Steven V. Roberts: Is the Trump show over?

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 8, 2022

Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, said this at a Washington, D.C. dinner about the last Republican president: “The press often will ask me if I think Donald Trump is crazy. And I’ll say it this way: I don’t think he’s so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out.”

Sununu later said he was only joking, but he was clearly speaking what my dear wife Cokie would have called “vicious truths.” The mere fact that a sitting GOP governor would say such things about Trump reveals a basic fact about politics today. The former president remains the most powerful force in the Republican Party, but his strength is slipping; his flame is flickering.

Trump seems at times like one of those aging stars playing to gray-haired crowds in minor league arenas. He’s singing the same songs, his Golden Oldies, but the cheers echo with nostalgia for the past, not excitement for the future.

In a recent NBC poll, only 36% of Republicans described themselves as primarily Trump supporters, while 56% professed loyalty to the party. During the 2020 election, 53% had identified as Trumpists first. In a CBS survey, only 35% of Americans — Trump’s hardcore base — wanted him to run for president again.

“Things feel like they’ve been shifting,” Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini told The New York Times. Trump voters “are looking at alternatives,” and while they still feel “a strong attachment” to their hero, they are increasingly open to what Ruffini calls a “next-generation Trump candidate.”

Others are betting that Republicans would even consider a non-Trumpist candidate. Maryland’s popular moderate governor, Larry Hogan, is already plotting trips to early primary states and telling the Associated Press: “There is a large and growing lane of Republicans and Americans across the political spectrum who are fed up with toxic politics and want to move in a new direction.”

There are many factors behind the shift Ruffini discerns, but it starts with a sense of fatigue, a desire to forget the insanity and instability that dominated the Trump years. GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson quotes a Republican voter named Barney who joined a focus group discussing Trump’s future. “His show’s over,” Barney concluded. “We need some new blood at the head of the country and different types of leaders. I mean, this divide among the parties is getting really crazy.”

The signs of discontent are sprouting up like spring flowers. During a Trump rally in rural Georgia last month, Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweeted, “This is the smallest crowd I’ve seen at a rally of his in Georgia since he won the 2016 election.” NPR reporter Stephen Fowler noted that the crowd was “not very enthusiastic” and kept “streaming out,” even as Trump was still speaking.

Then there is Truth Social, the new messaging app Trump created after he got kicked off Twitter and Facebook. Its launch has been marred by technical glitches, the departure of three key executives and waning public interest. “The app, which quickly became Apple’s top free app following its launch on the evening of Feb. 20, has since fallen to number 84,” reports The Daily Dot.

Sure, Trump retains considerable clout in Republican primaries, but many of his endorsed candidates are faltering. Take Georgia, where Trump is trying to purge Gov. Brian Kemp for committing one unpardonable sin: He told the truth about Trump’s defeat in 2020. But Trump’s preferred candidate, former senator David Perdue, is trailing Kemp by 10 points, and Republican lawmaker Clint Dixon explained to the Times that Georgia voters “have turned the page on the election.”

Trump’s rivals are also emboldened by his mounting legal troubles and the growing possibility that he could be charged with several serious crimes before the next election. Federal District Judge David Carter wrote that “it is more likely than not” that Trump obstructed justice on Jan. 6, 2021. And while the judge cannot bring legal action against Trump, the Justice Department can, and its new budget includes $34 million to hire 80 attorneys to advance that investigation. Other prosecutors, from Atlanta to Albany, are also targeting Trump’s legal liabilities.

It’s not yet certain that the Trump show is over. He still has a lot of money and fervent support from his base. But as the old rocker belts out his Greatest Hits, the lights and the applause are starting to dim.

 Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com. 

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