling, but it’s of interest. While Masters has tried to selectively sanitize his positions on abortion and the 2020 election, here he’s working overtime to capture the spirit and essence of Trump’s sheer abusiveness. It’s as though going all-in on such unapologetic derangement is itself a selling point that displays resolve and fight against, well, whoever gets triggered by it.

It all has the feel of the geek who tries to stride into the school cafeteria with the swagger of a jock, but trips over his own feet. As Sam Adler-Bell documents, Masters is crafting a brand of Trumpism that’s nerdy and hyper-intellectualized but retains its dark hatreds of all manner of leftist enemies. In that video Masters attempts this to particularly ill effect.

Or take Doug Mastriano, the GOP candidate for governor in Pennsylvania. He continues to embrace insurrectionist lies about 2020 and talks only to right-wing media sources. When an old Army War College faculty photo surfaced of him in a Confederate uniform, his adviser was brashly unapologetic and blamed the left for trying to “erase history.” Mastriano is set to campaign with Trump.

And Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, is still running down rabbit holes in a never-ending chase after crackpot conspiracy theories about 2020. Lake depicted the Mar-a-Lago search as a sign the country has succumbed to totalitarianism and jackbooted tyranny.

GOP strategist Liam Donovan notes that such candidates are motivated by different levels of sincerity in their devotion to the Trumpist faith, but all seek to draw from it a political “spark” that replicates Trump’s successes.

“So much of it is an attitudinal thing,” Donovan told me. “So much of it is a sneer.”

Many GOP politicians, Donovan continued, grasp the true essence of Trump’s most important innovation.

“Trump realized that having the right enemies is perhaps the most important thing to the GOP base,” Donovan told me. These candidates are seeking to “emulate” those tendencies, “even if it’s sort of a pale imitation.”

It remains to be seen how heavy an albatross Trump will prove to be for Republicans. But one thing is clear: Many GOP candidates appear committed to requiring the party to find out.