It’s a tough one, trying to calculate whether the movement to make America great again has expanded or contracted since Donald Trump left office. But despite the multiple factors in play and a plethora of unknowable emotions stirring among both the Trump faithful and GOP voters as a whole, enough time has passed since Jan. 20 to draw some preliminary conclusions about the residual strength of both Trump and the populist uprising he inspired.
First off, lest we forget, Trump received ten million more votes in 2020 than when he ascended to the presidency with his shock election in 2016. Had he and his party embraced the inevitability of mass mail-in voting during a pandemic instead of talking it down and driving voters to cast their ballots in person — only 25% did so — the outcome might have been different. But even a GOP strategy centered around the acknowledgment of unique historical circumstances may still have produced the same outcome, given the radical liberalization of voting laws that were made to order for the Democratic Party. In an opposite strategy from Republicans, the Dems milked the pandemic, the relaxation of even minimal voting standards, and a virtual air-drop of unsolicited ballots for all it was worth. It was right in their wheelhouse, and they took the fat pitch and drove it over the fence.
Yes, Trump may well have been victorious had COVID-19 not reared its ugly head just as his re-election campaign was kicking into gear. Instead, death, misery, and violence came to define the last year of his presidency. But, of course, the aftermath of the 2020 election has thrown the future of both Trump and the MAGA movement into the land of the great unknown. The answers to some questions may have changed — or require caveats — since the Capitol riot of Jan. 6. Foremost among them is whether Trump will run one more time. If he does, could he win?
Well, consider the alliance of big corporate media, allied with an array of familiar and strange bedfellows, and the fictitious, vile, and racially charged canards they created, such as Trump-Russia collusion and “very fine people,” which nevertheless succeeded in taking the guy down once. Just how vigorously would he be condemned this time around? Imagine the images of Jan. 6 running 24/7 in a virtual loop on the likes of CNN and other major media freshly rejuvenated by Trump’s return, chomping at the bit with the prospect of their sinking ratings rising from the ashes as they resume their reign of terror against the former president and all who dare support him. As the great rock musician Steve Winwood once put it, they’d be back in the high life again. All the doors they closed one time will open up again. All the eyes that watched them once will smile and take them in.
But beyond the man is the plan. The America First agenda, promised and delivered over four years, stands almost apart from the showman who first dreamed it. Faint hope inspired by MAGA was long ago replaced by concrete results. A president who was elected on a wing and a prayer did the extraordinary simply by believing he would actually do what he said he would. Thus, against all odds and with precious few allies, he fulfilled outrageously ambitious pledges that had been dismissed out of hand by the scoffers: that he would be the greatest jobs president ever; that he would resuscitate a flagging economy and send it into orbit; that he would entirely recalibrate our approach to friends and foes alike in this post-post-Cold War era; and that he would finally take action on the pervasive threat of long-unchecked illegal immigration. Even the most vocal and enthusiastic among the Trump base will provide mixed reviews on the man himself but offer unrestrained enthusiasm for what he accomplished.
The near-meteoric rise of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over the last several months, drafting off the best of Trump, is living proof that while Trump the man has undoubtedly been diminished in the eyes of some — perhaps many — his mission is very much alive and well. Trump has thrown things wide open in the once-staid GOP. The likes of Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney are being challenged — and will likely be beaten — by MAGA-friendly upstarts. Even Texas Governor Greg Abbott, hardly a squish, is being challenged from his right by conservative firebrand Allen West. Trump the man may now have driven away those tepid voters who pulled the lever for him only because he was a Republican, or because they refused to vote for a Democrat, but his record and the sea change he provoked stand undiminished in the eyes of the great mass of conservative and Republican voters.
The Florida governor — together with the growing chorus of America First candidates popping up across the land — obviously comprehends this and speaks as if trance-channeling the bombastic billionaire, from his Trump-like, hot-button content to his audacious, take-no-prisoners tone. The difference is background: DeSantis is an experienced, polished political professional who, after serving in Congress and as chief executive of a major state, understands (per another great songwriter) what Trump mostly didn’t: when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run. His overwhelming first-place standing in the most recent poll of hard-core conservatives — finishing ahead of even Trump while leaving the rest of the field in the dust — is essentially proof positive that, while Republicans might ultimately turn away from another run by Trump himself, they most decidedly will vote to embrace his agenda and build on his legacy.
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