The Trump Abandonment Has Begun

The former president’s newest critics ought to show some contrition.

An elephant seen from the back, walking away

Welcome, tentatively, to the resistance.

It took half a dozen years, but large parts of the Republican establishment—elected Republicans, wealthy donors, the Murdoch media empire (Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the New York Post), and right-wing websites, radio-talk-show hosts, columnists, and commentators—have finally turned on Donald Trump. Some are more direct and public in their criticisms of the former president than others, but without question something fundamental has changed.

The GOP establishment is angry at Trump, who announced his bid for reelection on November 15, for recently hosting a prominent white supremacist and Holocaust denier (Nick Fuentes) and an anti-Semite (Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West) for dinner. For embracing QAnon. For advocating for the termination of the Constitution. For trashing the Supreme Court, on which three of his nominees sit. For promising to look “very, very favorably” at pardoning January 6 insurrectionists if he’s reelected. And for being embroiled in multiple criminal investigations.

But mostly, they are angry at Trump for costing them seats in the House and control of the Senate. This midterm election was the third straight election cycle in which Republicans, under Trump’s leadership and in his shadow, suffered setbacks. They stood by as he handpicked terrible candidates and obsessively promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election—and they suffered the consequences.

Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist and a former top adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told The New York Times that the past several weeks have been “devastating for Trump’s future viability.”

“Abandonment has begun,” Reed said.

Whether the damage Trump has sustained is enough to keep him from winning the 2024 nomination is impossible to know at this point. Although the erosion in his support is significant, a large part of the base has shown sustained loyalty to Trump.

So how should those of us who, for years, have repeatedly warned Republicans about Trump view those who have finally done an about-face, in some cases mimicking the very criticisms that Never Trumpers have been making since the start of the Trump era?

We ought to welcome their turnabout. This is, after all, what many of us have been urging them to do. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone should have the chance to correct those mistakes, including onetime Trump enthusiasts. Just as important, purging Trump from America’s political landscape can only happen if the Republican Party first purges him from its ranks. If people who once supported Trump are, at last, willing to cast him aside, that is all to the good.

But we shouldn’t see a moral awakening where there is none. The reason many longtime Trump supporters are deserting him is because they believe he is a loser, and an impediment to their quest for power. They are tossing Trump overboard because he’s no longer useful to them. Their considerations are practical rather than principled, and precisely because the shift is for unprincipled reasons, we should assume that if they calculate that Trump can win again—and certainly if he’s the Republican nominee in 2024—they will once again rally around him.

Nor are the belated resisters honestly reckoning with their (recent) pro-Trump past. They are, instead, engaging in a series of rationalizations to explain why they enabled and championed this loathsome figure for so long.

Some have simply chosen to forget their role in Trump’s rise. Some are eager to portray themselves as having been far more critical of Trump than they actually were. Some prefer to turn the tables and go on the offensive, chiding longtime critics of Trump for not forgiving and forgetting. And still others are peddling a narrative in which Trump is only now “spinning out of control.” Since the midterms, we’re told, “something has snapped.” Trump has “apparently lost touch with reality.” These people feign shock at what the man in Mar-a-Lago has become. Who could possibly have seen this coming?

All of this maneuvering is born out of a natural desire to escape moral accountability, protect their reputation, and not admit their mistakes, and an even more intense desire to refuse to admit that Never Trumpers, whom they view with contempt, might have been right all along. Their psychological defense mechanisms—rationalizations intended to prevent feelings of guilt, shame, or discomfort about actions that on some level they know were wrong or unwise—are preventing them from coming to grips with their catastrophic misjudgments.

Context is important here. We’re not talking about a mistaken assessment of the effects that tariffs might have on prices for consumers; we’re talking about a party that nominated and at every turn defended a uniquely malicious figure in American politics. And he didn’t come disguised as anything other than what he was. Trump was a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

Trump’s dinner with Fuentes and Ye was not a break with the past. Rather, it exists on a long continuum of wrongdoing: making hush-money payments to porn stars, committing tax fraud, and falsifying records; pathological lying, cruelty, and political brutality; siding with the intelligence agencies of America’s enemies rather than America’s, complimenting savage dictators, and blackmailing our allies in order to dig up dirt on political opponents; demagoguery, borderless corruption, and calls for political violence; obstructing justice, abusing the pardon power, and wanting the IRS to investigate political foes; racist taunts and appeals to Americans’ ugliest instincts; lighting the flame that ignited a mob that stormed the Capitol, ignoring pleas for help during the insurrection, encouraging those who wanted to hang his vice president, and trying to overthrow the election.

At no point did Trump deceive Republicans into supporting him; he simply broke them. Formerly fierce critics such as Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham became lapdogs. Republicans didn’t change Trump; he changed them. Fundamental convictions, or at least what had been sold as fundamental convictions, were inverted. Character in leaders used to matter, we were told—until depravity became acceptable and even fashionable.

As Trump descends further into madness, “it’s in the interests of Republicans to bury this record of iniquity—to move on as if it were all some kind of surreal dream,” in the words of Andrew Sullivan. But it wasn’t a dream: The trauma of the Trump years and the role of those who made them possible can’t be papered over, forgotten, or pushed down what George Orwell called “memory holes.” Individuals who allowed a man with fascist instincts into the Oval Office and, once he was there, provided him cover owe their fellow citizens—and themselves—an honest accounting.

Doing this would begin to repair one of the most damaging aspects of the Trump years, which was his (and his supporters’) gaslighting of America; their nonstop, dawn-to-dusk assault on facts and truth, their attempt to distort reality to fit their narrative. The Republican establishment that stood with Trump may now want to break with him, but in the process, they are still relying on some bad habits, including inviting the rest of us into their hall of mirrors.

Trump supporters have deformed history and reality quite enough. Even as we welcome them to the resistance, we ought to expect from them an acknowledgment of the role they played in the rise and rule of Donald Trump.

At some point all of us, even the GOP, will move on from Trump. That process is hopefully well under way. Healing our nation will require different things from different sides, including some measure of civic grace and some measure of civic honesty. Other nations, more divided than ours, have found the balance between truth and reconciliation. So can America. But it will take time, intentionality, and love of country.