Why Republicans go crawling back to Donald Trump

Reed Galen
Thursday 30 May 2024

'If Trump appears headed for victory come Labor Day (September 2), expect to see many more unaligned Republicans, and even some Never-Trumpers, attempting to get right with MAGA.'

 

Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, but his position is not nearly as strong as the headlines suggest. In fact, his lead in the polls remains within the margin of error, and in the ongoing Republican primaries, he continues to lose 10-20% of the vote to Nikki Haley, who dropped out of the race more than two months ago. Were it not for the assistance of right-wing media like Fox News, third-party and independent candidates, dark-money groups, and Russian influence operations, Trump’s numbers would be far worse than they appear today.

Despite all this, high-profile Republicans – including those who have criticized Trump sharply in the past – are scrambling to get on the former president’s good side before November. We know their motivation is not to “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), as Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan promised. So, what is going on?

Let us begin by listing who some of these people are. For starters, there is former US Attorney General William Barr. Despite doing all he could to protect Trump from his own bad (and often illegal) behavior while in office, Barr turned on his former boss after Trump attempted to subvert the 2020 election. Barr described Trump’s actions as “nauseating” and “despicable,” concluding that he “shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office.”

But now Barr is singing a very different tune. In a recent Fox News interview, he confirmed that he has every intention of voting for Trump in November. Barr has also extolled the virtues of what he calls the “unitary executive theory” – the idea that if the president does something, it’s legal. If Trump is re-elected, he will give full flower to this dangerous idea.

Predictably, Barr tried to downplay the hypocrisy of his decision to support Trump, claiming that he’s “said all along” that between “two bad choices,” it’s his “duty” to choose the candidate he believes “would do the least harm to the country” – and that means voting the “Republican ticket.” But make no mistake: his motivation is personal gain.

Barr knows that, if elected in November, Trump will keep his promise to enact retribution against those who have wronged him personally and politically. Barr doesn’t want to go to prison. On the contrary, he did Trump favors as attorney general, expanding the role of the Justice Department so that it could serve as the president’s personal legal-defense firm, and he wants credit. He won’t get it. But because Trump has previously shown a willingness to “forgive” those who publicly prostrate themselves before him – the more humiliating the act of contrition, the better – Barr will give it a try.

Then there is Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, who recently endorsed Trump even though the former president attacked him for his role in negotiating a bipartisan immigration bill. Lankford can claim that he is siding with Trump because of policy differences with Joe Biden, but it seems clear that what really matters to him is preempting the emergence of a more-MAGA-than-thou primary challenger in his staunchly Republican home state.

There is another reason why Barr, Lankford, and others, such as New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, are willing to engage in this public self-abnegation. As The Atlantic magazine’s McKay Coppins has observed, turning on Trump requires Republicans to leave “their social [and political] ecosystem.”

Each of these people – and many more who have yet to come out of the woodwork – is a product of an authoritarian movement that has no qualms about purging those who show anything less than total loyalty to the leader. Whatever name you want to attach to it – Trump, MAGA, America First – we are talking about a movement that countenances no dissention within its ranks. Even Haley now says she will vote for Trump.

The Republican Party has become infested with cowards, freaks, grifters, and fascists. Many of these people spoke out when they thought Trump wouldn’t return, when they expected to bear no costs, or when it suited their personal and political circumstances. In other words, turning against Trump was a short-term calculation.

Their return to the fold represents nothing more than the ongoing rationalization of their positions in the MAGA ecosystem. Such is the sorry state of the Republican leadership class. If Trump appears headed for victory come Labor Day (September 2), expect to see many more unaligned Republicans, and even some Never-Trumpers, attempting to get right with MAGA.

Some of us will never forget the transgressions of these “boneless wonder[s]” (to use Winston Churchill’s phrase). They have demonstrated their fecklessness and should never again be allowed to occupy positions of public trust. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to face serious consequences. In America today, if you support Trump and he wins, you’re in fine fettle. If you support Trump and he loses, most of official Washington will welcome you back with open arms, happy to listen to you tell your wild Trumpian tales over drinks at the Capital Grille.

It is not only politicians who will embrace the MAGA cult. The Republican moneyed class, which viewed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as an early alternative, will support Trump in the name of tax cuts, deregulation, and an end to “out-of-control” immigration. America’s oligarchs like Trump because, like them, he operates in a purely transactional manner, so they believe he will leave them alone (he won’t).

What’s missing from all these people’s calculations? The future of the United States. The single most important consideration in US politics is not just low on their list of concerns; it doesn’t even make the cut.

 

Reed Galen is a co-founder of The Lincoln Project, a pro-democracy organization founded by former Republican strategists with the goal of defeating Donald Trump, and the author of The Home Front on Substack.

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