The political gravediggers have prepared Donald Trump’s final resting point so many times you need to take your shoes and socks off to count them.
First, in the summer of 2015, Trump impugned John McCain’s heroism, and that caused the establishment, led by Washington Post writer Dan Balz, to declare that Trump had finally crossed a line that called into question whether he could carry on as a candidate. Then came the election itself, and all the smart money said Trump had no chance against Hillary Clinton. He was a goner! Shortly after that came the spittle of his “American carnage” presidential address, the Mueller investigation, his love affair with Kim Jong Un, and his insistence that Covid-19 was like the flu and would miraculously disappear.
So many abysses that ought to have claimed him and yet he strode across them on a bridge only wide enough for him. Then, finally came the stain of Jan. 6, and nearly everybody agreed that he could never climb out of this gutter. But he did, surviving a second impeachment to maintain his near dictatorship over the Republican Party.
But over the past week, a series of things have transpired that make Trump’s indestructability seem less axiomatic, his dominance over the GOP and his renomination for president less of a sure thing. The difference this time is that Trump’s error is not something he has done — and can talk his way out of — but something that is being done to him. Trump has allowed a serious challenger and former disciple inside the party to gain unchecked influence. His social media sparkle, snuffed by Big Tech, has not been rekindled yet by his own social media startup (Truth Social) nor has it glowed in the B- and C-list social outfits like Parler, Gab, Rumble or Gettr. And no less a hard-right personage as former Trump acolyte Ann Coulter has judged him as finished and brought evidence to defend her thesis.
Trump has never been weaker or more vulnerable to replacement than today. He might Houdini his way out of trouble once more. You can never count him out. But there has never been a better moment for the mice to bell the Trump cat than there is today.
That mouse, who has grown unchecked, could be Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, of course. As Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported earlier this week in the New York Times, the DeSantis plot to unking Trump and take his place has only recently boiled to the top of Trump’s consciousness. Why won’t DeSantis say the “magic words” — I won’t run against Trump — the former president has taken to repeatedly saying. Why doesn’t he genuflect to me like other Republicans? Trump’s justified paranoia about a popular Republican who appeals to his base and might supersede him could evolve into a production of Julius Caesar as updated to modern times by Joel Coen. (Kathryn Hunter could cast DeSantis as Brutus.) The closest Trump has come to a direct criticism of DeSantis so far was only implied. In a recent speech, Trump called politicians who won’t reveal their vaccine booster status, as Trump has (he’s boosted), as “gutless.”
The DeSantis takeover move is made possible by Trump’s flagging support among Republicans. As Trump has moved out of the public eye (and the social media orbit) he has become less vital to party members. Today, reporter Byron York of the conservative Washington Examiner noted that a new poll shows that fewer Republicans are describing themselves more as Trump supporters (36 percent) than as party supporters (56 percent). This is Trump’s worst showing ever in that poll, indicating generous room for a different Republican, perhaps even a Trumpish one to displace the original. (Not everybody sees an opportunity for DeSantis. The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last, a Never-Trumper, writes this week that the ex-president would crush DeSantis, whom he calls a “phony” who will join in the morgue all the other Republicans who have run against Trump.)
This move away from Trump comes as the Republican Party is actually gaining followers, presumably in reaction to the Biden presidency. Mike Allen of Axios points to a new Gallup Poll that more voters now identify as or lean toward Republicans than Democrats. Based on those two polls, it’s easy to extrapolate that observation that Republican enthusiasm for Trump has cooled while the affinity for Trumpism has increased. The Washington Post’s Jeremy B. Merrill and Drew Harwell provide another angle on the Trump decline. Pro-Trump influencers rushed to the right-leaning, social-media sites Parler, Gab, Rumble and Gettr last year after Big Tech snuffed Trump’s accounts. At first, the pro-Trump influencers gained followers, but then flatlined or declined, indicating that love of Trump might have peaked, too.
No full-frontal attack on Trump would peel off many voters for a Trump replacer. He’s still revered in many parts of the country where his red baseball cap, his flag and “Let’s Go Brandon” bumper stickers rule. But supreme political advantage would fall to DeSantis or some other well-armed Republican if they treaded softly into Trump territory and, speaking softly, thanked him for his service while explaining that the time has come to look ahead, not back.
Trump without Trump. His policies without the ugly baggage that comes with him. If DeSantis executes a gentlemanly turn on his former inspiration, the Trump legacy could be his.
I come to bury Trump, not praise him. Send Shakespeare riffs to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. The number of email alerts I send out have flatlined. My Twitter feed thinks social media is overrated. My RSS feed thinks of Gettr as trayfe.