Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including his forthcoming co-edited work, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The price of supporting Donald Trump to the Republican Party keeps getting higher. The former president has gone through one of the most tumultuous weeks possible, with fresh evidence of why the party’s connection to him – and his potential nomination in 2024 – could be extraordinarily damaging.
A Manhattan jury found two of the companies in the Trump Organization guilty of criminal tax fraud and falsifying tax business records on Tuesday, though Trump and his family were not charged in the case.
And in Tuesday’s Senate runoff election in Georgia, Trump’s handpicked candidate, former football star Herschel Walker, lost to Sen. Raphael Warnock, giving Democrats a 51-seat majority in the Senate. That was also the day Trump posed for photos with a prominent QAnon conspiracy theorist at Mar-a-Lago.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that a team of investigators hired by the former president’s lawyers, under a federal judge’s order, found two documents with classified markings in a Florida storage unit.
Add it all up, the news is not good for those who argue that Trump is still the best option for the GOP’s hopes of recapturing the White House. It is now fair to say that the former president has cost Republicans political power in three election cycles – 2018, 2020 and 2022 – and the heavy baggage of controversy that he carries with him just became much heavier. And there seems to be no end in sight.
Nor was this week some sort of one-off. For instance, it comes after his decision to dine with Kanye West soon after Ye, as he’s now known, made more antisemitic comments. Also at the table that evening was Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, who is a notorious promoter of racism of all kinds.
Commenting on everything that has happened, Republican strategist Scott Reed called this week, and the two that came before, “devastating for Trump’s future viability.” The writing on the wall, Reed told the New York Times, seems clear. “Abandonment,” he said, “has begun.”
Why might all of this matter now? After all, turmoil is Trump’s main currency. As businessman, reality television celebrity and president, he has always counted on generating controversy as his central strategy for garnering media attention. He has used the investigations and attacks that come his way as a basis to position himself as a perpetually anti-establishment figure who can sympathize with the “common” person.
Trump never strives to be loved but, rather, he seeks to weaponize the anger and vitriol that he generates. Despite Trump’s name-calling and personal drama, he twice won the GOP presidential nomination – and the 2016 election. The same dynamic held true throughout his one-term presidency.
While many speculate about whether Trump has “gone too far,” this has never proven to be a concern to Republican powerbrokers such as Sen. Mitch McConnell. This is not the issue that motivates them.
Almost nothing that happened in recent weeks is totally new to Trump, unless a person hasn’t been paying attention. He has been involved in scandal from the moment he set foot in politics. As president, he constantly flouted the limits of power. And he has a history of making remarks that invoke antisemitic tropes.
But now things might start to look different. The 2022 midterms could turn into a dividing line in the history of the Trump-Republican relationship. In Republican politics, partisan power drives decision-making above all else.
Over the past six years, Republican officials, and the rank and file, have learned how to live with Trump because they believe that he can win, and that his loyal base can help them be victorious. Whether it was out of fear or hope, Republicans showed that they would tolerate almost anything – even trying to overturn an election – to protect him.
A week like this might shatter that status quo. Now that there are more Republicans, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who could possibly do Trumpism in more effective fashion, the former president’s standing within the party inevitably becomes more precarious. There will be growing clamor to consider throwing the weight of the party, including the messages spread on conservative media, toward a viable alternative. The New York Post was disparaging Trump’s next run before this week even started.
To be sure, none of these developments mean that he is done. As many commentators have argued, including myself, there are a number of ways in which it is possible for Trump to secure the nomination in 2024.
Trump has proven enormously resilient in the past at handling periods of adversity and his ability to command attention, by making outlandish remarks such as threatening to terminate the Constitution, perpetually draws attention in the media. His supporters remain fervent, and it is unclear how many Republicans are really willing to break with him in serious fashion. Every Republican alternative who looks good on paper might look more like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012 and 2016, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2016. Both GOP presidential candidates went from seemingly inevitable superstars to minor sideshows in primaries.
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Nonetheless, the frustration is mounting. Besides actual legal peril, of all the political problems facing Trump right now, it is the most recent elections that put him in genuine peril with the party. More than the documents and more than his companies’ tax fraud, Republicans are paying attention to the ways in which Trump and the candidates he supported cost the party majority power. McConnell might be forgiving of many things, but having to serve as the minority leader is not one of them.
If Trump is going to solidify his position, he will need to convince more Republicans that he can deliver votes and that he is not a “loser,” in his own parlance. This has become much more difficult with Republicans seeing Democrats in power in the White House, Senate, and many state legislatures and governorships they were hoping to win. Trump will have a much harder road ahead if Republicans conclude that by not fighting his nomination tooth and nail, they might end up handing Democrats a united government two years down the road.