The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is losing to Trumpism

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
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It’s a tiny thing, by itself an unimportant thing almost certainly — but it’s one of those things that overlaps with other little things to suddenly have weight.

There was Donald Trump, filmed at a distance through some leafy plants decorating a common area at Mar-a-Lago, looking a bit put out. A few cajoling waves of his arms and his customers comply: A few seconds of applause, a couple of “Woo!” cheers, and Trump is satisfied. A double thumbs up, a little smile, and he departs.

Published by an anti-Trump Twitter account on Sunday, the vignette drew immediate comparisons to one of the more infamous moments of the 2016 Republican primary campaign. In early February of that year, former Florida governor Jeb Bush was at an event in New Hampshire, making his pitch. Once the front-runner, a favorite of the moderate Republican establishment, he’d been eclipsed by Trump in polling for months and was trailing the insurgent businessman in polling for the upcoming New Hampshire primary by a wide margin. When one of the lines of his stump speech failed to draw an enthusiastic response, he made a semi-annoyed, semi-joking request of the audience: “Please clap.”

That was it. I mean, that’s not why he lost New Hampshire and then dropped out of the race. He was already losing in the state, and his campaign’s presence there was dreary. But that moment came to symbolize the completion of his collapse. Here was the guy once thought to be a juggernaut, polling in the single digits nationally and asking the people who’d shown up to a rally to at least have the generosity of spirit to applaud. It was an encapsulation of how things had gotten away from him.

Which is why, in this moment, that little snippet of Trump making the same request hits differently.

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A poll came out last week from NBC News that included an interesting finding. When Republicans were asked whether they considered themselves to be more in support of Donald Trump or of the Republican Party, the GOP won by a 20-point margin. In the abstract, that’s probably what you would expect; partisans are partisans, by definition, because of their party allegiances. But over the past several years, that hasn’t been the case on this question. Trump has engendered more support than the party.

Until now. Before January 2021, Trump was consistently identified as the target of more support among Republicans than was the GOP. A year ago, after Trump lost his reelection bid, the two pulled even. And since then, the GOP has built a widening lead.

To some extent, as The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out on Twitter, this is a false choice. The GOP is so thoroughly saturated with Trumpism — his preferences, his tactics, his style — that it’s a bit like asking which Power Ranger is your favorite: They all do the same things, so you’re mostly picking on aesthetics.

But that by itself is important. Seven years after Trump first emerged as a significant political force, and with him now in semi-retirement post-2020, the party seems finally to have figured out how to use to its own advantage what made him appealing. Trumpism, if you will, has been licensed out like so many Trump products before.

So we have the current governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis (R), running to Trump’s right on the coronavirus pandemic. DeSantis has for months been effectively using pandemic response measures as a way of making the same appeal to Republican voters that Trump once did: that the true heroes are those standing up to The Man and to The Elites … by worrying only about what they feel like doing.

In recent weeks, DeSantis’s efforts in this regard have targeted Trump specifically. In an interview with the podcast “Ruthless” — co-hosted by media personality Shashank Tripathi, himself once a breathless Jeb Bush supporter — DeSantis criticized Trump’s initial call for restrictions on social and economic activity in the pandemic’s first months. Trump has been fighting back, attacking DeSantis indirectly for not saying whether he’d gotten a booster of the coronavirus vaccine, a genre of admission that, when offered recently by Trump, resulted in boos from his audience. Trumpism means viewing any advocacy of preventive measures as government overreach, so Trump’s efforts to take credit for the vaccine rollout are at odds with the impulse he long cultivated.

As Trump contemplates a 2024 run, DeSantis is a particular problem. In early (early) polling on the GOP’s nomination, DeSantis is a consistent runner-up to the former president. Trump much prefers elections in which he has no opponents, a state of affairs he finagled in earning his party’s renomination two years ago. To freeze the field, he wants to present an air of invulnerability. DeSantis trails, but the idea he could surpass Trump isn’t crazy. And that’s not what Trump wants people to think.

So he has reportedly now increasingly worried about how his 2022 endorsements will go. Trump prides himself on his track record in endorsements, a track record that is robust in Republican primaries (where he has for years had a lot of influence) and spotty in general elections (mirroring his own record). Politico last week reported that Trump was increasingly stressed about whom he might endorse in the upcoming midterm primaries, worried about navigating the competing recommendations of his advisers, many of whom were being paid by the candidates they were promoting.

In response, Trump is apparently considering dual endorsements, backing more than one candidate in a race. It’s an unintentionally revealing consideration, one that would make explicit that Trump’s concern is not values but the demonstration of success. This isn’t really a secret, but Trump’s generic-to-the-point-of-parody endorsements were in the past at least theoretically predicated on issues.

This is the “please clap” of endorsement strategies, an effort to simply gin up the appearance of importance where it otherwise wouldn’t exist. It would demonstrate not Trump’s exaggerated power but, instead, emphasize his weakness.

It’s also a sign that the party is moving on. Lots of candidates — most candidates! — running for Republican nominations are echoing Trump’s rhetoric and priorities, and nearly all would rather have his endorsement than not. But it’s not hard to imagine that Trump’s endorsement would simply become another factor in the mix as candidates scramble to appeal to the Republican base.

There is no Republican official who wouldn’t happily trade positions with Trump, and there is no Democratic official who wouldn’t happily assume the same level of support within their party as Trump has on the right. But, out of office and trying to find his footing, there is a lot of evidence that Trump’s position itself has softened, that the GOP has figured out ways to make his priorities and energies work to their advantage — just as he, in 2016, figured out how to make the GOP work to his.

Trumpism isn’t going anywhere, clearly. The question now is the extent to which Trump himself will still get to benefit from it.

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