I am not raising this aseasonal reference to argue that former president Donald Trump’s efforts to bully Republican lawmakers with the threat of primaries have reached the point at which they’re walking away, wondering how they had ever feared him. I am talking about Farkus instead because political power can erode the way a Hemingway character goes bankrupt: gradually and then suddenly.
On Wednesday, the White House and a bipartisan group of senators announced that they had reached a compromise on a massive infrastructure spending bill. The announcement was the culmination of months of discussion, an effort to work across party lines that is deeply atypical in this political moment. But if there was to be bipartisan agreement on anything, infrastructure would seem like a good bet. Spending on traditional infrastructure elements always polls well, to the extent that presidents have for decades promised to increase infrastructure spending. But in part because it’s such an easy win, there was often reticence on the part of one party to hand a president of the opposing party that victory.
Yet from the sidelines, a shouting voice emerged from the din of discussion about the deal. There was Trump, hollering about the price Republicans would soon pay.
“Hard to believe our Senate Republicans are dealing with the Radical Left Democrats in making a so-called bipartisan bill on ‘infrastructure,’ with our negotiators headed up by SUPER RINO Mitt Romney,” Trump said in one of his recent statements, functionally a long-form tweet. He added that the legislation “is a loser for the USA, a terrible deal, and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb. … Don’t do it Republicans — Patriots will never forget! If this deal happens, lots of primaries will be coming your way!”
It’s actually not entirely clear why Trump is so frustrated about the infrastructure bill; his opposition in that statement and another from Monday suggests that he is mostly mad that it gives President Biden a spending bill to sign. If he is actually thinking about running again in 2024, that makes political sense, given that Biden will certainly run on the new construction that’s going to be underway around the country at that point. But for anyone who isn’t Trump, he doesn’t really give a good reason to object to the policy beyond the sentiment that was always the driving force of his approach to politics: not giving the Democrats any kind of win, no matter what.
But it’s the last line of his statement that’s the critical one. Trump has no carrots, just this one stick: that he can turn the Republican base for or against any Republican who crosses his path. He needs desperately — desperately! — for Republicans to think that they have to listen to him or risk their own careers, just as Farkus needed to have the other kids worry constantly about having their arms twisted behind their backs.
Over the course of his presidency, Trump actually had a good record in primary endorsements. But for three important reasons, it’s not clear whether that ability to deliver wins will hold.
The first is that Trump’s endorsements themselves are hampered in two ways. One is that he’s centering many of them on retribution and loyalty, elevating candidates seemingly on a whim because they are running against people who opposed his false claims about election fraud or who voted to impeach him. This means endorsing challengers who will face opponents who have the advantage of incumbency, meaning they face an uphill climb from the outset.
The other thing hampering his endorsements is that Trump came into politics without a sophisticated sense of how elections work and never developed that sense as president. So he endorses candidates who probably could have used a bit more vetting, such as his pick of a former aide, Max Miller, to challenge a pro-impeachment legislator in Ohio. Miller is accused of assaulting a member of Trump’s own administration. (He denies it.) Or Trump endorses based on who other people think is going to win, hoping to add an easy win to the scales.
“Big election tomorrow in the Great State of Texas!” Trump said Monday. “Susan Wright supports America First policies, our Military and our Veterans, is strong on Borders, tough on Crime, Pro-Life, and will always protect our Second Amendment” — the same generic litany that he applies to nearly every person he endorses, assuming they are the most important factors. “Susan has my Complete and Total Endorsement,” the statement concluded. “She will never let you down! Go out and vote for Susan Wright.”
Some people did exactly that. But more people voted for her opponent. Wright lost her bid Tuesday night.
Republican allies of Trump’s, such as former Texas governor Rick Perry, blamed Trump’s failure on poor advice from the Club for Growth. Speaking to Axios on Wednesday, Trump said it was the first time he had agreed with the conservative organization and lost — although he then quickly tried to claim he had not lost at all.
“This is the only race we’ve … this is not a loss, again, I don’t want to claim it is a loss; this was a win,” he said, despite having lost. “The big thing is, we had two very good people running that were both Republicans. That was the win.”
We had two very good people fighting, Scut Farkus said. That was the win.
There’s no real evidence that Trump understands how to evaluate a race and make endorsements that couple viability with the values he wants candidates to display. In some races, he wants very much for someone to lose, even if it’s not likely they will. In other races, he simply wants to be seen as the kingmaker. That’s a recipe for the sorts of mistakes that will erode any sense that Trump’s endorsement is critically important.
Which brings us to the second problem Trump faces in his endorsement threats: It’s not clear how much his base intends to follow his lead.
It’s certainly safe to assume that Republicans still view Trump as an essential part of the party and his endorsement as an important stamp of validation. But Trump’s favorability ratings with his party have slipped since he left office, particularly since the events of Jan. 6.
Polling conducted by YouGov for the Economist shows that in November, about 75 percent of Republicans had a strongly favorable view of Trump, with 90 percent having a favorable view of him overall. This month, that has slipped to 61 percent strongly favorable and 84 percent favorable overall — meaning not only a decline in how favorably he is viewed but also a softening of it, with more people saying they view him somewhat favorably than they did then.
Again, these are still good numbers. But a reduction in the enthusiasm of the Republican base is specifically the sort of thing that will make his primary threats less potent.
The third challenge Trump has is that his political priorities are no longer at the center of discussion in conservative media. He still has networks and personalities that doggedly (and doglike) follow the lead of his various flights of fancy. That includes people on Fox News, such as Maria Bartiromo. But that network, still the primary driver of political discussion on the right, is not taking up the same fights as Trump.
As NBC’s Benjy Sarlin has pointed out, Trump’s efforts to undercut the infrastructure deal are hampered by the fact that Fox News simply doesn’t seem to care about it much. It talks about the border far more than infrastructure — and in recent weeks has been talking about critical race theory nearly as much as infrastructure spending. It rarely dives into the primary focus of Trump’s agitation, his false claims about the 2020 election.
In other words, Trump isn’t driving the conversation as he used to. This, too, weakens his threats. Booted from social media, he relies on others to propagate his endorsements of candidates and policies, limiting awareness of them. And if Fox News diverges from Trump’s opinion, the network can easily redirect the conversation away from him.
It’s hard to overstate how important it is for Trump to be seen as decisive. It’s why when a political action committee associated with Trump nemesis John Bolton published a poll suggesting that Trump’s grip had weakened, Trump’s team did a full-court press to rebut the insinuation. His then-spokesman Jason Miller sent a flurry of rejoinders insisting that Trump was still as strong as he liked the world to think. (Incidentally, Miller’s replacement by Liz Harrington is in its own way a diminishment of Trump’s ability to hold the party in his grip.) Trump needs people to think he can make or break their careers.
It’s probably true that, for many, he still can. But this week has been a good reminder that such bullying can very quickly fall apart under the right conditions. At some point next year, as primaries unfold, Trump may see his power collapse and see a bunch of Republicans he opposed headed back to Washington — shaking their heads at him as they go, amazed that they had ever feared him.