For once, Donald Trump has a point.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Trump had dinner with the artist and aspiring presidential candidate Kanye West. Among West’s entourage was a 24-year-old livestreamer named Nick Fuentes. Fuentes, as all the world now knows, traffics in Holocaust denial, among other provocations. West is an outspoken anti-Semite in his own right.
Some former Trump supporters have raised their voices against the meeting—This time, he’s gone too far! A few even criticized Trump by name.
Now, here’s Trump’s point, implicitly at least: Have these critics been in a coma since 2015? He’s been keeping company with extremists, bigots, and charlatans for a long time—since before he entered politics, in fact.
For that matter, keeping company with Fuentes isn’t normally a Republican deal-breaker. At least two members of the House Republican Conference, Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene, have done so; the would-be Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy has promised both of them important committee assignments in the next session.
If Trump-endorsed candidates had done better in the November midterms, if Republicans had won the Senate and were not now poised to lose another race in Georgia, if the party’s prospective 2024 money was not uniting behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, then excuses would be made for Trump’s latest outrage, just as excuses were made for his previous outrages. What’s really going on here is something once explained to me (in a different context) by a China-watcher: “They say that an official who has done wrong will lose power. But what really happens is that an official who loses power will be accused of doing wrong.”
By way of illustration, compare two Wall Street Journal articles five years apart. Here is yesterday’s editorial about the Trump-Fuentes dinner, a clear and forceful demand for personal responsibility:
Mr. Trump hasn’t admitted his mistake in hosting the men or distanced himself from the odious views of Mr. Fuentes. Instead Mr. Trump portrays himself as an innocent who was taken advantage of by Mr. West. This is also all-too-typical of Mr. Trump’s behavior as President. He usually ducked responsibility and never did manage to denounce the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, or others who have resorted to divisive racial politics, or even violence as on Jan. 6, 2021.
Stinging. Now here’s the Journal’s editorial after the racist and anti-Semitic demonstrations by “some very fine people,” as Trump called them, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017—when demanding personal responsibility of Trump was to be avoided at all costs:
The focus on Mr. Trump is also a cop-out because it lets everyone duck the deeper and growing problem of identity politics on the right and left … Mr. Trump didn’t create this identity obsession even if as a candidate he did try to exploit it. He is more symptom than cause.
In 2017, Trump was necessary, and so he had to be defended. In 2022, Trump is inconvenient, and so he can be condemned.
But only Trump. There’s going to be no condemnation of Kevin McCarthy for basing his power in the House on the political circle associated with Trump’s dinner guests. McCarthy is necessary, and so he has to be defended.
Trump was once caught on audio expressing his core philosophy of scandal management: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” He did not think through the corollary: When you cease to be a star, they stop letting you do it. For big-dollar Republicans, Trump has ceased to be a star.
Thus the same Trump who launched his political career with birtherism, who hired Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka for his White House staff, who repeatedly attacked a U.S.-born judge of Mexican ancestry, can no longer “do anything.” Not if party donors can help it.
A self-gratifying theory is swirling around Trump world that the Fuentes dinner resulted from a DeSantis-inspired dirty trick. The theory is too complicated and too implausible to render in full. The idea is that Milo Yiannopoulos, the notorious provocateur who has made his way into the Kanye West entourage, is acting, wittingly or otherwise, as a double agent for pro-DeSantis big donors—inviting Fuentes to the dinner to create a public-relations nightmare for Trump.
This all sounds more like an excuse than an explanation. But it reveals states of mind. Republicans who once submitted to Trump are now looking for exits. They have no principled objection to doing business with extremists, bigots, and charlatans. Trump used to get a pass; McCarthy now gets a pass. But if Republicans can weaponize an insincere objection for immediate political purposes, they will. As they have.
The Fuentes dinner sets up a test of strength for Trump. Through two impeachments, in 2020 and 2021, and almost two years of election denial afterward, Trump benefited from the protection of a party that thought it needed him. Now some rich and connected Republicans are deciding that maybe they do not need him, after all.
No one should assume, though, that those Republicans are right. Trump fought them before, in 2015 and 2016, and beat them. Can he beat them again? One thing is certain: If Trump does repeat that primary performance, if he can rally GOP voters in 2024 and oppose the big money, if all those Trump loyalists who took control of state party organizations in the 2010s stay loyal in the 2020s, then Trump can be sure that the condemnation by rich and connected Republicans of his dinner with Fuentes will vanish—poof! The condemnation is a ploy, not a principle.
Hanging out with Holocaust deniers is bad. But so is trying to overthrow an election by fraud and violence—and that was not a deal-breaker for this GOP. Trump’s attempt to blackmail Ukraine into fabricating anti-Biden disinformation was bad—and that was not a deal-breaker. Trump’s invitation to Russia to help in the 2016 election, his real-estate business with Putin while running for president, his blurting valuable secrets to the Russian foreign minister—all were bad, but none broke the deal.
If the deal is in danger now, it’s not because Trump got worse. He’s the same. His party is the same. Only the political calculations have possibly changed. If it turns out those calculations haven’t changed, have no doubt: The deal will be on again.