Over the last several weeks, cracks have emerged in the foundation of Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party. Although his endorsement record was always more checkered than he likes to claim—a truism that covers all of Trump’s boasts—in recent weeks, his hand-picked candidates have faltered across the country. On Wednesday, he withdrew his endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Mo Brooks—the root cause seemingly being the hard-core Trumpian loyalist’s mighty struggles with his campaign war chest and his polling numbers. Brooks’s response was curious in his own right: Rather than suck up, he hit back by releasing a statement claiming that Trump had sought his assistance in his attempt to “rescind the 2020 elections,” remove Joe Biden from office, and reinstate Trump.
Brooks has become the most noteworthy of Trump’s failures, if for no other reason than that his statement will surely attract the interest of the January 6 committee. But Brooks has hardly been the only Trump acolyte to chafe at the leash lately. As many, including myself, have pointed out, often with more than a little glee, these were signs that his hold on the Republican Party may be slackening, or at least that his effort to take it over completely was proving harder than expected.
On Thursday, Politico founder John F. Harris took things even further, arguing that Trump’s flip-flop on Brooks hit at a growing political problem for the former president. Trump’s rise to political prominence was premised on his authenticity, but he’s starting to act like a phony in recent days in ways that cut against the way he reinvented himself to run for office. Back then, when other career politicians would waffle and equivocate when asked questions that might have complicated answers, Trump would call bullshit—and he didn’t let the fact that he didn’t always know what he was talking about stop him from proclaiming his authority.
On Iraq, the financial collapse, and perhaps most of all, immigration, Trump was never concerned about the niceties of political correctness. He barely seemed to care about politics at all, for that matter. He went for the jugular in a raw and unfiltered way that well-heeled political consultants and pollsters are forever telling politicians not to attempt. All of this was bolstered by his obnoxious personality and propensity to reach for an insult instead of an explanation, which landed in Beltway ears as too-coarse-for-consideration but only underlined the fact that he was not like other politicians with his base. As Harris put it: “His grandiose self-conception, his vanity, his gleeful satyriasis—these are common traits in politicians, but most would try to hide them from view. Trump put them proudly on display.”
Trump’s decision to changes horses midstream in Alabama, Harris argues, is the culmination of a long-running trend: Trump himself has gone from America’s chief critic of politicians to being one of the greatest practitioners of politics as usual. “Trump has moved from being the beneficiary of America’s instinctual suspicion that most politicians are phonies who don’t really believe a thing they say, to being the enforcer against politicians who are insufficiently phony in professing blind devotion to him,” Harris argues. “One suspects that Trump himself does not realize how far he has drifted from the original source of his appeal as someone who is not connected to a reigning power structure and may lie and even cheat but does not traffic in the usual political B.S. Now Trump is trying to create his own power structure.” In so doing, he’s lately made a series of statements and actions that are inherently inauthentic; his brand has deteriorated as a result, and former devotees like Brooks can smell the blood in the water. In politics, as in music, once authenticity is gone, it’s gone forever.
But while Harris’s observation about Trump’s slow transformation from anti-establishment figure to smarmy politician is perceptive, he’s overstating the extent of Trump’s decline. Trump’s means of choosing allies and enemies has changed, but not substantially. Moreover, there’s still some consistency: Trump has always selfishly made these kinds of determinations. Early in his political career, his enemies on the right were those who dared criticize him: John McCain, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake come to mind. Their disloyalty singled them out for replacement. Trump wants loyalists in Congress and in key positions in statewide offices, particularly those that control elections. That Brooks is a loyalist who’s broken with Trump isn’t insignificant, but remember, he is of no use to Trump if he can’t win. While Trump is ditching him, he’s doing so in the same way he’s ditched countless other losers before.
A certain elasticity—or inauthenticity—has similarly always been a part of Trump’s politics. Yes, his speeches in 2015 and 2016 were rowdier, more boisterous, and above all more unpredictable. Now Trump stands behind a lectern, rattling off the familiar list of grievances. But those grievances are, in many ways, more outrageous than anything he said six years ago: He is fixated on the idea that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him and is relentlessly bent on rooting out any politician who refuses to subvert American democracy on his behalf. Yes, what he is building is a familiar type of political power structure, but it remains unique in that it has just one insidious goal. Republicans, moreover, are largely with him: Roughly two-thirds of GOP voters say they don’t trust the results of the 2020 presidential election.
This may change as other issues—inflation and the war in Ukraine—percolate in the news and force Trump to think about something other than his monomaniacal devotion to the Big Lie. Trump’s biggest electoral weakness may very well be something that Harris doesn’t mention: his hyping of the Covid-19 vaccine, which he thinks he has been robbed of credit for.
For the moment, however, Trump has proven to be surprisingly resilient in pushing the stolen-election conspiracy he invented out of whole cloth. As perfidious as his claims are, they aren’t particularly inconsistent with the way Trump has behaved throughout his political career: Trump spent most of his presidency accusing the deep state of conspiring against him, the Mueller investigation of being a put-up job; Democrats never had a legitimate criticism, they were solely agents of discord, seeking to subvert and delegitimize his presidency.
Yes, he grew more solipsistic and deranged as his presidency went on, but he paid little price for this politically: Let’s recall that he nearly won a second term. The aftermath of that election robbed him of his most valuable tool: his Twitter account, which he used both to set the political agenda and to attack his enemies. But it also vindicated what Trump had been saying about the illegitimate forces that were forever demonizing him.
Harris is right that Trump has grown more “political” over the last six years; for all his bombastic preening about populism and the like, it took a surprisingly short amount of time for Trump to be absorbed within the Republican establishment, rarely deviating in any way beyond mere aesthetics. But Trump has hardly been punished for his crimes against authenticity. Rather, he has been amply rewarded. The Republican Party is increasingly built in his image, and it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which he is abandoned en masse by its politicians, who have stuck with him—defended him, in fact—even after he fomented a violent insurrection at the Capitol.
One could easily draw the opposite conclusion Harris does. Yes, there are plenty of signs that Trump is not the kingmaker many thought he was or that Trump claimed to be. Yes, there are more cracks in the foundation of his political support than many believed after the GOP continued to back him following January 6. But Trump has been more successful in tweaking his brand than many appreciate. He is building a political project with a great deal of success and, if he wins the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination—something that remains highly likely—it will back him to the hilt yet again. And it should not surprise if that backing comes in the form of a subverted election. The GOP is, frankly, even more deranged than it was four years ago. More importantly, it’s even more in alignment with Trump’s authoritarian leanings than ever before. This has all come about because Trump is willing to do transparently political things, like dump Mo Brooks in a fit of fire and fury, not in spite of that.