WHAT COMES AFTER the Donald Trump era? The former president appears, by most signs and accounts, to be a diminished figure right now. His favored candidates failed in the midterms; his real estate company stands convicted of criminal fraud; his position as the most inescapable and belligerently stupid voice in daily discourse has been taken over by Elon Musk. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is surging ahead of him in the extremely premature 2024 presidential opinion polling.
Unfortunately, none of this adds up to the cleansing event it was supposed to be. Today, the New York Times reported one more example of Trump’s slipping control over American, or even Republican, politics: his faithfully domesticated House minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, is struggling in his bid to become Speaker of the House in the next Congress. Despite Trump’s “working the phones” on McCarthy’s behalf, the Times recounted, the members of the incoming Republican majority have not unified behind him as speaker.
Here is an example of how, indeed, Trump’s influence is fading. But the way it’s fading is that the right wing of the new majority doesn’t trust Trump’s message that McCarthy is extreme enough for them. They want guaranteed impeachments, permanent investigations, and a commitment to brinksmanship against the Biden administration’s efforts to run the government.
The most telling line in the Times story, then, was this: “Mr. Trump, according to people close to him, is not entirely sold on the notion of Mr. McCarthy as a strong speaker.”
This could naturally be seen as one more attempt by Trump to put distance between himself and a loser, the way he suddenly became dissatisfied with the midterm candidates he’d endorsed and held rallies for, once the votes came in. But the backpedaling demonstrates something deeper about Trumpism—about what it was all along, and what it promises to be in the future.
Donald Trump was never exactly the leader of the Trump movement. He was its star, the voice of it, the indispensable-seeming figurehead on the front of it. He embodied the movement’s idea of a vigorous and domineering leader. But the reason Trump kept doing his rallies, over and over, from the campaign through the presidency, was to learn which way the movement hoped to move—to get the mob together and have the mob tell him what it was that they wanted to hear. He would promise something or denounce someone, and the audience would either cheer or not cheer, and he would give the audience more, on the fly, of whatever it was they were cheering for.
Ron DeSantis knows this, which is why—even as what’s left of the Republican establishment and the national political press try to write a prospectus around him as a standard big-state governor who will lead things back to normalcy—he’s busily pivoting into being a strident antivaxxer. Regardless of Donald Trump’s ability, or inability, to conjure a red wave in the midterms, the new Republican House is the House Trump made. The publicly anti-Trump members didn’t survive their primaries, if they even dared to run. These are his people, and what Trump is learning, though his phone calls, is that his people are not in the mood for McCarthy. He can feel that McCarthy is not where the vibe is. And it’s the vibe that’s going to be running the lower house of Congress. The next leader is whoever can follow it.
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