Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
With stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, former Vice President Mike Pence has been skittering around the country like a man who is serious about running for president in 2024. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is picking his favorites in upcoming US Senate primaries. Seems like no one has told them that Donald Trump owns the GOP.
Although he lost his bid for re-election, ceding the White House to a kinder, gentler President Joe Biden, Trump has turned his defeat into a victory in his determined effort to shape the Republican party in his image. Despite a complete absence of evidence, a recent CNN poll found that a majority of Republicans say that supporting Trump and his Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him are important aspects of being a member of the party.
Candidates can go to extremes as they demonstrate their loyalty. In Virginia, Jarome Bell, a Trump favorite running for Congress, recently called for audits of elections in “All 50 states” followed by trials, convictions, and executions of all involved.
All signs point to a Republican Party trapped in Trump’s game. This contest requires that the former president have enemies to fight – and they can’t be abject patsies. They must be strong enough to impress the fans, like the high-level politicos who might think they are in charge.
Like a TV wrestler, Trump’s favorite moves include a bit where he tries to throw his opponents in the House and Senate out of the ring. He calls them RINOs – Republicans In Name Only – as if he has redefined what it means to belong to the GOP. He also makes it clear that he wants them to be cast out. Their sin? Defying his effort to detach the party from its traditional conservative ideas and make it over in his own image.
With a growing list of favorite candidates across the country and a super PAC flush with cash he can give them, Trump is favoring those who would follow him anywhere. They, in turn, want the support of his avid base – a force that could dominate primary elections.
Others, call them the think-for-your-selfers, challenge Trump at their own peril. It doesn’t matter how loyal they may have been in the past, or how much effort they expended on Trump’s behalf. One real break from the Trump line, which he presents as the party line, and you become his enemy.
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump is going after the most senior GOP officeholder, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The former president has been asking Republican senators to push McConnell out of his leadership position.
Trump has called McConnell “very bad for the Republican Party,” but, according to the Journal, GOP senators were unmoved. Perhaps this is because for years McConnell has steadfastly supported his colleagues with campaign cash. Last year alone, a group allied with McConnell put more than $460 million into Senate races. This far exceeded the amount Trump has on hand today.
In addition to his own financial resources, McConnell has a depth of political experience – and success – that allows him to distance himself from Trump without much worry. He has stuck with his early assessment that Trump was responsible for his followers’ January 6 riot at the Capitol and said he was pleased by the impeachment that followed because it could make it easier to purge the party of his influence.
What is most remarkable about the Trump-McConnell feud is that a strong case could be made for the idea that it’s actually the former president who owes the Senate GOP leader loyalty, not the other way around. Without McConnell to shepherd his agenda through the Senate, Trump would not have had the tax cut that was the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, or the rapid approval of all the judges he placed on various courts. This made McConnell one of Trump’s favorite people – that is, until January 6 when McConnell spoke candidly about the president’s role in inciting rioters. As a guy who cannot tolerate ugly truths and those who share them, Trump turned on him.
Trump also turned on his vice president, Pence, who tried but failed to find a way to block Congress as it met to certify the 2020 election. As revealed in the new book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Trump argued when Pence told him he couldn’t do what he wanted. He then reportedly told Pence, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this.”
For nearly five years, Pence had been fiercely loyal to Trump. Though this was apparent to Trump’s supporters, all Pence had done was erased when he decided he had no choice but to certify the election. On January 6, Trump attacked Pence, saying publicly he “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Since then, he has repeated the charge, signaling his displeasure to his followers. Pence was even heckled for being a “traitor” at a gathering last June.
With a busy schedule of appearances across the country, Pence seems to be revving his engine for a race to the White House in 2024. However, according to Politico, Trump has reportedly said that only bad health news will deter him from running himself. Pence may have no viable options for either restoring his relationship with the former president or gaining support from Trump loyalists. Far more than McConnell, he may be boxed out of having any meaningful say in the GOP’s future.
Others whom Trump has targeted as he moves to control the party include the House Republicans who voted for impeachment early this year. Among them are Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Fred Upton of Michigan, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Jaime Herrera-Beutler of Washington, Peter Meijer of Michigan and Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio. Gonzalez retired after serving just two terms, rather than deal with a primary challenge.
There is no question that Trump is working to define the party in his image with the intent to run for president in 2024. He is doing this with the same method he has always used in the game of politics: Drawing stark contrasts and demanding others make a choice. This forecloses whatever chance the party may have had to bring itself back together after its defeat, or to add to its ranks.
The idea of politics is to win elections and then lead according to some sort of principles or philosophy. However, the game Trump has dragged the GOP into is a trap that will doom it.
Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said as much in May when he called on the party to forget Trump and move back to Reaganism. After Ryan spoke, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, took back the criticism he lobbed at Trump after January 6, and said that he lacked “the information we have today” when he made his initial statements. Now, instead of Trump, he blames House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the actions of the mob that Trump assembled and urged to march on the Capitol.
If there’s a contest between Reaganism and Trumpism over the soul of the Republican Party, McCarthy has recognized that Trump has won, at least for now, and Mike Pence isn’t even in the game. McConnell may want to pull the party back toward the Reagan model but there’s no sign, outside of the Senate, that he can move the GOP in his direction. Instead, he has begun accepting Trump’s favorites in certain races. For the time being, he will, like Pence, have to keep an eye on the guy who’s really in charge.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly included a second author in the editor’s note. The author of this piece is Michael D’Antonio.