The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump will go away slowly, then all at once

President Donald Trump prepares to address the nation on Jan. 8, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Maybe this time, Donald Trump has gone too far.

In a post on his custom-built social media platform over the weekend, the former president suggested that the “massive fraud” that he falsely insists occurred in the 2020 presidential contest warranted “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” This attack on the nation’s founding document, strict adherence to which has been a staple of his party’s rhetoric for decades, earned him rebukes from various members of the GOP. Perhaps, then, this was it. The line had been crossed.

Though we just went through this a few weeks ago, didn’t we? Donald Trump sat down for dinner with overt, nascent antisemite Ye (the musician born Kanye West) and virulent, long-standing antisemite Nick Fuentes, triggering a number of condemnations from former allies. At the time, the same speculation: Maybe that was the end of Trump’s hold on the party?

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Maybe, some thought at the time, the GOP would turn away from Trump as it became clear that he’d kept documents from the White House that weren’t his to keep, including classified documents that were kept in an unlocked room at his public event facility. The Justice Department dispatched the FBI to collect the material Trump said he didn’t have … and the GOP sided against the FBI.

Let’s keep going backward, shall we? There was the time he called thousands of people to Washington and directed them at the Capitol as members of Congress finalized his 2020 election loss. That resulted in a massive riot that left some dead, police officers injured and caused enormous damage to the building — but it was not quite enough to mark a point of no return for his party. He crossed the line … for about a week. Then everyone got back onboard. Senate Republicans could have cut off his future path back to the White House by voting to convict him after he was impeached. They didn’t.

That was only one part of his effort to seize a second term in office despite his loss, of course. He willfully misled his supporters about his election loss for months, but that didn’t mean he had crossed the line. He used the White House and other government property to aid his reelection campaign, but that wasn’t too far for the GOP. He publicly suggested that looters should be shot and privately endorsed shooting protesters, but nope. And that just brings us to the latter half of 2020.

His response to Charlottesville. His disparagement of people from African countries. His sharing classified information publicly or with the nation’s geopolitical enemies. My original intent was to document all of these occasions, but they’re probably uncountable. Over and over, it was theorized that Trump had gone too far. Over and over, the statute of limitations on those transgressions was brief.

We can go back more than seven years. Trump maligned Arizona Sen. John McCain, then seen as an unassailable representative of the best of his party … and Republicans chuckled at his insolence. If anything, Trump’s mockery of McCain’s decorated military service foreshadowed what was to come in that state in particular: dismissal of the old way as necessarily tainted and a new focus on grinding perceived opponents into the dust.

Donald Trump became president because he went too far. He went too far in his announcement speech in June 2015, casting immigrants from Mexico as criminals. But too far is what the base wanted and expected; primed by conservative media to see the establishment as timid and out-of-touch, Trump’s base hailed his heterodoxy as honest. “Too far” made Trump successful.

All of that said, it is the case that Trump in 2022 is not positioned equivalently to Trump 2016. For one thing, Trump is no longer a blank slate onto which his supporters can project their maximal expectations. He is a known quantity, including being known as an anchor to his party’s electoral chances.

He also changed the temperature of the room; there is no “too far” anymore. His outré pronunciations are something like the norm now, with other elected officials, from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), mimicking his parroting of right-wing conservative media rhetoric back to the base. He is polling a bit better than he did in the summer before the 2016 nominating contest, but the party establishment seems willing to do now what it didn’t then: circle the wagons around one alternative to block his path to the nomination.

While it is not the case that Trump’s dismissiveness about the boundaries of the Constitution will be the end of his political career, it does seem like that end might be in sight. That, seven years on, it’s all worn thin. That Republican voters understand that the fights that made Trump popular and successful can be taken up by non-Trump fighters. That Trump will always have a place in their hearts but that maybe it’s time to move on to something new. Maybe all of those times he went too far accreted on him like barnacles, slowing him down just enough that he might be caught.

As I was writing this, news broke that two of Trump’s private companies were convicted on charges of tax fraud. I wrote it hours before Trump’s last chance at salvation from the midterms, the candidacy of Georgia senatorial candidate Herschel Walker, may very well come up short. It seems likely that it’s these sorts of things — divots dug out of Trump’s armor piecemeal — that will lead to his collapse rather than one grand implosion.

Trump can survive spectacle. It’s not clear he can survive more failure. And then, one day, the GOP that reinforced his position for so long will discover that he has, at long last, suddenly crossed over into unimportance.

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