We’ve seen it before. Far too often, in fact. And so far, the cycle is playing out in predictable stages.
First, Donald Trump or his disciples turn in a poor performance at the polls, leaving the GOP to mourn the loss of what were winnable races. Next, the pundits, politicians, and institutions on the right that haven’t had much use for Trump in the recent past bury the president and his movement in condemnations. Even some sources ensconced in Trump’s orbit appear to share the establishmentarians’ concerns, but not so much that they want to incur consequences for echoing them on the record. So, they share them with reporters on the condition of anonymity.
That’s where we are today in the immediate aftermath of a depressing midterm cycle for Republicans in which voters sought to cleanse the landscape of Trump’s hand-picked cronies and neophytes. If the cycle continues as it has in the past, this outburst of recriminations will soon face a retrograde counterattack from the forces that owe their political relevance to Trump. In the end, the fear of alienating the Republican voters who make up the base of the party’s primary electorate usually wins out over the instinct to appeal to a broader universe of voters. Trump’s critics stifle. His fans posture as though they’ve won something. Everyone retreats to their respective corners, and the GOP goes on losing.
That’s what we might expect to see soon enough, though we haven’t seen it just yet. The backlash against Trumpism—focusing less on MAGA-flavored policy preferences and more on the surly affectation the former president cultivates in his mimics—is coming from some auspicious quarters.
Former Trump adviser Jason Miller, who joined a select few who spent election night in Trump’s company, doesn’t evince any compunction about telling reporters that he’s advising Trump to keep his head down for a while. “Georgia needs to be the focus of every Republican in the country right now,” Miller said of the forthcoming runoff election between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Hershel Walker. For Miller, this means that Trump must, at the very least, put off his intention to announce another presidential bid next week. “I’m not alone when I say President Trump’s best moves are to put all his efforts to get Herschel Walker elected,” he added.
Is Trump even capable of making a positive contribution to that cause? Former Trump-era Press Sec. Kayleigh McEnany doesn’t think so. “I think he needs to put it on pause,” she told reporters. “I think we’ve got to make strategic calculations.” By contrast, she added, “Gov. DeSantis, I think he should be welcomed to the state, given what happened last night. You’ve got to look at the realities on the ground.” This concession to reality was echoed by Trump adviser David Urban. “It is clear the center of gravity of the Republican Party is in the state of Florida, and I don’t mean Mar-a-Lago,” he confessed.
The acute threat these admonitions present to Trump’s ego are unlikely to go unanswered. And, according to Jonathan Swan’s reporting in Axios, they won’t. While many of the courtiers caught in the former president’s realm are reportedly begging Trump to postpone a presidential announcement until the heat dies down, “he has no intention of listening to that advice.” And why should he? If Trump is looking for evidence that this burst of enthusiasm will fade like all the rest, he is getting the familiar feedback he needs.
“Several well-known Republicans declined an opportunity to tell Swan on the record that they feel it’s time to move on from Trump,” Axios reported. Indeed, the dispatches that reporters are filing from Mar-a-Lago are replete with unsourced quotes from people close to Trump who would not otherwise speak candidly about their boss’s predicament. And aspiring Republican ladder-climbers seem unwilling to give up.
In statements provided to the New York Times upon the paper’s solicitation, some MAGA-friendly current and future lawmakers turned in lifeless and perfunctory but nevertheless illustrative endorsements of their embattled leader.
“It is time for Republicans to unite around the most popular Republican in America who has a proven track record of conservative governance,” read Rep. Elise Stefanik’s endorsement of Trump’s presumed 2024 campaign. Senator-elect J.D. Vance staked out a less unctuous position, merely deeming Trump “the most popular figure in the Republican Party,” now and forever. Indiana Rep. Jim Banks offered the unassailable observation that Trump “transformed our party,” leaving it to his readers’ imaginations whether this metamorphosis has been a desirable one.
The nature of this particular backlash against Trump feels different only because it is occurring alongside the emergence of a real competing power center inside the GOP. Within the ocean of disappointments for the GOP, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presides over an island of hope. Previously, when the power dynamic inside the GOP was unipolar, Trump could weather intra-party criticisms. The rise of a rival pole within the Republican infrastructure complicates things for Trump.
But that may not continue. And even if the draft DeSantis movement proves irresistible, it will not manifest in a declared DeSantis presidential bid until after the first legislative session of the governor’s second term is over in May. Plenty of time for present passions to cool. Nor is DeSantis likely to be the only figure who challenges Trump. And some potential rivals are far less popular among Republican voters. Their presence in the national debate may hasten the flight of anxious Republicans back into the Trump fold. The abject cowardice of Trump’s unnamed critics and his rote endorsers is frustratingly familiar to those who have seen similar anti-Trump insurrections put down.
Maybe this time is different. Who knows? But it doesn’t look different yet.