On Tuesday 15 November Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, told reporters that he did not believe the former president, Donald Trump, should announce later that night his intention to run for president again in 2024.
“I don’t think President Trump should announce his run tonight,” he said. “I just think that with [the Georgia Senate midterm results still] outstanding, I would like to finish 2022… [without] presidential announcements. We got to figure out what went wrong.” Presumably the last comment was referring to Republicans’ poor performance in the 8 November midterm elections.
Hours later, at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump announced that he was running. Shortly after, Graham – seemingly forgetting what he had just said – tweeted: “If President Trump continues this tone and delivers this message on a consistent basis, he will be hard to beat. His speech tonight, contrasting his policies and results against the Biden administration, charts a winning path for him in the primaries and general election.”
This seesawing support isn’t new. We have seen prior cycles – in the 2016 and 2020 presidential election campaigns and, from some corners, in between – of Trump saying and doing horrible things followed by Republican politicians and pundits disavowing him only to change their minds and effusively praise him once again. Who could forget how Ted Cruz campaigned for the man who insulted his wife in the 2016 Republican primary?
It’s not just politicians: conservative media are guilty of this, too. The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, greeted Trump’s announcement on Tuesday by dismissing him as an anonymous “Florida man” on its front page. Yet in 2015 it also ran the headline, “Trump campaign implodes after McCain war hero insult”, only to endorse him in the New York Republican primary a year later. Ivanka Trump, Trump’s eldest daughter, has said she will not be involved with his campaign this time around. In 2016 she reportedly cried after the release of a tape in which her father said that he could grab women “by the pussy” and that “when you’re a star, they let you do it”, yet she went on to work in his White House and campaigned for his re-election in 2020. Weeks after the storming of the US Capitol by an angry mob urged on by the then-president, Republicans changed their position on Trump from angry to resigned. He was, after all, still the most powerful person in their party. (This is to say nothing of politicians such as Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama who, on 16 November, publicly and enthusiastically threw his support behind Trump, in spite of everything.)
It is easy for Republicans to swear up and down that they don’t support Trump when he looks like a loser. It’s relatively easy to disown him when it seems as though he will never really regain his place as a political force. But, as I wrote recently, proclaiming Trump over and actually beating him are two very different things. What happens if, in 14 months, Trump wins the first Republican presidential primary? Will the sting of the midterm losses be gone? Will the Post and other Murdoch properties decide to throw their weight behind Trump after all? Will politicians decide they have no choice but to follow his voters?
I think they will. I have seen this movie too many times to believe otherwise. If right-wing politicians and pundits want to demonstrate that they’ve really broken with Trump, the best thing to do isn’t to proclaim it. It’s to prove it.
[See also: Joe Biden shouldn’t run in 2024]