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The beginning of the end for Donald Trump? Probably.

Establishment still unpopular with base, but Trump luster’s fading

Then-President Donald Trump alongside Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was then majority leader, in 2019.
Then-President Donald Trump alongside Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was then majority leader, in 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Donald Trump said famously in late January of 2016.

But after a disastrous midterm election in 2018, the loss of the White House in 2020 and a stunningly unimpressive performance in the 2022 midterms, Trump can no longer count on his hold with Republican voters.

And as for his ability to avoid punishment if he commits a crime “in the middle of Fifth Avenue,” The Trump Organization has already paid a price for its business practices, and Trump may well find himself in even deeper trouble as 2023 begins, given multiple investigations now underway.

Like other political analysts, I have come to believe over the past few years that a large chunk of the GOP — maybe a third or even more — retains its allegiance to Trump, and that will not change.

But over the past two midterms (2018 and 2022), the last presidential election and a handful of other events (including an abortion referendum in Kansas and special elections), signs of Trump’s growing weakness are undeniable.

That doesn’t mean that Trump’s hold on the GOP has disappeared or that he can’t win the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. A crowded Republican contest would improve Trump’s prospects, and he has demonstrated that he can create an “us versus them” message that resonates in conservative and Republican circles.

A substantial chunk of Republican voters still believe that the party’s establishment is as bad, if not worse, than liberals and Democrats. They believe the Mitch McConnells of the world feign support for the MAGA movement but only care about protecting their positions of power.

‘Dirty deal with the Dems’

Indeed, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia tweeted on Wednesday that McConnell was on the verge of taking away House Republicans’ “power of the purse next year by making a dirty deal with the Dems to pass a Dem Omnibus bill!”

After last month’s midterms, Trump blamed McConnell for the GOP’s relatively poor performance in Senate races. The former president went on to call the Senate minority leader a “loser” after McConnell criticized Trump’s dinner with white nationalists and antisemites.

But if Trump remains a factor in Republican political circles, he definitely has lost some of his luster. His refusal to criticize Ye (previously Kanye West) and Nick Fuentes after their Mar-a-Lago dinner and, more importantly, the defeat of candidates Trump recruited and supported, has raised questions among all but his most loyal followers.

Trump-supported candidates were able to win primaries, but they looked extreme, even radical, in November. They echoed the former president’s complaints about the 2020 election, making swing voters and suburbanites nervous about exactly what they would do if they were elected.

Losses by statewide candidates

In spite of President Joe Biden’s weak standing in state and national polls, as well as public concern over inflation and crime, Trump-endorsed statewide candidates like Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker, Blake Masters, Kari Lake, Tudor Dixon, Kristina Karamo, Adam Laxalt and Don Bolduc all lost.

If Trump and Trumpist candidates can’t win general elections, many 2016 Trump voters will look elsewhere in 2024, particularly if they can find a candidate who echoes many of Trump’s issue positions without his lunacy.

Remember, Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes in 2016 and by a much larger 7 million votes in 2020. His chances of winning a general election in 2024 would almost surely depend on a very narrow Electoral College victory during an overwhelming popular-vote defeat.

Criticism of Trump has grown even within his own party, and weeks after he announced he will run again for president it is hard to find enthusiasm about another White House run.

But we’ve seen this before, and it’s possible that Trump will ratchet up his rhetoric to mobilize his supporters in the upcoming months. If GOP officeholders and hopefuls fear grassroots voters are behind Trump again, they could rally behind him. Certainly, people like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy have perfected the flip-flop.

And yet, things seem different now, largely due to the unimpressive Republican performance in November.

Much like a television show in its fifth or six season, where the storylines have become strained and the performers spend much of their time thinking about their next project, the Trump campaign — and Donald Trump himself — are starting to look stale, fatigued and unbelievable, even to their own supporters.

In his TV series, Trump allegedly mentored and evaluated admirers who wanted to be his “Apprentice.” Now, the former president looks more and more like “The Biggest Loser.”

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