It’s been about two weeks since Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, and about half that time has been consumed by an utterly preventable, and predictable, scandal: Trump dining with Kanye West, now an avowed anti-Semite, and Nick Fuentes, a notorious white supremacist, at Mar-a-Lago. The Trumpworld spin room, of course, has repeatedly emphasized that Fuentes—the far-right pundit-leader of the so-called Groyper Army, who has frequently called for the expulsion of Jews and minorities from “white America”—was merely an unexpected interloper in Trump’s pre-Thanksgiving meal with West. But G.O.P. insiders that I spoke to were apoplectic that Trump spent these early innings of his campaign breaking bread with West in the first place. “Why? Why are we doing this? Why are we having dinner with Kanye?” a party strategist fumed. “What’s the perceived advantage there if you’re running for president?”
The Trump ’24 campaign, after all, was hardly off to a rollicking start even before Ye and his entourage rolled into Mar-a-Lago. First there was Trump’s deflating campaign announcement—a long-winded diatribe that prompted multiple audience members to attempt a mid-speech Irish exit—only a few days after a dismal midterm outcome. Trump had already been blamed by many in the G.O.P. for putting his thumb on the scale for a half-dozen oddball or extremist gubernatorial and midterm candidates, including Dr. Oz and Herschel Walker, among others, who likely cost Republicans the Senate. In the days and weeks afterward, Trump spent the bulk of his time holed up in Mar-a-Lago, shit-posting about stolen elections and imagined enemies, his own mounting legal headaches, and the gall of would-be primary challengers.
That Trump closed out this second week on the trail bunkered down in Mar-a-Lago with Ye has only punctuated the growing fear among allies and insiders that the ex-president, in the throes of his post-Twitter and post-double-impeachment woes, cares far more about his own personal relevance than his party (duh) or even his own potential victory. “Set aside the Fuentes thing,” the strategist continued, referring to Trump’s claims that Kanye’s white-nationalist dinner guest was a stranger. “He is a relatively obscure figure, despite the attempts of the press to make him a household name. But Kanye alone—what are you doing? Why are you having dinner with him? What’s the upside here? We know the downside. He’s mentally disturbed. And if the answer is oh, he’s my friend and I’m trying to give him some tough love and advice, that’s fine. You can do that over the phone.”
Low Energy Don
G.O.P. insiders I’ve spoken to over the past several days are particularly concerned that Trump, despite his rage at losing the presidency, is not acting serious about taking it back. There is no doubt that he wants to be front of mind for voters: He announced that he was running for president months before any of his potential opponents in a clear attempt to dominate the field. (Ron DeSantis, as I recently reported, is unlikely to announce his own decision until late spring or early summer.) But while Trump has made himself relevant again, his underwhelming post-announcement moves merely highlight his unique vulnerabilities. “Trump’s hold on the party has dramatically weakened,” a longtime conservative activist told me, stating the obvious. “And that’s why you’re seeing the very lackluster and weak support for his candidacy for the ’24 presidential race.”
As far as these insiders are concerned, Trump has now overseen three cycles of soul-crushing G.O.P. defeats. There was the 2018 “blue wave,” which saw the Republicans lose the House; the 2020 race, which saw Republicans lose both the White House and the Senate (not to mention the disaster of the Georgia runoffs); and the most recent midterms, in which Republicans dramatically underperformed the fundamentals of a slowing economy and unpopular president, leaving Kevin McCarthy’s potential Speakership suddenly in doubt. Indeed, even some of Trump’s most loyal supporters are scrutinizing his results card, including two presidential races in which he failed to win the popular vote, and wondering if he’s less an asset than a liability. “It’s proven that he’s a great motivator for a segment of the base,” the conservative activist noted. “But in the end, there’s another segment, which is suburban voters and independents. Not only does he turn them off, but he almost galvanizes them to come out and vote against him.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s lazy, self-interested maneuvering to solidify his position at the top of the G.O.P. heap has alternatively baffled and infuriated party leaders. His attempt to fundraise off of Walker’s runoff campaign in Georgia—skimming 90 percent of those donations for himself—has not gone unnoticed, even among the diehard MAGA crowd. “If you’re going to endorse candidates, and these candidates are going to be tougher to elect—à la an Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Kari Lake in Arizona—then at least put some real money behind them that you’re raising, to kind of help them along. And that’s not happening,” said the activist. “So that’s really upsetting a lot of Republican activists who are a little bit more savvy to electioneering and campaign spending.”
Trump was always an undisciplined and intellectually lazy candidate, but his behavior in recent weeks suggests he is reluctant to push hard this time around, ostensibly running a campaign from the comforts of his ex officio sinecure at Mar-a-Lago. “Going early was probably an effort to clear the field. That shows an awareness that there’s a willingness among voters to look at other people. It depends on the state, obviously. But I just think it was a weird move,” said the strategist, calling Trump’s current strategy “low energy”—the two most dreaded words in MAGA lingo.
“He’s not doing events. He’s just sort of hanging out at Mar-a-Lago and letting the circus come to him,” the strategist continued. Then again, this person noted, it’s still unusually early in the presidential campaign cycle, and Trump has a tendency to draw energy from his own momentum. “Look, the one thing you had to say about Trump was that he worked extremely hard in 2016. Not at first. At first, he was a little more lackadaisical, but as he realized he could actually win the thing, he pushed pretty hard.”
“Politics Is Math”
Few Republican leaders went out of their way to comment on the Fuentes-West scandal, and even fewer openly condemned Trump. But in other meaningful ways, the dam of support appears to be breaking. Over the past several weeks, multiple influential conservative groups have released polling data that shows Trump losing his grip in key states.
Steve Schwarzman, once an unlikely Trump ally, has since disavowed the guy. Ivanka has already released a weirdly self-serving note declaring that she’s on the other side of her political journey. The Club for Growth, while never particularly pro-Trump, also intentionally released a poll just before his ’24 announcement showing him losing to DeSantis in Iowa, New Hampshire, Georgia and Florida. In Pennsylvania, where Trump’s primary meddling proved disastrous, the conservative Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs found that Republicans preferred DeSantis to Trump, 45 to 40, in a hypothetical matchup. “This poll shows what’s become abundantly clear in the past two years,” the group’s C.E.O., Matt Brouillette, said in a public statement. “It’s time to move on from Trump.”
This trend of public defiance, the activist predicted, is likely to continue. “People in the past would have kept that to themselves, because they didn’t want to be seen as being disloyal, or that they didn’t want to be seen particularly by Trump as being disloyal. Now, they don’t care. Because now their attitude is, it’s over,” he said. “There’s no magical way Trump is suddenly going to convince the voters that he’s lost in at least three elections, that he’s their guy, and they’re going to come back to him. This is not going to happen. There’s no magic new voters out there that he’s somehow going to convince to come his way to replace those that he consistently loses. In the end, part of politics is math.”
Of course, Trump has a way of warping, or at least confounding, political reality. He still begins the ’24 race as the front-runner, just as he was throughout 2016, despite constant predictions of his imminent demise. The second time Trump lost the popular vote, in 2020, he doubled down, claimed that he’d actually won, and unleashed an army of MAGA supporters—white nationalists, militia members, and conspiracy theorists alike—into the Capitol. And DeSantis, as I reported the other week, has yet to be vetted or otherwise prove himself on the national stage. Those betting on DeSantis (or Glenn Youngkin or Nikki Haley or Mike Pence) to restore dignity after Ye-gate might look to see how they worked out last time.