Trump’s Future Isn’t Up to Fox News

Whatever the conservative grass roots decide, the establishment will be a step or two behind, desperately trying to catch up with the people it claims to lead.

Trump at a lectern
Mark Peterson / Redux

Rupert Murdoch, Rich Lowry, Mike Pompeo, and company: Welcome to the resistance!

These conservative luminaries are among the many credentialed members of the right who have criticized former President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Republican Party’s historically underwhelming performance in the midterm elections. They are right to do so: Voters rejected not only many of Trump’s handpicked candidates but also his attacks on democracy and claims about stolen elections. If there was a red wave in the offing, Trump acted as a seawall defending a blue coast.

These protests aren’t just a dollar short and a few years late. They’re also unlikely to amount to much. The traditional conservative establishment didn’t make Trump, and it can’t break him. If his political career is over, it will be because the voters who brought him to power decide to end it.

Trump Is a Bust for Republicans,” Lowry, the editor in chief of National Review, proclaimed in a column for Politico. Murdoch’s media empire has also laid blame at Trump’s feet, most prominently with a New York Post cover on Thursday depicting the former president as “TRUMPTY DUMPTY” and adding, “Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall—can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?” Party officials across the country are pointing fingers at Trump, including in Michigan, where Democrats won up and down the ballot over Trump-backed candidates.

“We lost in ’18. We lost in ’20. We lost in ’21 in Georgia. And now in ’22, we’re going to net-lose governorships, we’re not going to pick up the number of seats in the House that we thought, and we may not win the Senate despite a president who has a 40 percent job approval,” said Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who cozied up to Trump but became an apostate (after Trump buried a dagger in his back). “There’s only one person to blame for that, and that’s Donald Trump.”

Trump has responded with a series of typically petulant social-media posts, but even former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been careful to remain devoted to Trump publicly, had a snappy reply on Twitter: “Conservatives are elected when we deliver. Not when we just rail on social media. That’s how we can win. We fight for families and a strong America.”

The temptation to make fun of many of these late arrivals is strong, and I will not resist it. Too many Republicans were willing to stand by Trump when he interfered with the Justice Department, supplicated himself to Vladimir Putin, extorted Ukraine, and tried to steal the 2020 election. Many of them didn’t like Trump personally but were willing to hold their noses for the expected political payout. But now that they’ve recognized (as many other people did long ago) that Trump is also an electoral loser, they’ve had enough.

This stand takes courage—the courage to know you’ll be rightfully mocked. But anyone worried about the danger a Trump return would pose should welcome allies, however hypocritical or tardy. The bigger problem is that the backlash to Trump comes too late to make much difference.

One theory about the Republican Party and Trump is that if enough of its movers and shakers had turned on him simultaneously, they could have cast him out. But going back to the 2016 GOP primary, members of the establishment never liked or wanted him. They worried he couldn’t win, and they worried he didn’t agree with their core beliefs on issues such as trade and foreign policy. The problem was that voters did like Trump—although only a plurality in the primary—and didn’t like his rivals. One reason the establishment couldn’t effectively rally around one of his opponents is that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and the rest all had weaknesses that a unified media front couldn’t erase.

They tried, though. The high-water mark was the January 2016 “Against Trump” issue of National Review, the flagship movement magazine, which gathered a host of writers from across the right to try to stall the inevitable. It didn’t work. (Some of the contributors remained Never Trumpers, others embraced him, and a third group settled on anti-anti-Trumpism as a compromise.)

The collective-action theory got another test in October 2016, when The Washington Post published a recording of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. Many Republicans and conservative pundits abandoned him, but once it became clear that there was no alternative and that GOP voters were still on board, many of them quietly slunk back too.

This pattern has held over and over. After the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; after the 2018 Helsinki summit; after the attempted extortion of Ukraine; after Trump lost the 2020 election; and then again after the January 6 insurrection, swaths of conservatives prepared to make a dramatic break and then either changed their mind or held back when they realized that voters were still with Trump. After the election loss, Murdoch’s properties briefly soured on Trump, but when their competitors started to gain market share, Fox and friends had second thoughts.

Perhaps after January 6, a concerted establishment push really could have finished Trump off. The public was appalled; Trump was weak; many Republicans in Congress were ready to act. A unified conservative-media front might have provided Senate Republicans the bulwark they needed to vote to convict Trump in an impeachment trial and prevent him from running again. Instead, the moment passed and many of the players blinked, reopening their eyes to a Trump still in control of the party. The 2022 midterms show how that damaged not only democracy, but also the GOP’s prospects.

Stopping Trump is arguably more difficult now. Unlike in January 2021, he has no formal position from which to be removed, and no mechanism exists to bar him from office. Donors have abandoned him, but he doesn’t need them to win.

None of this means Trump is unstoppable in a Republican primary for president in 2024. (He appears to be preparing to announce his campaign on Tuesday evening at Mar-a-Lago, evidently hoping to quash Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s momentum before it gets out of hand.) But if Trump fizzles out, it will be because Republican voters decide he’s done. Tentative signs exist that some of them are tired of his antics, worry he simply can’t win, or are attracted to the prospect of a younger, fresher face like DeSantis. The grass roots made Trump, and only they can break him. Whatever they decide, the establishment will be a step or two behind, desperately trying to catch up with the people it claims to lead.