Donald Trump isn’t going away.
That was the loud, clear, and definitive message of last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. President Trump’s first speech since leaving office was the only event of real importance, and it showed that he remains by far the most popular and most important figure in conservative, nationalist politics.
And that fact drives home an important reality: Whether he plans another presidential run or not, President Trump must shape the Republican Party in a positive direction. And that means wielding his massive popularity carefully.
Understandably, the chief target of President Trump’s speech was the brand-new Biden administration, and the unprecedented speed with which it is moving to put foreign countries and oligarchs first and the American people last.
But no less important was President Trump’s attack on the Republican leaders who turned against his presidency, and allied with Democrats who blamed him unjustly for the Capitol riot:
— Economic Times (@EconomicTimes) March 1, 2021
President Trump didn’t just ridicule his foes. He made it clear exactly what should happen to them going forward: They should be primaried out of office as soon as possible.
“The Republicans do not stick together. The RINOs that we’re surrounded with will destroy the Republican Party and the American worker and will destroy our country itself. The RINOs, Republican in name only. But the Republican Party is united. The only division is between a handful of Washington, DC, establishment, political hacks, and everybody else all over the country. … And that’s why I’m announcing that I will be actively working to elect strong, tough and smart Republican leaders.”
The President’s pledge is far from an empty one. As he made clear during his speech, “President Trump’s endorsement is the most powerful asset in politics.” It’s true. Even after leaving office, Donald Trump is by far the most popular Republican within the party, and he has far more power than anyone else (certainly far more than any of his enemies) to shape the party in the way he sees fit.
But this has been a double-edged sword. The president’s endorsement is powerful, but he has given it away too freely, to those who do not share his transformative vision for America. That applies both to his endorsements for elected office, and those he personally hired to implement his America-first agenda as president.
Too often, Donald Trump has mistaken external displays of loyalty for actual commitment to his agenda. And too often, he has failed to name his enemies until they have already planted their knives in him.
Sunday’s speech was a major example. The president named the Republicans who sought to impeach him and bar him from a future presidential run. Many of these turncoats had previously benefited from Trump’s support. Ben Sasse secured a Trump endorsement in 2019. Even with endless reasons to distrust him, the president had even handed an endorsement to Mitt Romney in 2018.
Thank you Mr. President for the support. I hope that over the course of the campaign I also earn the support and endorsement of the people of Utah.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 20, 2018
But well beyond Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump, there have been far more Republican opportunists who praised him publicly while waging war on his agenda. And Donald Trump has been far too slow to call them out as well.
Perhaps no elected Republican has better mastered the art of pandering to Trump while doing nothing for his agenda than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
During his CPAC speech, Trump briefly seemed to be setting up an attack on McConnell, but instead he backed off, saying he had no regrets about endorsing him in 2020:
The president shouldn’t have pulled his punch. More than any other lawmaker, Mitch McConnell stood in the way of Donald Trump accomplishing more as president. Trump was swept into power with the largest mandate for a Republican president in nearly a century. Republicans had 52 seats in the Senate and more than 240 in the House. With enough will, they could absolutely have implemented everything Trump ran on.
But that didn’t happen. McConnell did what Senate Republicans have done for decades now. He hid behind the Senate filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes for any legislation to pass. The filibuster is fake and can be removed at any time. McConnell did exactly that in order to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but he kept the filibuster around for normal legislation. Why? Because the filibuster doesn’t protect the minority. It protects the majority from votes it doesn’t actually want to take. And McConnell didn’t actually want to pass Trump’s 2016 agenda. He didn’t want a rapidly built border wall, with real teeth to deportations and mandatory E-Verify for employers.
McConnell’s blocking tactics continued all the way through the 2020 election. Last summer and fall, he blocked the passage of new coronavirus stimulus, particularly a second round of cash payments to ordinary Americans. Had those payments passed, President Trump almost certainly would have been reelected. Instead, Trump lost narrowly…not that McConnell was likely to mind.
McConnell deserves no credit for pushing through President Trump’s judicial nominees. McConnell would have done that for any president, because the nominees were the same people he’d have chosen. But any time Donald Trump’s political realignment called for McConnell to change, he preferred to evade and undermine.
Nevertheless, McConnell survived. He survived by praising the president publicly. Even now, he says he’d “absolutely” support Trump in 2024 if he wins the nomination. Does McConnell mean it? Obviously not at all. It’s a purely cynical ploy to stave off Trump’s anger and protect his own position. But so far, it has worked.
Trump shouldn’t be fooled by this. McConnell has always been a snake in the grass and should be honestly labeled as such. Republicans deserve a Senate leader for whom the America-first agenda is second-nature.
Nikki Haley never should have been a part of the Trump administration in the first place. The governor of South Carolina didn’t merely oppose Trump in 2016. That is standard politics, and forgivable. But Haley went several steps further and overtly compared President Trump to mass murderer Dylann Roof:
While Haley said she doesn’t think Trump’s supporters are racists, she told The Associated Press that the rhetoric he uses is dangerous. She invoked the Charleston shooting, in which Dylann Storm Roof is accused of killing nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church there.“I know what that rhetoric can do. I saw it happen,” Haley said. … Haley has repeatedly spoken out against Trump, including in February when she knocked the businessman for not forcefully disavowing support from white supremacists.
“I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK,” Haley said. “That is not a part of our party, that is not who we want as president. We will allow not allow that in our country.” [The Hill]
It should have been clear from that moment that Haley would never understand or support the America First movement. Any support would simply be cynical and opportunistic. And that is exactly what happened. The president appointed Haley as UN Ambassador. She immediately began pushing the administration in a hawkish direction, away from the president’s 2016 platform. Eventually, deciding she could advance her career more easily away from Trump, Haley resigned, but continued to promote the over-the-top interventionism favored by the D.C. defense-contractor class.
We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) October 7, 2019
After the Capitol riot and Trump’s second impeachment, Haley clearly thought both Trump and his movement were finished, giving an interview to Politico where she tried to frame the president as completely finished politically.
“I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far.”
This was the most certainty I’d heard from any Republican in the aftermath of January 6. And Haley wasn’t done.
“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” [Politico]
But now, after the President’s CPAC showing demonstrated his continued political relevance, Haley backtracked yet again to emphasize her support for the president.
Strong speech by President Trump about the winning policies of his administration and what the party needs to unite behind moving forward. The liberal media wants a GOP civil war. Not gonna happen.
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) March 1, 2021
Nobody should be fooled. Haley deserves to be called out now for her duplicitous two-faced rhetoric, rather than when she inevitably turns on the President’s supporters yet again.
This may seem an odd choice. McCarthy has often been described as one of the Trump’s closest allies in Congress, and he notably kept a single Republican from breaking ranks during the first attempt at impeachment.
But just like Haley, McCarthy has tried to play political opportunist, denouncing Trump when he seems to be dead and then desperately tacking back into the president’s good graces when he discovers otherwise. After the Capitol riot, McCarthy claimed the president “bears responsibility” for the event, and stood by Liz Cheney as a senior GOP leader when she endorsed a full-blown impeachment effort.
Only two weeks later, McCarthy was trying to “mend fences” with Trump, requesting an in-person meeting to get back in the now-former president’s good graces:
The meeting was requested by the California congressman, who is trying to tamp down intraparty tensions as Republicans set their course in the post-Trump era. Mr. McCarthy for months stuck by Mr. Trump and declined to call President Biden the winner of the election, but later criticized Mr. Trump over the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol.
“They are making sure they say kumbaya,” said a Trump adviser familiar with the meeting at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. “I’m sure the president thought Kevin went too far. In fact, I’m certain he did. Kevin asked for the meeting to make sure he’s in good shape.” [WSJ]
This pattern will never end. McCarthy wants to hold together the Republican Party’s factions, with himself at the top of the heap. Whenever Trump’s realignment seems to be faltering, he will be ready to jump ship. Just like McConnell, there is no reason to grant him that freedom. President Trump should look for a new Republican house leader whose commitment to a Trumpian future for the GOP isn’t contingent on the latest news cycle.
James Mattis and John Bolton
President Trump has always had a soft spot for men in uniform, and it burned him during his White House tenure. James Mattis fundamentally disagreed with Trump’s goal of reducing America’s military adventurism abroad, and when he couldn’t convince the president to maintain or expand America’s commitment in Syria, he quit, leaving an angry resignation letter on the way out.
In Mattis’s case, the president was at least choosing a relatively unknown asset. Bolton, meanwhile, was the most predictable of Trump’s bad hires. Bolton labeled Trump’s 2016 campaign promises racist, saying they had “no place” in the party, and of course he was adamantly opposed to any foreign policy plans that didn’t involve fighting a half-dozen wars at once. But Trump, perhaps believing Bolton could be tamed, hired him as National Security Advisor anyway in 2018. A year later, Bolton was gone, and the year after that, he published a memoir trashing the president. Bolton’s entire tenure was a blunder that never needed to happen.
Obviously, Trump has ample attacked both Mattis and Bolton in the years since they left his administration. But it never would have come to that if the president had not brought people who didn’t agree with his program into his orbit in the first place.
Okay, obviously the president won’t ever disavow his son-in-law. But Jared’s perpetual presence as a member of the president’s inner circle is still the gold standard for flaws in the president’s hiring. Instead of delivering on 2016 promises, and running entirely on that in 2020, Kushner tried to broker an immigration “compromise”, and abandoned law and order for criminal justice “reforms” that let dangerous criminals back on the streets. Jared pushed for abandoning “law and order” for criminal justice “reform,” apparently thinking this would carry Trump to reelection on a tidal wave of minority support. Instead, President Trump’s minority support rose only marginally despite aggressive outreach (read: pandering) to the African-American community.
It was a devastating blunder for the President to sustain him in his position as long as he did.
It’s time for Donald Trump to go scorched earth. And that means using his endorsement power with the care that it deserves. True, Trump wants to be liked, and he wants to win. But there is no victory in elevating flatterers, traitors, and idiots who will betray what made Trump such a transformational president in the first place. The president must refuse to endorse candidates who are not fully aligned with the agenda for America he laid out in his CPAC speech: Not just low taxes, but a secure border with merit-based immigration, real law and order where communities are safe from antifa and rioters, a strong military that isn’t wasted on neverending petty wars, and an education system that teaches children to love America rather than hate it. There can be no half-measures, no promotion of careerists and grifters who want to exploit a political movement for their own ends.
For the next four years, there will be many enemies of Trumpism who will try to claim the president’s mantle rather than attack him. And there will be many more clueless supporters, who don’t understand the president’s realignment and will perpetually seek the comfort of the GOP’s old, losing ways. Donald Trump may no longer be president. But he can still play an integral role in making sure his revolution endures. And it will start by only endorsing people who support it.