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Trump Never Lost Control of GOP. He Only Tightened His Grasp

March 06, 2024

Former President Trump continued his romp through the Republican primary, easily winning all but one Super Tuesday contest and demonstrating a dominance so absolute that his stacked victories now seem nearly routine.

“We want to have unity,” Trump told a crowd gathered at Mar-a-Lago, “and we’re going to have unity, and it’s going to happen very quickly.” On the eve of perhaps the greatest political comeback in modern American history, his remarks were relatively subdued by his standards. He never mentioned his former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, almost as if the competition did not exist and a third nomination was guaranteed all along.

His control of the GOP will soon be complete, a fact that allies and Trump confidants tell RealClearPolitics reflects an uncomfortable reality for whatever small pockets of resistance still exist on the right. Trump did not regain control, they insist. He only strengthened his grasp.

“It was always President Trump’s party,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said of the last four years, “and it never changed.” The only difference is her colleagues on Capitol Hill, the ones who doubted him or expressed interest in alternatives. “All those dumbasses,” she said, “are finally waking up.”

The vanguard of Trump 2.0, Greene came into Congress pledging fealty to the former president. “They tried to call me fringe,” recalled the Georgia Republican who began her time in office right after his exit and then achieved her own celebrity in the wake of Jan. 6 as “the RINOs reared their ugly head and tried to regain control.” But the insurgency was short lived, and soon during his exile, colleagues started asking her for selfies. And then advice.

“Now they come up and ask,” she reported, “‘how do I get ahold of Trump? Do you know who I should contact on his team? I’d really like to go down to Mar-a-Lago to endorse him.’”

Greene, perhaps the most loyal MAGA lieutenant in Congress, finds the ordeal understandable but “pathetic.” As Trump continued his march through the early states, more and more members of the House GOP caucus “are bending the knee trying to make amends.”

But there was a time when Republicans could be forgiven for believing the fever of Trump was broken. It was in the immediate wake of Jan. 6. Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reportedly vowed to push him to resign, and even the Senate minority leader quietly toyed with impeachment. That day, a little-known freshman from South Carolina summed up the mood. “All of those accomplishments,” Rep. Nancy Mace said of Trump’s first term on her first day in Congress, “are wiped out today.”

In those days, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts recalls of a perception he believes was mistaken, “people assumed that perhaps President Trump's control over the movement was waning, particularly before he officially announced his run for the presidency again.”

And then a mutiny ended McCarthy, McConnell announced his resignation, and Mace endorsed Trump, citing the same record she once insisted had gone up in smoke on Jan. 6. On the verge of his third GOP nomination, Roberts said “it’s obvious Trump never lost control.”

Allies and observers make a distinction here. There is the official party apparatus, conservative media, and the donor class: an amorphous lump they call the “elite.” And then, voters. Of that latter group, Roberts said, “Everyday Americans on the center right always believed strongly that Trump was still the leader of the conservative movement and of the country.”

The elite, “almost to a person,” said longtime Trump confidant Steve Bannon, “abandoned him, but not the base.” The conservative activists and the high propensity votes, “the deplorables,” he said, repurposing the infamous Hillary Clinton slight, “they were with Trump 100% and were just waiting for a call to arms.”

“The key to all this,” the one thing necessary to keep his political career alive, Bannon added, was for Trump to “be adamant that the election was stolen.”

The call to arms first came at CPAC in March of 2021 when the former president claimed the 2020 election was “rigged,” vowed that his political “journey” was “far from over,” and said Biden had moved the country from “America first to America last.” It was what former Vice President Pence would later describe as “populism unmoored to conservative principles,” and the base loved it.

By refusing to concede, Trump tacitly refused the mantle of a former president, a factual yet verboten title inside the halls of Mar-a-Lago. Instead, by disputing the election, Trump presented himself to his supporters not as a former president but as a president-in-waiting.

Despite dozens of court cases, and the testimony of allies like former Attorney General Bill Barr, the claim has become GOP orthodoxy among voters. Six in 10 Republicans, by some counts, believe 2020 was illegitimate. “Knowing the scale of people that think it was stolen, if he wants another shot, he was gonna get another shot,” Bannon said. “That's just logic.”

And Trump deployed all the perks, pageantry, and powers given to former presidents to cultivate an image of an incumbent. He already led a massive populist movement, and though out of office, he clung to the levers of power that directed the party. Mar-a-Lago became a MAGA clearinghouse as politicians in power sought his permission and candidates courted his endorsement.

Even in exile, Trump exercised a veto, inserting himself into everything from the McCarthy mutiny to debates over foreign aid to Ukraine. “He is the leading voice, the most influential voice, and his voice carries the most weight,” admitted House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good of Virginia, who incurred Trump’s wrath by daring to endorse Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “It hasn’t changed since he was elected in 2016, and it has certainly been the same now for seven years.”

DeSantis once seemed capable of breaking that stranglehold. At least on paper, the conservative governor offered an answer to the question of whether Republicans would accept Trumpism without Trump. He set out to become unimpeachable on the issues, offering social and fiscal conservatives the kind of policies they had only previously dreamed of. It didn’t work: He was overcome by events.

Trump refused to debate; the pandemic that had made DeSantis famous receded from memory; and a myriad of legal challenges made the frontrunner a martyr overnight. The perfect storm, DeSantis told RCP in the closing days of his campaign was “beyond my control.” He dropped out after a disappointing second place finish in Iowa but not after calling Haley “a repackaged form of warmed-over corporatism.”

“Trump always had a majority of the party even at his weakest,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “but it became a crushing dominance as people looked at the alternatives and asked who was strong enough to truly withstand the corruption and dishonesty of the deep state and force profound change.”

The race seemed competitive until legal indictments provided a boon to the former president. Ahead of his first arraignment last year, John McLaughlin, Trump’s own pollster, admitted in an interview with RCP that “this is really helping us.” This was accurate. Trump led the RealClearPolitics Average at the beginning of April by 17 points. After his arraignment, no challenger came within 30 points of the frontrunner.

“He was always going to win, but the lawfare,” Greene said, referring to the 91 state and federal counts against Trump, “caused a lot of people to just say, ‘Fuck you.’ All the indictments did was solidify his support even further.”

Trump converted his dizzying and confusing legal trouble into political currency by warning his supporters that his enemies “are not coming after me,” rather “they are coming after you, and I’m just standing in the way.” The jiu-jitsu created a phenomenon whereby he made common cause with an aggrieved base while turning his weaknesses into strengths. Explained Roberts, “Trump is the icon of what the regime wants to do to us.”

Haley could not pierce a loyalty calcified by nearly a decade of scandal and drama. “It's basically he fought for them,” she said trying to make sense of his most ardent supporters. “They want to fight for him, even though they know he may not win.” The last woman standing, she was the only candidate to meaningfully challenge the MAGA juggernaut from the center, even telling reporters before Super Tuesday that she was fulfilling the prescription offered in the infamous RNC autopsy.

“Look at the rallies, these people are actually coming in. It didn't happen with Mitt,” Haley said of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney who failed to defeat former President Obama, triggering the 2012 retrospective that Trump later tore to pieces as he remade the GOP in his own image. “It didn't happen after Mitt. It’s happening with us,” she bragged of how her supporters included all races as well as “gay people” and “trans people.”

Whatever tent Haley constructed, it collapsed under the weight of Trump. While she won over a significant share of the vote in early states, Haley only managed to win two contests, the Washington, D.C., and Vermont primaries. She watched the results roll in at a private victory party with campaign staff and made no public remarks Tuesday. And early Wednesday morning, Haley announced her plan to exit the race, conceding defeat but not immediately disclosing any endorsement decision.

For many, Haley represented the old guard of the party. She was the last remnant of the faltering Reagan-Bush coalition, a conservative fusionism quickly going extinct. McCarthy is gone from Capitol Hill, and McConnell announced last week he will soon step down from leadership. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel will also soon depart her post.

“This is what winning looks like. We're making progress, and we’re in a better place institutionally,” said Russ Vought, Trump’s former OMB Chief and the CEO of Center for Renewing America. He said the latest Trump Revolution, in its size and scope, rivals the takeover of the 2010 Tea Party as “the decision makers are more aligned with where the grassroots are.” All of this, Vought added, was a testament to Trump, who “never lost his grasp on the Republican party or the conservative movement.” Despite the challenges, he concluded, “the result was a tightened grip.”

While Trump now calls for unity, a kumbaya moment may not be in order. His campaign has vowed to blacklist staff who worked for rivals, and the former president warned donors that if they gave to Haley they would “be permanently barred from the MAGA camp.” The resentment runs deep as Trump allies contemplate dollars and days not spent focused on defeating Biden.

“We've spent two fucking years and $390 million dollars only to limit our possibilities at taking back the White House. To me that is an unforgivable sin,” Bannon said of time and money poured into the primary. “I will never forgive these people because, we’re going to win it back, but it’s so much harder than it needs to be.” He makes little allowance for the traditional primary process because “this is not the 1950s, and it’s not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

“These are not normal times. They stole a presidential election, and two thirds of the fucking voters that go to the polls, and work, and are activists, believes that to the core of their being. They believe in it actually as much or more than Donald Trump,” Bannon added of what he sees as a betrayal by Trump’s rivals, “and that's where they never got.”

Once held at arm's length by some in her caucus, Greene now finds herself in high demand. She says her colleagues now seek her counsel as they adjust to Trump’s total control of the GOP. “He radicalized the Republican party,” the Georgia firebrand said of the immediate of effect of Trump’s second coming, and “eradicated the RINOs.”

For anyone in her party not convinced by Trump’s resounding victory, Greene warned with a laugh, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” After all, it is still Trump’s party.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
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