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Trump finally jumps the shark

I’m starting to think that Donald Trump might be finished.

I don’t mean that he’s bound to be taken down by one of the criminal investigations digging deeply into various aspects of his conduct, though he might be. Or that his business empire is going to be sucked into a cascade of bankruptcies once the $421 million he owes to creditors begins to come due over the next few years, though that is certainly possible. Or that one or more of a couple dozen pending lawsuits will bring him to his knees, though I wouldn’t exactly be surprised to see it happen.

No, I mean that the man’s political potency is fading at a remarkably rapid rate. With Trump silenced on social media, still obsessed with nursing personal grievances against leading figures in his own party, and continuing to spread transparent, delusional lies about the 2020 election, he looks increasingly marginal, like a pathetic, weak, and comical figure.

I think Trump may have finally jumped the shark.

His latest bilious temper tantrum took place on Saturday night at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where Republican National Committee donors and 2024 presidential aspirants gathered to schmooze and listen to what the former president had to say. The message? The Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a “dumb son of a b-tch” and a “stone cold loser” for failing to back up Trump’s baseless assertions of voter fraud during the election he decisively lost last November. The former president also castigated his vice president, Mike Pence, calling him a coward for going along with his constitutionally proscribed role in Congress on Jan. 6 instead of working to overturn the “bullsh-t” election results.

It wasn’t a speech about the accomplishments of his administration during its four years of running the country or the GOP’s electoral triumphs in the 2020 election (when the party exceeded expectations on multiple fronts and made potentially fruitful inroads among Hispanic and Black voters). Neither was it a speech that was especially forward looking — on his own political agenda for the future, or the priorities other Republicans ought to pursue in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.

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It was instead (in the words of one attendee quoted in Politico) “horrible,” “long,” “negative,” and “dour.”

But wait, isn’t this what Trump always does? He rants and raves about his grievances and a sizable faction of Republican voters lap it up — right?

Not exactly. When Trump ran for president in 2016, he bonded with his audiences mainly on their terms, placing himself in their camp, defending and championing them against all the fools and crooks who had turned the country into a “disaster” (his favorite adjective during the general election campaign). Once he’d ascended to the White House and found himself in the position of having to defend himself against charges of collusion with Russia and other misdeeds, Trump’s public remarks were much more defensive and focused on himself. But he was also the president, which allowed his fixation on “deep state” antagonists to be transmuted into a battle for Republican survival more generally.

But now? Either Trump is the sorest loser in the history of American democracy — the Big Baby his critics always claimed he was — or else he really did win in a landslide and yet nonetheless allowed himself to be deposed and banished to South Florida while Joe Biden effortlessly took over the White House in a coup. Either way, he looks very small indeed.

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Now, none of this means that Trump is going to slink away to hide under a rock — or that Republican Party officials will be able get out from under his thumb anytime soon. Because of all of the legal and financial jeopardy listed above, Trump needs money, big time. And the surest way to get it is to attempt to remain a kingmaker within the party for as long as possible, so his most loyal supporters think it’s reasonable to keep clicking the “Donate” button on his website (or just not notice for a good long while that the “autorenewal” button has been prechecked).

So Trump will keep trying to remain relevant — but he will do so, I suspect, with steeply declining returns.

I don’t for a minute believe that Trump will be able to manage the launch of his own social media platform. (It would actually be quite difficult and expensive to pull that off, and unlikely to succeed.) Will people even show up to rallies if he tries to hold them? Who wants to listen to an angry old man rant and rave about how he was robbed and outsmarted in 2020 by people he labels as dumb? There’s a performative contradiction there that even a populist of Trump’s considerable talents is going to have a hell of a job trying to surmount. The most likely outcome is that, with each passing month, he will sound more and more like a petulant crank railing impotently against his enemies, real and imagined.

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The great irony here is that Trump has been so successful at remaking the GOP in his own image that the party doesn’t really need him anymore. Sure, they’ll try to avoid provoking his wrath. But every viable candidate for president in 2024 is going to be following Trump’s lead on immigration, trade, and waging a rhetorically ferocious culture war against the left — and most of them will be doing it without Trump’s own considerable personal liabilities, including the hatred of a large swath of the electorate.

Put in slightly different terms, the 2020 election results show that Trump has given Republicans a potentially fruitful way forward — but also that he can’t be the one to lead the way there because he’s a drag on the party. Trump’s own dead weight, and not some cockamamie conspiracy, is what accounts for his loss last year despite Republicans doing so well down ballot.

Trump will likely go down in history as a blunt instrument who shattered a staid consensus on the right but who was far too widely loathed and incompetent at governing to deliver the party to the Promised Land himself. That’s never been clearer than it is right now. And it’s bound to grow clearer still as more broadly appealing politicians try their hands at domesticating Trumpian politics on a national level.

It’s too soon to know who is going end up at the head of the GOP. But it’s not too soon to know that it’s exceedingly unlikely to be Trump.