The GOP’s ‘Abusive Relationship’ With Trump

The former president’s ability to surmount this latest tumult continues one of the defining patterns of his political career.

Donald Trump
Evan Vucci / AP

It’s a measure of Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party that his unprecedented criminal indictment is strengthening, not loosening, his grip.

Trump was on the defensive after November’s midterm election because many in the GOP blamed voter resistance to him for the party’s disappointing results. But five months later he has reestablished himself as a commanding front-runner in the Republican presidential primary, even as Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has delivered the first of what could be several criminal indictments against him.

“It’s almost like an abusive relationship in that certain segments of MAGA voters recognize they want to leave, they are willing to leave, but they are just not ready to make that full plunge,” the GOP consultant John Thomas told me.

Trump’s ability to surmount this latest tumult continues one of the defining patterns of his political career. Each time Trump has shattered a norm or engaged in behavior once unimaginable for a national leader—such as his praise of neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election result and instigating the January 6 insurrection—most Republican elected officials and voters have found ways to excuse his actions and continue supporting him.

“At every point when the party had a chance to move in a different direction, it went further down the Trump path,” Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told me.

Trump’s latest revival has dispirited his Republican critics, who believed that the party’s discouraging results in November’s election had finally created a pathway to forcing him aside. Now those critics find themselves in the worst of both worlds, facing signs that Trump’s legal troubles could simultaneously increase his odds of winning the GOP nomination and reduce his chances of winning the general election.

Coincidentally, the former president’s indictment came on the same day that Wisconsin voters sent the GOP a pointed reminder about the party’s erosion in white-collar suburbs during the Trump era. The victory of the liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz in an election that gave Democrats a 4–3 majority on the state supreme court continued a clear trend away from Republicans since Trump unexpectedly captured Wisconsin in 2016. En route to a double-digit victory, she won more than 80 percent of the vote in economically thriving and well-educated Dane County (which includes the state capital of Madison), more than 70 percent in Milwaukee County, and she dramatically cut the Republican margin in the Milwaukee suburbs, which the GOP had dominated before Trump.

Protasiewicz’s resounding victory followed a similar formula as the Democrats’ wins last November in the governorship races in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.  In all three states, Democrats beat a Republican gubernatorial candidate whom Trump had backed. Like Protasiewicz’s victory yesterday, each of those 2022 results showed how the Trump stamp on the GOP, as well as Republican support for banning abortion, has allowed Democrats to regain an advantage in these crucial Rust Belt swing states. Those Rust Belt defeats last November, as well as losses for Trump-backed candidates in Arizona and Georgia, two other pivotal swing states, sparked a greater level of public GOP backlash against Trump than he’d faced at almost any point in his presidency.

Amid Republican frustration over the midterm results, Trump started to look like a former Las Vegas headliner who had been reduced to playing Holiday Inns somewhere off the New Jersey turnpike. Many of his former fans turned on him. Two days after the election, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial whose headline flatly declared, “Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.” The New York Post ran a front-page cartoon picturing Trump as a bloated “Trumpty Dumpty” who “had a great fall” in the election. Fox News reduced Trump’s visibility on the network so sharply that he did not appear on its programs between Sean Hannity interviews on September 22, 2022, and March 27, 2023, according to tracking by the progressive group Media Matters for America.

It wasn’t just the Rupert Murdoch–verse that showed signs of Trump fatigue. Powerful interest groups such as the Club for Growth and the donor network associated with the Koch family openly called for Republicans to put Trump in the rearview mirror.

Even when Trump formally announced his 2024 candidacy, a week after the election at his Mar-a-Lago resort, the event had a frayed, musty feel. “On vivid display in this chapter of Trump’s life and political rise and (perhaps) fall,” Politico wrote, “was a crowd that was thick with ride-or-die conspiracists and conspicuously light on more prominent and powerful figures from the party he once totally held in his thrall.” Trump’s speech that night was a greatest-hits set delivered without conviction.

Trump’s first few weeks as an announced candidate didn’t project any more energy or verve. “The Trump thing looked kind of haggard and worn,” Sarah Longwell, the founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, told me. “It was deprived of any of its pizzazz. ” In her focus groups with GOP voters, Longwell said, former Trump voters “weren’t done with him [and] they weren’t mad at him,” but they were expressing an emotion that probably would horrify Trump even more: “People did feel a little bored.”

From November through about mid-February, both state and national polls consistently showed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gaining on Trump. Thomas, who started a super PAC encouraging DeSantis to run, said that in the midterm’s immediate aftermath, he saw polls and focus groups that suggested GOP voters had reached “an inflection point” on Trump. Concerns about his future electability, Thomas said, outweighed their support for his policies or his combative demeanor. Thomas believes that DeSantis’s landslide reelection in Florida created “such a stark contrast” to the widespread defeat of Trump-backed candidates that many GOP voters started to view the Florida governor as a better bet to win back the White House. “That’s why you saw such huge movement in state and local polling over the next few months,” Thomas told me.

But that movement away from Trump seemed to crest in late February or early March—and polls since have shown the current inside the GOP steadily flowing back toward him.

Republicans both supportive and critical of Trump remain somewhat unsure about why the polls shifted back in his direction at that point. But Trump’s revival did coincide with him visibly campaigning more, starting with his truculent appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March. Even by Trump’s overheated standards, his latest rallies have offered incendiary new policy proposals, such as more federal intervention to seize control of law enforcement in Democratic cities. He now routinely declares that he will serve as his voters’ “warrior” and as their “retribution.”

Trump also made a more explicit and extended argument against DeSantis; the former president has simultaneously attacked DeSantis from the left (calling him a threat to Social Security and Medicare) and the right (portraying him as a clone of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan). Many Republicans, meanwhile, thought DeSantis looked unsteady as he took his first national tour, to promote his new book. DeSantis flipped from emulating Trump’s skepticism of aiding Ukraine to (somewhat) distancing himself from his rival’s position; then, regarding the Manhattan indictment, DeSantis flopped from lightly criticizing Trump to unreservedly defending him.

DeSantis’s “stumble on Ukraine” in particular “really caused more traditional Republicans to doubt whether he was the best alternative to Trump,” Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, told me.

Around the same time, almost all of the other announced and potential GOP candidates, such as former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence, rushed to defend Trump against the pending indictment—before seeing the charges. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has announced his candidacy, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who’s still considering the race, have been the only potential 2024 contenders to criticize Trump in any way over the indictment.

Longwell says the candidates who have chosen to rally around Trump have boxed themselves into an untenable position. With Trump’s legal challenges now dominating both conservative and mainstream media, if the other Republican contenders do nothing but echo Trump’s accusations against those investigating him, “it creates this dynamic where all of the other 2024 contenders actually end up being supporting cast members in Donald Trump’s drama, and there is no other room for them to make an affirmative case for why they should be the 2024 nominee,” Longwell told a television interviewer this week.

Fox and other conservative media have boosted Trump by echoing his claim that prosecutors were targeting him to silence his voters—the same argument those outlets made after the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago to recover classified documents last summer, notes Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters. Those outlets “are reinforcing his position by telling their viewers that if they don’t defend Donald Trump, the left will be coming for them next,” Gertz told me. “That’s a very potent, very powerful argument, and one that really cuts off a lot of potential avenues” for Trump’s GOP critics and rivals.

The reluctance by most declared and potential 2024 GOP hopefuls to criticize Trump over the indictment extends their refusal to publicly articulate any case for why the party should reject him. “As a rule of thumb, if you are running against someone and you are afraid to say your opponent’s name, that’s not a positive sign,” Stuart Stevens told me.

One reason Trump’s rivals have been so reticent is that there is not much room in a GOP primary to criticize Trump over policy. On issues such as immigration and international trade, “it is incredibly difficult to create real daylight on policy, because he’s a good fit for the primary electorate,” John Thomas told me. That’s probably even more true now than in 2016, because Trump’s blustery messages tend to attract non-college-educated voters and drive away white-collar voters.

Even so, Whit Ayres said that in his polling, only about one-third of GOP primary voters are immovable Trump supporters. He estimates that only about one-tenth are irrevocably opposed to him. Ayres classifies the remaining 55 to 60 percent of the GOP coalition as “Maybe Trump” voters who are not hostile to him but are open to alternatives.

Trump has reached 50 percent support in some recent national polls of GOP voters, but more often he attracts support from about 40 percent of Republicans. That was roughly the share of the vote that Trump won while the race was competitive in 2016, but he captured the nomination anyway, because none of his rivals could consolidate enough of the remaining 60 percent.

Many of Trump’s Republican critics see the 2024 field replicating the mistakes of his 2016 opponents. The other candidates’ refusal to make a clear case against Trump echoes the choice by the 2016 candidates to avoid direct confrontation with him for as long as possible.

Now, as then, GOP strategists think Trump’s rivals are reluctant to engage him directly because they want to be in position to inherit his voters if he falters. Rather than face the danger of a full-scale confrontation with Trump, the 2024 candidates all are hoping that events undermine him, or that someone else in the field confronts him. “They all want to be the one that the alligator eats last,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant and the chair of the Republican Party in Travis County, Texas.

But every Republican strategist I spoke with agreed that a key lesson of 2016 is that Trump won’t deflate on his own; the other candidates must give voters a reason to abandon him. Mackowiak, like Thomas and Longwell, told me that the prospect of multiple indictments could exacerbate Trump’s greatest potential primary weakness—concerns about his electability—but it’s unlikely that enough voters will consider him too damaged to win unless the other candidates explicitly make that case. “For Trump to pay a political price for all this uncertainty and the legal vulnerability he’s facing, Republican challengers are going to have to force that,” Mackowiak said.

Nor is it clear that enough GOP voters will turn on Trump even if they do come to doubt his electability. Trump’s Republican critics fear that the cumulative weight of all the investigations he’s confronting will lower his ceiling of support and diminish his ability to win another general election. But a CNN poll last month found that only two-fifths of Republican primary voters put the highest priority on a candidate who can win the general election, while nearly three-fifths said they were most concerned with picking a nominee who agrees with them on issues. Katon Dawson, a former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party now supporting Haley, told me that “Republicans don’t care” about electability when voting in primaries. “They vote their values; they vote their wants and needs,” he said. “I’ve never ever seen them say ‘I am going to vote for who I think is the most electable.’”

Trump’s rivals for the nomination still have many months left to formulate a case against him, particularly once the GOP presidential debates begin in August. But for Republicans resistant to Trump, the months since the November midterm have reversed the trajectory of the seasons. As winter began, many were blooming with optimism about moving the party beyond him. Now, as spring unfolds, they are seeing those hopes wither—and confronting the full measure of just how difficult it will be to loosen Trump’s hold on the GOP.

“I’ve always believed Trump was going to be the nominee,” Stevens said. “Within so much of what we used to call the Republican establishment, there is still this denial” even after all these years of dealing with the former president “that Trumpism is what the party wants to be.”