Trump’s personality and history gave him special ability to make the phoniness indictment. Journalists and biographers have yet to find a chapter in Trump’s 75 years when he might be described as honest in the conventional sense of that word — someone who tells the truth and follows the rules because it is the right thing to do, even when it is disadvantageous to do so.
But just because Trump is someone who is comfortable lying — anyone paying attention has known that since the 1980s — he was not at the outset of his political career defined by artifice. His grandiose self-conception, his vanity, his gleeful satyriasis — these are common traits in politicians, but most would try to hide them from view. Trump put them proudly on display. On the few occasions he was ever scolded into an apology — such as his notorious comments about how women like to be grabbed by famous people — he backtracked quickly. Whatever else you could say about Trump, he was not a phony.
That history comes to mind this week, as Trump rescinded his previous endorsement of the hapless Rep. Mo Brooks, who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Alabama. Brooks’ problem was that he said something that was most likely 100 percent sincere: He believes it is time for Republicans to “put that behind you” and move on from questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.
Trump, already dismayed by Brooks’ weak standing in polls, denounced him for the decision to go “woke” and not join Trump in insisting that the 2020 election was stolen.
The move put an especially bright light on a trend years in the making: Trump has moved from being the beneficiary of America’s instinctual suspicion that most politicians are phonies who don’t really believe a thing they say, to being the enforcer against politicians who are insufficiently phony in professing blind devotion to him.
Brooks was certainly being less phony in his words about the 2020 election than he was a few days ago when braying about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell being “a weak-kneed, debt junkie, open-border RINO Republican.” That was a transparent effort to get back in Trump’s favor — and it’s impossible to believe Brooks wouldn’t be fervently pro-McConnell if he perceived that would help him. It’s just words — he likely doesn’t give a damn.
One suspects that Trump himself does not realize how far he has drifted from the original source of his appeal as someone who is not connected to a reigning power structure and may lie and even cheat but does not traffic in the usual political B.S. Now Trump is trying to create his own power structure. And, even if one accepts that in his self-delusion Trump really does believe the election was somehow rigged against him, he also says lots of other things that he self-evidently doesn’t believe.
There is little doubt that Trump genuinely believes that the United States has no interest in being at odds with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and no business getting enmeshed in the Ukraine conflict. But now that Russian atrocities in Ukraine make that view broadly unpopular, Trump does what any conventional politician would do — pretend that his view is something else, and ludicrously assert that as president he would be much more confrontational with Putin than the Biden administration, including threatening the launch of nuclear weapons.
Trump makes so much noise, and instills so much fear in Republican politicians, that it can be hard to see the deterioration that is taking place in his political foundation. My POLITICO colleagues Tara Palmeri and Alex Isenstadt have both done work highlighting some cracks in that foundation, as revealed by Trump’s clumsy efforts to play boss in his party.
Palmeri described how competing family members, political retainers and wealthy contributors are trying to use their access to Trump to gain endorsements for candidates to whom they have personal ties. The implication was that Trump has been manipulated into dubious endorsements that will expose that his ability to swing elections for supporters or punish opponents is actually more limited than he claims.
Isenstadt notes that Trump has endorsed several candidates who could lose intraparty contests. That includes Idaho Republican Janice McGeachin, who is challenging the state’s incumbent governor, Brad Little. Trump has also lined up behind North Carolina Republican Rep. Ted Budd, who is running in a competitive Senate race against former Gov. Pat McCrory. In the governor’s race in Georgia, where Trump is trying to punish incumbent Brian Kemp for not supporting his effort to overturn the election, Kemp has so far retained a substantial polling lead and fundraising advantage over Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue.
It is worth keeping these embarrassments and potential embarrassments in context. The reality is Trump is so far dominating his party in a way that is unmatched by any former president in the last century.
But so far isn’t actually that far — and history has a way of catching up. In December 2020, I wrote a column noting that Trump belongs to a long line of politicians who have used appeals similar to his to rise to prominence. At the malevolent end this includes figures like Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace; at the benign end it includes figures like Ross Perot. All of them struck themes similar to the ones that vaulted Trump to power — that America is facing decline because of the duplicity and cravenness of political elites, arguments often laced with xenophobia. All of them for a time vaulted to prominence as the tribune of ordinary Americans disgusted with conventional politics. All of them tried comebacks once their period of peak power waned. None of them succeeded. Trump is unique in that he rode his populist appeal all the way to the presidency. He’s already surprised me with how much relevance he continues to hold. But nothing in history suggests that he can retain this influence all the way to 2024.
“Every hero becomes a bore at last,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson — and he might have added that they become a phony, as well.
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