During a prime-time hearing on Thursday night, the House select committee investigating the events of January 6, 2021, reminded us of the anguished messages that Donald Trump’s family members and Fox News hosts sent to the White House as he sat in his private dining room, watching the network’s coverage of the violence unfolding on Capitol Hill, and flatly refusing to do anything about it. “Please, get him on TV. Destroying everything you have accomplished,” Fox’s Brian Kilmeade texted Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff.
How much political damage did Trump actually do to himself? In eight televised hearings since early June, the January 6th committee has shown in great detail how the now former President incited the riot, cheered it on, expressed sympathy with the rioters’ desire to hang Vice-President Mike Pence, and, finally, as he belatedly asked the insurrectionists to leave the Capitol, told them that he loved them and that they were “very special.” The committee also convincingly illustrated how Trump pursued his false claims about the 2020 election being stolen from him even after his own legal advisers repeatedly told him these claims were “completely bullshit,” as the former Attorney General Bill Barr put it. In other words, Trump knew exactly what he was doing—using baseless claims to try and pull off a self-coup, an autogolpe.
In a properly functioning political system, these facts would surely disqualify Trump from holding any public office again, let alone the Presidency. But, at his second impeachment trial, in February, 2021, forty-three Republican senators prevented the two-thirds conviction vote that would have put him out to pasture. So here we are, eighteen months later, with the coup plotter indicating that he intends to run again in 2024, and suggesting he might even declare before the November midterms. If the Justice Department does eventually charge him, and a court convicts him, that wouldn’t prevent him from running, legal experts say.
Yet, even among Republican voters, the televised hearings, with their relentless drip-drip of damaging details, have certainly had some impact, surveys show. A Reuters/Ipsos poll that was completed just before the latest hearing indicated that forty per cent of self-identified Republicans now believe Trump was at least partly to blame for the Capitol Hill violence, up from thirty-three per cent before the hearings began. During the same period, the proportion of Republicans who say they think Trump shouldn’t run again has risen from a quarter to a third, the poll showed.
Other recent surveys have also provided some worrying findings for the former President. A Times/Siena College poll indicated that about half of Republicans would vote for someone other than Trump in a 2024 primary. Among Republican respondents under thirty-five years old, nearly two-thirds said they would vote against Trump. “Frankly, I think what I sense a little bit, even among some deep, deep Trump supporters . . . there’s a certain exhaustion to it,” Bob Vander Plaats, a Republican evangelical leader based in Iowa, told Politico this week. Also, some influential Republican voices that once backed Trump have turned against him. Citing Trump’s failure to repudiate the violence for more than three hours on January 6th, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post said, in an editorial on Friday, “Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.”
These are significant developments. So is the fact that Trump can no longer use Twitter to rile up his supporters with incendiary falsehoods. After Thursday’s hearing, he went on a lengthy rant on his struggling social-media platform, Truth Social, repeating his claims that the election was stolen, and dismissing the select committee’s proceedings, which he has called a “Kangaroo Court.” If he were still on Twitter, many more people would have seen and reacted to these postings, and they probably would have received more media coverage.
On the other side of the ledger, Trump still has his MAGA movement—part nativist revival, part personality cult—and the vast majority of elected Republicans are still too frightened of him and his followers to cross him publicly. Last weekend, I took a long drive through upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, and it was easy to see where this fear comes from. The small towns and back roads were festooned with “Trump 2020” signs that had the last zero covered over and replaced with a “4.” Other signs said “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Trump.” That’s merely anecdotal evidence, of course. But the polling data, on closer inspection, confirm that Trump and his twisted views retain a disturbing amount of support.
The same polling organization that found that four in ten Republican voters are now willing to concede Trump played some role in starting the violence on January 6th—Reuters/Ipsos—also found that more than half of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen. According to the Real Clear Politics poll average, which combines the results of individual surveys, Trump’s over-all favorability rating has only dropped about two percentage points since this summer’s televised hearings began: on June 9th, it was 43.8 per cent; on Saturday, it was 41.9 per cent. Despite the recent slippage, the figure remains within the same narrow range where it resided during most of Trump’s Presidency.
And, while some early state polls on the 2024 race primary show Florida Governor Ron DeSantis catching, or nearly catching, Trump, particularly in Florida and Michigan, most national polls tracked by fivethirtyeight.com show Trump well ahead. For example, a Politico/Morning Consult poll released earlier this week showed Trump at fifty-three per cent and DeSantis at twenty-three per cent. As for the 2024 general election, a number of surveys carried out this month have shown a putative Trump-Biden rematch falling within the margin of error. A new Emerson College poll, which came out on Friday, has Trump at forty-six per cent and Biden at forty-three per cent.
To be sure, it’s far too early to predict what will happen in 2024. Taken together, however, the latest polls do provide a snapshot of where public opinion stands now, and that picture isn’t entirely reassuring. Even as Republican support for another Trump Presidential bid appears to be slipping, he can’t be counted out. If he does enter the 2024 G.O.P. primary, much will depend on the ability of his opponents to make the argument that it’s time for the Party to move on.
By demonstrating so clearly and comprehensively Trump’s culpability before, on, and after January 6, 2021, the House select committee has strengthened the hands of his potential G.O.P. rivals, and this could conceivably be its biggest legacy. But, even after all the committee’s sterling work, a Republican effort to take down Trump would attract a barrage of counterattacks from him and his supporters, and it would take courage and fortitude to withstand the onslaught. Outside of the offices of Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Mitt Romney, and a few others, these attributes are still in extremely short supply in G.O.P. circles. That’s another thing in Trump’s favor. ♦