Trump’s most valuable ally is the political economy he created

For most Americans, the point of the investigation into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is simple: understanding what happened and holding those responsible to account. That includes former president Donald Trump, who most Americans think should be held criminally liable for the day’s events. Trump’s incessant dishonesty about the election and appeals to his supporters to be in Washington that day were the requisite conditions for what followed.

For many elected officials, the point goes one step further. Not only do they hope to dissect what occurred, they hope to make Trump’s culpability unavoidably obvious. The Senate’s failure to convict Trump after his second impeachment last year meant that he was free to again seek office. To prevent his becoming president again — and his having access to the power he wielded on Jan. 6, 2021 — his opponents have to erode the chances that he could win a second election. This, former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) told the Economist, is Republican Rep. Liz Cheney’s “golden chalice” — explaining the danger posed by a second Trump presidency so clearly that there is no such presidency.

But the challenge Cheney, vice chairwoman of the House Jan. 6 select committee, and her allies need to overcome isn’t really skepticism or apathy from voters. It’s a political economy that has grown bloated from years of converting Trump and Trumpism into cash.

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On Tuesday, the New York Times released a poll, conducted by Siena College, that it promoted as showing that half of Republican voters are “ready to leave Trump behind.” This is a catchy shorthand for the finding that Trump earns less than 50 percent of support in a hypothetical Republican primary contest — a position that is not novel. Multiple polls over the past year have shown him near or below 50 percent in the unformed 2024 Republican field.

The nebulousness of the field is itself an important consideration. Trump’s strongest opponent in these polls is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), with various other people well behind those front-runners. But coming into 2016, Trump was supported by only about a third of the Republican electorate. That backing grew as his nomination became more inevitable and opponents dropped out. There’s an important difference between indifference to Trump now and fervent opposition to Trump in April 2024. Not every voter who supports someone besides Trump or DeSantis now will slot into DeSantis’s column later.

What might do the most damage to Trump is a sense that renominating him would doom the GOP to failure in the general election. Cheney and the House select committee could damage Trump’s standing simply by weakening him, reinforcing that there will be potential Republican nominees without the baggage of attempting to overturn a valid, democratic election.

Polling shows that there has been some erosion in support for Trump since the Jan. 6 hearings began last month — but not really among Republicans. YouGov’s weekly polls for the Economist show that the percentage of independents who view Trump favorably fell from 42 percent at the beginning of the hearings to 29 percent in the most recent survey, conducted after the explosive testimony from former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson.

Among Republicans, there was a brief dip in the percentage of those who viewed Trump very favorably — but that has since recovered.

Why? It’s hard to say. It may simply have been a fluke of that one YouGov poll. But it’s also clearly the case that Trump’s position is being backstopped by conservative media, particularly Fox News.

Last week, I demonstrated how little attention Fox News had paid to the findings of the Jan. 6 committee and to Hutchinson’s testimony in particular. They aired her testimony live, during the day, but then shifted their subsequent coverage to mostly trying to undercut or minimize what she presented. Fox News spent far more time talking about the steering wheel of the presidential limousine — a focal point of efforts to undercut Hutchinson’s story — than it did talking about Trump’s awareness of weapons in the crowd at the Ellipse shortly before the Capitol was overrun.

This is how Fox News has long worked. It presents news or conducts interviews that run counter to its right-wing worldview and then leaves it to opinion shows (and, often, its malleable news side) to reframe the discussion. I wrote about this in 2019 when the network hosted a town hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Those who watched the show heard an interesting rejection of the Fox-Trump universe from the senator — and those who watched everything that followed saw a curated, more complimentary picture of the discussion. A similar pattern unfolded just this week. It’s how the network operates.

Consider this detail from the Times’s write-up of the Siena College poll:

“Should Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump face off in a primary, the poll suggested that support from Fox News could prove crucial: Mr. Trump held a 62 percent to 26 percent advantage over Mr. DeSantis among Fox News viewers, while the gap between the two Floridians was 16 points closer among Republicans who mainly receive their news from another source.”

Why does Trump fare so much better among Fox News viewers? In part because of self-selection: Trump supporters are more likely to opt to watch Fox News’s coverage than Trump skeptics. But it’s also because Fox News understands that its viewers want to see favorable narratives for Trump. When the network opted not to even air that first House committee hearing, host Laura Ingraham described the decision matter-of-factly as catering to the network’s audience.

There was a moment when Fox News’s narrative and Trump’s conflicted dramatically. After the 2020 election, the network reported the truth — that Trump had lost. But that wasn’t catering to the network’s audience, and many viewers (though not that many) started to tune out. The path of least economic resistance was simply to play along with Trumpism. After all, even if only 40 percent of Republicans are desperate for a return of Trump, that’s still tens of millions of potential viewers of Trump-positive content.

Fox News isn’t the only conservative institution with this problem. The Republican Party itself has learned a lesson Trump has understood for years: His frenetic base of support is more than willing to open its pocketbooks when asked. The party has raised tens of millions of dollars leveraging Trump’s name. It even raises money promoting Trump’s private business, the social media site Truth Social.

“How do you stay neutral when the single greatest driver of raising money is using Trump’s name?” one Republican official told Politico for an article exploring the party’s inherent conflict. How does the Republican Party wean itself from the Trump cash flow if it’s supposed to host an untainted contest among potential rivals? In 2020, the party was unabashed in clearing the field for Trump, then the incumbent. In the months before 2024, it has reinforced the primacy of Trump as a Republican brand for its own purposes — whatever the possible effects once the primary fight gets underway.

It’s quite fitting that Trump’s biggest political strength would end up being the political economy he created. Fox News — the most popular media outlet on the right — is disincentivized to undercut him. So is the party itself. Even if his base was receptive to Trump-skeptical narratives (which some research shows they are), there are market forces that keep those narratives buried.

Should Trump seek the 2024 nomination, it’s not clear how the primary would unfold. DeSantis is a strong candidate, but so was former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker at one point. What we may see in 2024 is a sort of funhouse-mirror version of what we saw in 2016: Trump with enough support to weather early contests and become the consensus candidate. The difference is that the Republican firmament then tried to block his progress, a school of tuna banding together for safety against a MAGA-hatted shark gobbling them up by the mouthful.

Now, the establishment are remoras, riding symbiotically with Trump, picking up what scraps the shark leaves behind.

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