Donald Trump’s political creation has grown beyond his wildest dreams, and now appears ready to live on with or without him.
The Make America Great Again movement that tens of millions of Americans adopted put him in the White House and transformed the Republican Party. Yet the current crop of midterm primaries is revealing that it is the former president’s brash brand of politics and his “America First” ideas, more than the man himself, that is driving many Republican voters.
The cult of personality that elevated him to power is being replaced with “Trumpism,” a populist philosophy that, just like his hotels, casinos and even steaks, is branded with his name. It’s an anti-immigrant, anti-regulation, anti-establishment platform that nearly seven years ago awakened throngs of voters long ignored by both parties.
Voters who have attended Trump rallies this year in Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania wearing MAGA-branded clothing said they support the former president but wouldn’t vote for the candidates he endorsed.
“He’s not God,” said Kathleen Cerruti, a worker at a Christian ministry from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. She adores Trump, loved his policies but doesn’t “blindly follow” him. The 55-year-old was “disheartened” by his endorsement of celebrity physician Mehmet Oz in the Republican Senate primary and preferred Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator on pro-Trump networks like Fox, OANN and Newsmax, who nevertheless didn’t get Trump’s support.
Trump has sought to use the 2022 primaries to complete the transformation of the GOP in his image — and to have a slew of officeholders in his debt in case he runs for president again in 2024. But each rejection of his endorsed candidates, and each act of autonomy by his once-reliable supporters, means that Trump doesn’t have to be in office for his movement to continue.
“If Trump were to drop off the face of the earth tomorrow, MAGA would still exist,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. “It’s the theatrics of politics. It’s the aggression of politics. It’s the cruelty of politics. It’s the antipathy of politics. That now exists independent of Trump.”
One can see evidence of Trump’s waning influence in Georgia, where voters trounced the three Republican candidates who had embraced his false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him. Even former Vice President Mike Pence, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who at one time had been so deferential to Trump, are now unafraid to openly oppose his picks.
The reach of what Democrats call “Ultra-MAGA” politics is already being felt in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen as a strong 2024 GOP presidential rival to Trump. He has moved against Walt Disney Co. for opposing legislation limiting school instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation, what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Trump has said that his endorsement is the most powerful in politics as a steady stream of candidates travels to his Florida resort seeking it. His backing helped JD Vance, a former “never-Trumper” who has since embraced MAGA, come from behind to win a crowded GOP Senate primary in Ohio.
Trump boasts more than 100 of his endorsed candidates have won primaries this year, but that includes incumbents, candidates who were already well ahead in polling and almost a third who ran unopposed. Of the rest, seven have lost, seven couldn’t avoid runoffs and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks reached the Senate runoff in Alabama despite Trump rescinding his endorsement.
Trump drew rare public backlash from supporters for his U.S. Senate picks of Vance in Ohio and Oz in Pennsylvania.
“We are the original and proud ‘Trumpers’ who served as your delegates in Ohio when everybody was against you or supporting other candidates,” former state GOP officials and delegates said in a letter asking Trump to reconsider his endorsement of Vance. “Winning is important, but so is draining the swamp and winning with honor and integrity.”
Pollster Frank Luntz estimated that about a third of today’s GOP will follow Trump’s direction, a third will pick and choose, and a third are hostile to him.
“Trump is still the most popular Republican, and his endorsement matters more than any other Republican in the country right now,” Luntz said. “But it is not sacrosanct.”
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said Trump’s endorsement record is unprecedented because voters and donors rely on them, and that the former president remains the unifying force of the movement.
“The MAGA movement is the largest and most powerful political movement in modern American history, and it continues to be uniquely positioned to win major electoral victories because of President Trump, whose popularity and influence are unparalleled,” Budowich said in a statement.
There are other signs the MAGA base is growing beyond its creator. Trump was booed in December at a Dallas event for revealing that he received a Covid-19 booster shot. Although the Trump administration sped the development of vaccines, he simultaneously led a largely hands-off approach to the pandemic in its early days, which his supporters embraced.
The willingness of the MAGA base to buck Trump was on full display in Pennsylvania. Trump went all-in to support Oz over former Bridgewater Associates Chief Executive David McCormick, doing “tele-town halls” for him, staging a rally for him in southwestern Pennsylvania, and leveling a blistering attack on McCormick.
When Barnette made a late surge, Trump told supporters not to vote for her because she was unvetted and would lose to Democratic nominee John Fetterman.
But some Trump supporters questioned Oz’s conservative bonafides. Oz and McCormick were locked in a race that was too close to call for 17 days until McCormick conceded on Friday in the midst of an automatic recount. Barnette won almost a quarter of the vote, possibly splitting the MAGA vote with Oz.
“President Trump does not have a cult of followers,” Barnette told reporters after her final campaign event on May 16 in Scranton. “We’ve never aligned our values with President Trump. It was President Trump who aligned his values with us.”