In An Alternate Universe, Trump Is Disgraced And Gone Forever — But Not In Ours

Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021, ahead of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021, ahead of the attack on the U.S. Capitol. via Associated Press

WASHINGTON ― In an alternate universe somewhere, Donald Trump, fresh off his coup attempt that sought to end the 237-year-old republic, is disgraced and gone from politics forever, banished by his own party for what he did long before the legal system could catch up with him.

In our universe, though, the former president not only remains un-banished by Republicans, but has tightened his grip on the party even further, easily shaking off nearly a dozen rivals, and is now on the cusp of clinching the presidential nomination.

“If they hadn’t been cowards at every turn, there were a lot of inflection points,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican consultant who has spent years working to end Trump’s hold over her party, as she reflected on the GOP’s failure to rid itself of a man now facing four criminal indictments and 91 felony charges.

“Vladimir Putin looked at Donald Trump and thought, this is a weak man who will do anything for power, and Donald Trump looked at the Republican Party and thought, these are weak men and women who will do anything for power,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist with decades of experience on presidential campaigns. “And they were both right.”

Trump cannot technically reach the 1,215-delegate mark needed to clinch the nomination for another week or two, even with his final opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, dropping out Wednesday. But in retrospect, he likely had it wrapped up on Jan. 28, 2021, the day then-House minority leader Kevin McCarthy traveled to his South Florida country club, and in so doing delivered the message to Republican elected officials and voters that Trump was still their leader ― despite what had happened just 22 days earlier.

In the early days following the assault on the Capitol that left 140 police officers injured, with one dying just hours later and another four taking their own lives in the coming weeks, Trump’s role in instigating the attack appeared certain to end him politically.

Thirty-eight months later, in an absurdist turnabout, Trump has turned Jan. 6 from a day of shame and disgrace to one of patriotism and defiance — at least within the bubble of the Republican primaries.

Trump now opens his rallies by honoring members of the mob who stand accused — and in some cases have been convicted — of assaulting police officers defending the Capitol.

While some Republicans who have been consistently anti-Trump since he entered politics nine years ago blame erstwhile party leaders for failing to stop his re-emergence, many others — including those who supported one of his 2024 primary rivals — instead blame prosecutors in New York, in Georgia and at the U.S. Department of Justice for charging him with crimes.

“When the indictments started, they said: ‘Hey you know, they’re after him now and we have to stick with him,’” said Marc Short, a top aide to former Vice President Mike Pence, who was vilified by Trump supporters for refusing to go along with his coup attempt.

One adviser and fundraiser for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) agreed that all the criminal charges against Trump made it impossible for DeSantis to break through in his own presidential bid. “Once the raid happened, the New York indictment, it was pretty much baked in,” the adviser said on condition of anonymity. “He could be convicted and still win.”

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who unsuccessfully ran against Trump for the 2020 nomination, said that blaming prosecutors for doing their jobs perfectly encapsulates the state of his party.

“Trump’s secret to his success is to be as criminal, corrupt, and traitorous as possible, resulting in so many indictments and felony counts that his supporters and others rally furiously around him, because it seems like overkill, and he gets to play up his narrative that he is the biggest victim in all of human history,” Walsh said.

Missing the moment

The moment that crystalized the asymmetrical nature of the primary came late in the first Republican debate last August, when the Fox News hosts asked how many of the eight candidates on stage would support Donald Trump as the nominee even if he was by then a convicted felon.

Six of the eight signaled that, yes, they would — including Haley, the only one to outlast her rivals and earn, but eventually lose, a one-on-one race against Trump.

If Haley and the other five had intended to ever use Trump’s criminal prosecutions against him in the race, that possibility effectively evaporated with the raising of their hands.

“They build the permission structure for voters to believe that Donald Trump was an acceptable choice,” Longwell said. “Nobody said he’s unacceptable. Nobody said he was a bad president of low moral character. They just said he can’t win.”

That permission, though, was preceded by at least half a dozen moments at which Trump’s rivals might have changed the storyline.

A year earlier, after the FBI executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago home to look for secret documents Trump had refused to turn over under a subpoena, Trump immediately began claiming that he was being persecuted by a “weaponized” Department of Justice.

Rather than stating that search warrants are serious documents signed by a judge after a finding of probable cause that evidence of a crime exists, Trump’s rivals mostly became a supportive chorus repeating his baseless claims.

Only months later, after Trump had been charged in the documents case, did Pence, for example, sayhe could not support Trump’s actions as spelled out in the indictment.

Similarly, DeSantis on March 30, 2023 ― without yet knowing what was in a New York state indictment accusing Trump of falsifying business records to hide a $130,000 payment to a porn star ― declared that he would refuse to extradite Trump to New York to face charges.

The DeSantis adviser said the Florida governorhad felt compelled to make amends after getting excoriated by Trump supporters for his statement at a press conference 10 days earlier. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis had quipped. “I can’t speak to that.”

Veteran Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel believes that by the time Trump’s rivals officially started campaigning in 2023, it was already too late to take him on directly. By that point, he’d had a two-year head start in selling a revisionist history about Jan. 6 to the GOP voting base, neutralizing what should have been his biggest vulnerability.

“Everyone needed to hold hands after Jan. 6 and not get bullied by Trump or his most ardent supporters,” Kochel said. “Too late now.”

In his and others’ analysis, the only window that non-Trump Republicans truly had to ensure that the factual history of Jan. 6 became the commonly accepted one among Republican voters lasted barely a few weeks. In that brief period after the attack, when the nation was still shocked by the violent threat against democracy, even Trump and his allies were blaming the mayhem on “antifa” and claiming that Trump supporters had nothing to do with it.

In the court of public opinion, “the party had a moment when they could have convicted Trump. They didn’t. And this is the result,” Stevens said.

Precisely how long non-Trump Republicans had to ostracize Trump for his behavior leading up to and on Jan. 6 is unclear. But the window was almost certainly officially closed byMcCarthy’s pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and the release of a photo of them standing together, smiling.

The visit was the first key milestone in the rehabilitation of Trump’s image that still seems astonishing.

Two weeks later, when Trump faced a verdict on his second impeachment trial for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell decided to vote against conviction. When McConnell’s allies followed suit, the vote fell short of the two-thirds supermajority needed to convict.

And two weeks after that, Trump spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, where he resumed his lying about the 2020 election having been “stolen” from him and all but announced his 2024 campaign.

The party of an accused felon

Those who defend McConnell and others who failed to press a forceful case against Trump in those early months of 2021 argue that at that time, the idea that Trump could mount a political comeback seemed unimaginable. McConnell and McCarthy had both criticized Trump for incitingthe Jan. 6 assault in its immediate aftermath,but then stopped that criticism to avoid alienating Trump voters they would need in coming elections.

“In that moment, a lot of people were saying, ‘Look, this guy is done. He’s never coming back,’” said Short, the Pence adviser.

That assumption, said Republican staffer turned democracy activist Amanda Carpenter, was a failure of imagination — one that continues to this day among Democrats, independents and even some anti-Trump Republicans who cannot believe Trump is actually going to be the nominee.

McConnell in particular, Carpenter said, had in his hands the power to end Trump’s threat to the country by voting to convict him. He would easily have moved 10 other Republican senators with him, and Trump would have been barred from federal office forever.

“If 17 Republicans had convicted him, we wouldn’t be having this problem,” Carpenter said. “Mitch McConnell was not willing to risk the chance for a Senate majority to do that. And now here we are.”

Even after others entered the race to challenge Trump, they repeated the failed strategy of the non-Trump candidates in 2016 — attacking each other, rather than Trump — instead of learning from it, Longwell said.

“No one has ever tried to counter the collective action problem. It’s always one person. And that one person gets slaughtered,” she said.

Given how relentlessly Trump repeats lies, those who opposed his rise from the ashes of Jan. 6 needed to counter them with the truth, and to do so just as relentlessly, said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican consultant in Florida who in the 1980s served as chief of staff to Gov. Bob Martinez.

“They let Trump and the people who support him say again and again and again that the election was stolen, and none of them would contradict him. That’s the theory of the ‘Big Lie,’” Stipanovich said. “The bottom line is that elected Republicans nationwide, from the courthouse to congress, they failed the country.”

For Stevens, the state of the party is even more dire than that: “The Republican Party is supporting Donald Trump overwhelmingly because the Republican Party agrees with Donald Trump overwhelmingly. It’s not complicated.”