After the better part of a decade wielding a political brand as untouchable as any in memory, former President Trump is now experiencing a strange feeling: abandonment. In races large and small unfolding in states across the country, the same Republican candidates who months ago clamored for Trump’s endorsement are now in a race to toss the former president overboard.
It isn’t hard to see why. In an electorate with plenty of tailwinds for Republicans – President Biden’s struggles with inflation and a rightward shift of critical Hispanic voters, to name just two – Trump remains one of the most disliked politicians in America. An Economist/YouGov poll released last week found a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump, and a RealClearPolitics trend map shows Trump’s popularity problem is getting worse over time.
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s unfavorability ratings are spiking in June, as the Jan. 6 committee blankets the media with shocking stories of just how closely Trump stage-managed last year’s attempt to overturn a free and fair election. And it’s clear Americans are listening: More than 20 million Americans tuned in to the first week of hearings. As Trump would say, the ratings have been yuge.
Republicans who were more than willing to accept Trump’s primary endorsement are now understandably nervous about linking their political fortunes to a potential insurrection leader. Even some of Trump’s personal favorites are beginning to jump ship: On Wednesday, Axios’ Andrew Solender reported that Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz had unceremoniously stripped Trump’s name and image from his website. Solender also found that Oz’s social media, which mentioned Trump more than 70 times between his endorsement and primary day, hasn’t been eager to tout their connection during the heat of the Jan. 6 committee hearings.
The purge went as far as dropping the idea that Trump ever endorsed Oz. “Oz’s Twitter bio no longer advertised him as the ‘Trump Endorsed Candidate for U.S. Senate,’” Solender reports. “[Oz] hasn’t tweeted about Trump since May 17,” over a month ago. And on the Trump-owned social network Truth Social, where Oz maintains an account, Solender notes that Oz’s once-frequent mentions of Trump have abruptly come to a halt.
Trump’s problem isn’t limited to Pennsylvania. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely regarded as Trump’s most formidable 2024 primary opponent, announced he wouldn’t even bother asking for Trump’s endorsement for his reelection bid. Declining to seek an endorsement is one thing, but DeSantis’s decision to publicize his move also sends a clear message to Trump: Who needs you?
One challenge facing Republican candidates eager to access Trump’s supporters and money without sparking voter fury? Many of the former president’s loudest critics in Jan. 6 committee hearings have been prominent Republicans with otherwise clean records of stalwart party loyalty — criticism of Donald Trump aside.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his deputy Gabriel Sterling offered searing testimony about just how insistently Trump demanded they fraudulently falsify Georgia’s popular vote results. Revered conservative jurist J. Michael Luttig openly accused Trump of cheerleading a “war on democracy” on Jan. 6. With 6 in 10 Americans now saying Trump should be criminally charged for inciting the insurrection, there’s evidence the committee’s storytelling is sinking in across partisan lines. It’s harder for Trump-endorsed candidates to activate the GOP’s formidable donor network when a growing number of rank-and-file Republican voters think Donald Trump is a federal criminal.
And the much-desired Trump seal of approval may not be the formidable political force it used to be. The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Michael Scherer report that a growing number of Republican insiders are maneuvering to undermine Trump’s endorsements — and the far-right candidates they boost. And Trump’s newest enemies come from uncomfortably close to home.
“In several cases, some of Trump’s own Cabinet members and advisers, along with other longtime allies in the Republican Party, are working or stumping for candidates running against Trump-endorsed candidates,” the Post writes. That includes former Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to Georgia to headline a rally with Trump nemesis Gov. Brian Kemp.
Republicans are growing increasingly comfortable putting public distance between themselves and Trump. That’s bad news for the MAGA movement, which may soon find itself consumed by an internal power struggle as DeSantis, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and others vie to replace a declining Trump as the spiritual head of the right.
It’s also devastating for Trump, who has governed his Republican squires through fear and domination since taking over the party in 2016. Without the intimidation factor so central to Trump’s hold on power, influential Trump critics such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may seize the opportunity to deepen the break with the rapidly toxifying Trump. If that happens, Republicans will face an enraged, burn-it-all-down Trump in the run-up to the 2024 elections. That may be beleaguered Democrats’ best hope of returning Joe Biden to the White House.
Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns.