Aside from occupying the White House itself, former president Donald Trump is exactly where he wants to be – at the center of the national political dialogue, a dominating media presence and a controlling influence in the selection of a Republican presidential nominee in 2024.
He was impeached twice, lost re-election to an opponent who seldom left his basement, remains under at least two Department of Justice investigations, is the subject of civil and criminal inquiries into his personal and business dealings and stands accused of encouraging a violent assault on the U. S. Capitol.
Despite what appears to be insurmountable baggage, he leads the field of potential Republican nominees, and in some polls holds a lead over President Biden in a hypothetical 2024 contest.
By any measure, his status is extraordinary, a testament to the most massive ego in modern political history. It's also revealing about the overwhelming power of social media, which has supplanted traditional media as the primary source of news while trafficking in rumor, uninformed opinion and conspiracy theories.
For the Republican Party leadership establishment, sensing an opportunity to regain the presidency and control of Congress, Trump is a monumental problem, the essence of a deep fear that his candidacy would drag the party to crushing defeat.
A campaign whose central theme would be allegations of a fraudulent 2020 election produces heartburn among top party leadership, who blame the former president for the dismal showing in last November’s Congressional midterm elections.
Trump’s hold on a portion of the party base remains fairly strong, but signs of erosion have surfaced, notably polling that reveals a majority of Republicans prefers someone other than him as the candidate.
His most recent rallies were held in small venues to avoid televised coverage of rows of empty seats and, while the audiences were responsive, the atmosphere lacked the energy, passion and electricity of prior appearances.
Increasingly, leading Republicans have broken their silence and become more outspoken in their criticism of Trump, calling for new generational leadership while major donors, including the powerful Americans for Prosperity, have indicated withholding support.
Potential candidates, while making coyly encouraging noises, have remained in a holding pattern concerned with offending Trump’s dedicated base or becoming a target for his vitriol.
Only former South Carolina governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has committed to a candidacy, while speculation swirls around others, notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running a strong second to Trump.
There is no question the former president’s influence on the decisions and strategies of potential competitors is considerable. His frequent verbal grenades rolled into DeSantis’ office await anyone who poses even a minimal threat.
Party leaders, however, can no longer stand by wringing their hands and bemoaning the disaster that awaits if Trump repeats his feat of 2016 when he navigated a field of 16 candidates who splintered party support in the primary election grind and opened the path for him to secure the nomination.
Difficult though it may be, it is imperative the establishment shrink the field and convey to potential candidates whose appeal is narrow they should put their ambitions aside in furtherance of the larger and more crucial cause.
The primary season could assist in that winnowing, but the risk of Trump racking up small margin victories from state to state – as he did in 2016 – until he’s the last candidate standing remains genuine.
He will, of course, continue to bully and bluster, insulting his competition, embellishing and exaggerating his record and insisting he would have been re-elected if only he had received a fair count.
He’ll not be persuaded to stand down; his ego won’t permit that. It is necessary to marginalize him, to construct a reality that he is no longer the controlling element, that events have passed him by, his relevance has vanished and he should follow.
Trump may be where he wants to be at this early stage, but to suggest he is the party’s savior is an attempt to rescue a drowning man by throwing him both ends of the rope.
If the party relies on that attempt, it will slip beneath the surface. And deservedly so.
Copyright 2023 Carl Golden, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in New Jersey. You can reach him at [email protected]