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There’s No Question: It’s Still Donald Trump’s Republican Party

DeSantis? Haley? Whoever else? Forget it. The disgraced, twice-impeached, soon-to-be-indicted racist conman is still the front-runner.

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Still think the Republican base is done with Donald Trump? Take a look at what happened in Michigan over the weekend. The state GOP chose as its new chair one Kristina Karamo, an extremist election denier who refused to concede a defeat in last year’s secretary of state race—even though she lost by 14 points.

Yes, Trump endorsed a different candidate in the 10-person field to run Michigan’s GOP. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters, along with Karamo’s Trumpy election denialism, is the fact that all 10 candidates hugged Trump. One of them told The Washington Post that Trump’s endorsement was resented because “he don’t live here,” but this person still said, “We love Donald Trump.”

Remember: This is a state where the Democrats have literally taken over just about everything. All four statewide elected officials are Democrats, starting with Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature. This happened in no small part because Republicans have nominated unapologetic extremists for so many offices. It’s also a state that, as it happens, is reeling this week from another hideous mass shooting, and where Republicans have blocked gun reform laws that enjoy overwhelming support.

And what do Michigan Republicans do? Go even more extreme. If anything, Karamo was to the right of Trump’s candidate. A far-right religious zealot, she talked in her speech about, wait for it, demons (“and so if we’re not operating as though the spirit realities of the world exist, we’re going to fail every time”).

That’s only the latest evidence that Trumpism still rules the GOP.

Take a look at the recent polls asking about the 2024 Republican presidential primary. The media tends to hype the polls showing Ron DeSantis ahead of or close to Trump, because that’s bigger news. But I’m sitting here looking over the 10 most recent multicandidate GOP primary polls at FiveThirtyEight that feature Trump, DeSantis, and others. Want to hazard a guess as to Trump’s lead over DeSantis (routinely second in these surveys)? It averages 16.4 points.

And finally, take a look at what DeSantis is doing, which can only be described as trying to out-Trump Trump. Last week came news that, in his ongoing war with the College Board’s A.P. classes and tests, he is directing officials to explore using an alternative to the standard SAT that emphasizes the “great classical and Christian tradition.”

Trump is running what we could politely call a laconic campaign. Do a Google News search for “Trump campaign.” You won’t find that he’s doing much of anything. The top stories returned are those noting the sentencing to an 18-month prison term for Jesse Benton, an operative who concealed the Russian nationality of a large donor to Trump’s 2016 campaign (in its statement, the Justice Department said the Trump campaign was unaware of the donor’s true nationality).

He’s also getting hammered in the news every day. Special prosecutor Jack Smith has issued subpoena after subpoena of people in Trump’s inner circle. In Atlanta, District Attorney Fani Willis is still moving forward, as are cases in New York. With each passing week, the sense grows that sooner or later, some arm of the law or another is likely to catch up with him; that he may finally have tempted fate one time too many, and that even the protective carapace of the presidency can’t shield him. In fact, that it is precisely because he became president that the system finally is rising up to hold him to some kind of account (we hope).

And yet, none of it matters. Cable news spends hours wondering about this, but it’s pretty obvious why. Trump has energized a neofascist, white ethnonationalist segment of the population that will stay with him through virtually anything because he has identified and given voice to their resentments.

What can change this? In theory, three things.

One: The leaders of the religious right rally—early—behind another candidate. This is obviously DeSantis’s play. My guess is that there are a lot of Republican parents in the state of Florida who reacted to last week’s news at least in part by saying, “Hey, wait a minute, I want my brilliant kid to go to an Ivy League school, and he wants to force her to take some bizarro version of the SAT?” But that doesn’t matter. He did this to impress those leaders, just as he has done so much else, as Katherine Stewart reported for TNR last week.

In 2016, Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump the week before the Iowa caucuses. It didn’t help—Ted Cruz won Iowa. But it helped in subsequent contests, especially in South Carolina. Soon, all the major Christian right leaders were on the train. If they decide to team up behind DeSantis or anyone else right before the primaries start, that could knock Trump down.

Two: The opposing candidates could have a summit meeting and decide to put their egos aside and all back one horse. I remember writing in 2016 that then–party chair Reince Priebus should have enforced this form of discipline on the party. But of course, they all thought that Trump would fade and that once he was out, his voters would come to them.

Three: Maybe a certain kind of indictment would scare his voters away. It would have to be followed by polls showing that the indictment really hurt him in a general election, and it would then be the job of Fox News and the others to create a narrative that he’s unelectable.

None of these three scenarios is impossible. But none is very likely, because these people aren’t leaders, they’re followers. They’re afraid of Trump’s voters, and they’re afraid of Trump himself—of the chaos he could create either with a third-party candidacy or just by attacking the GOP nominee and the whole nominating process as corrupt.

As long as Trump is leading in the primary polls by double digits, the Falwells won’t come out against him. Party chair and longtime MAGA sycophant Ronna McDaniel won’t bust heads to force unity behind an anti-Trump. And Rupert Murdoch won’t take a stand, either. As we learned last week in that Dominion Voting Systems filing, the Foxers are terrified they’ll lose audience share to Newsmax, so they’ll handle Trump delicately.

I’m on record saying that I hope the Republicans nominate Trump because he’s clearly their weakest nominee. I remain convinced that the swing voters who were willing to roll the dice on him in 2016, against a woman they didn’t particularly like, don’t want Trump anywhere near the Oval Office today. So I’m mostly good with this state of affairs. Still, it’s sobering to know that he remains so popular—that this neofascist strain in our political life, awakened by Trump, is here for a good long while at least. We’re locked in a fight that I can’t see ending in my lifetime.