Donald Trump tried to purge two Georgia Republicans — Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — for committing one unpardonable sin: standing up to the former president and telling the truth, that he lost the state to Joe Biden by more than 11,000 votes.
Trump failed. Badly. And that outcome inspires a crucial question: Will it encourage other Republicans to defy Trump, to reject his Big Lie that the 2020 election was rigged against him, and seek new leadership for the party?
Plenty of Republicans hope so, including Bill Palatucci, the GOP’s national committeeman from New Jersey. He described Trump’s embarrassing defeat to the Washington Post: “This is an important one. Him losing gives people courage to speak out.”
Trump remains the most ferocious force in Republican ranks, but Palatucci makes a shrewd point. Political influence is often a function of perception, not reality. Politicians treat a figure as powerful because they think others support him or fear his ability to punish them for disloyalty.
But once that perception is punctured, once that fear begins to fade, calculations can start to change. That’s why “the emperor has no clothes” is such a powerful myth and metaphor. That’s why we remember that iconic scene when the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a little man behind a curtain, peddling his illusions as fast as he can.
Trump has had plenty of success this election season. His endorsement clearly pushed two candidates to victory in crowded Republican primaries: J.D. Vance in Ohio’s Senate race and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial contest. But in backing former Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp in Georgia, Trump showed that he’s no wizard.
“David Perdue made a bad bet six months ago when he jumped in the race and thought, ‘Because Donald Trump likes me, I’m going to win,”’ the Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, told The New York Times. “He bet wrong.”
So did Republicans who ran for gubernatorial nominations in Nebraska and Idaho with Trump’s backing — both fell short. All failed to understand a key principle: Elections are about the future, not the past, and Trump’s obsessive focus on his loss in 2020 sounds outdated and off-key to a rising cohort of Republican officials and voters, even folks who backed him twice for president.
“Georgia underscores one of Trump’s big problems if/when he runs again,” tweeted GOP strategist Brendan Buck. “He, of course, won’t be able to let go of the 2020 nonsense, and nobody wants to hear his whining about it anymore.”
A Post reporter found plenty of disillusionment among Trump backers in Georgia. Barry Schrenk described Trump as an “excellent president,” but said Kemp “had to follow the Constitution” in declaring Biden the winner in 2020. Trump, he said, “can’t blame himself for losing the election. He’s looking for someone to blame.”
Phoebe Mitchell, a special education teacher, said she voted for Trump twice, but added, “The governor doesn’t have the authority to overturn the election. … I have lost a lot of love for (Trump).” When Trump makes an endorsement now, she added, that “makes me want to vote for anyone else.”
Similar feelings of frustration are bubbling up in Pennsylvania, where Trump endorsed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in a heated primary race for an open Senate seat. The contest between Oz and hedge fund mogul David McCormick is now headed for a recount, and Trump caustically suggested the McCormick forces were rigging the election by stealing votes.
That meant, of course, that he was accusing fellow Republicans of misdeeds, but the man cares about only one thing — his own ego — and if his candidate is losing, he automatically looks for someone to blame.
Local Republican officials have reacted badly. Former Pennsylvania GOP chairman Rob Gleason said on NBC that “it’s just shocking” for Trump to focus his lies on Republicans and warned, “Bitterness has been developing over a period of time. It’s not just this election, but this just didn’t help.”
Trump compounded the ill will in the governor’s race by promoting Mastriano, a hardline Trumper who seems likely to lose to Democrat Josh Shapiro in November. “I was surprised by how many people said, ‘I’m not voting for anyone Trump endorsed,”’ state legislator Tom Marino told NBC. “They’ve had it with him.”
A growing number of Republicans share those sentiments. But how many will have the courage to act on them? How many are willing to look behind the curtain and see the wizard for the fraud he really is?
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.
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