Julius Krein, editor of American Affairs, published a provocative commentary in the Guardian about why “Donald Trump’s influence will evaporate as soon as he leaves office.” Krein disputes the “media echo chamber which now insists that Trump will be a titanic political force for years to come.” He argues that “the glaring underestimation of Trump in the past” is related to the present “overestimation of his prospects.”
In both cases, those assessing his political prospects identified Trump’s appeal with a “personality cult, not any association with a certain set of policy arguments.” Trump supposedly captured the presidency and created a large base of support because of his critique, however awkwardly expressed, of the “bipartisan policy consensus that had dominated American politics since the end of the Cold War.” The rising presidential candidate stressed “national interests rather than the left-liberal moralism of progressive Democrats.”
Unfortunately, while Trump was in office, he moved toward the Republican Party that supposedly he had transformed. Like other Republicans, he talked about tax cuts, the stock market, and putting “conservatives” (read: Republicans) on the federal judiciary. Lately, Trump’s feistiness has expressed itself in “allegations of election fraud and cringe-inducing self-pity; most people are already tuning out.” Younger populists who are already on the scene, from Tucker Carlson to Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), “have articulated more coherent right-populist arguments.” Krein also believes the political value of Trump’s “cult of personality” may be exaggerated. Although the defeated president drew huge crowds at his rallies, Joe Biden who stayed hunkered down in his basement won the presidential race: “This proves that institutional power often outweighs popular appeal.”
Krein does not see the former president vanishing into the woodwork all at once. But he does see him (fittingly) reduced to such politically insignificant roles as jabbering away on TV with his buddies, Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani. Even before Trump leaves office, according to Krein, “on significant matters of policy, the party’s attitude is closer to contempt than to fear.”
Despite Krein’s undisguised revulsion for Trump, much of what he writes about his political future is at least plausible. I reflected on the same possibility in a chapter on populism in a book now in press. I also share Krein’s preference for the speaking style and general demeanor of Hawley as a spokesman for the Right rather than for Trump’s more digressive and impulsive form of self-expression. But the question is not about our aesthetic or rhetorical predilections. Rather it is about what moves masses of people and drives them to rallies on cold nights amid an epidemic. Trump has a gift for doing that and has done it multiple times. I doubt Josh Hawley or Marco Rubio, for whom Krein puts in a good word, could show the same magnetic power.
A recently concluded Gallup Poll indicates that Trump is “the most admired man in the United States” and he beat out the Democratic Party icon Barack Obama for the honor. If that is the case, then Trump’s “cringe-inducing self-pity” about election fraud has not hurt his popularity among tens of millions of Deplorables. Like Trump, but not Krein, these admirers and most self-identified Republicans think the election abounded in irregularities and might even have been “stolen.”
Further, Trump has not become an object of contempt among Republicans, as Krein asserts. Those Republicans who are clamoring to have him come to Georgia to campaign for Republicans in the senatorial race there do not see him as a spent force. They believe Trump’s appearance at rallies in Georgia can keep their candidates in the U.S. Senate. Nor, pace Krein, has Trump been “steamrolled’ on the COVID-19 relief bill by his own party. Right now, the Senate is considering an amendment to the bill demanded by Trump, as well as changes to the National Defense Authorization Act that they passed but which the president also wants the Senate to amend.
Because of Krein’s obvious disdain for Trump, I doubt he could understand the passionate loyalty to this figure I find on display every morning as I traverse the three blocks from my house to a local Turkey Hill convenience store. The houses near the store are lined with Trump 2020 and even some Trump 2016 banners. The parking lot in the front of the convenience store is full of older men drinking coffee and decked out in MAGA hats, with Trump stickers on the bumpers of their beaten-up trucks. They tell me they loathe politicians but view Trump differently. He tried to “clean things up” but had an election stolen from him. If “they” force him to leave the battle, these well-wishers hope that he’ll resume his campaign for 2024. I don’t recall these Deplorables, who have hung around the store for decades, caring about W or Romney. And I’d be surprised if they and their relatives put on hats and bumper stickers for Marco or Nikki—or even the tight-lipped Josh.