As the Congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection paused for a summer recess, Rep. Liz Cheney insisted: “Every American must consider this: Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6th ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”
Trust is one of the most resonant words in the political language. It transcends policies and issues, and it speaks to character and judgment. And after covering politics for more than a half-century, I’m convinced most voters care far more about those personal qualities than anything else.
The answers to Cheney’s question are complicated, however. To his hardcore supporters, Trump can do no wrong. Either they’re not watching the Congressional hearings, or they’re rejecting the testimony as the whining of apostate RINOs — Republicans in Name Only.
Trump can still draw cheering crowds and raise campaign cash. His favored candidates have won gubernatorial nominations in Maryland and Illinois and Senate nods in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the latest New York Times/Siena poll, 49% of Republicans say they want him to run again. And 7 out of 10 GOPers consistently embrace Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
But. MAGA Nation accounts for only about 35% of the electorate. They are not going to decide the next election. A marginal group, 10% to 15%, usually makes the difference. And there are small but definite signs that these swing voters are starting to drift away from Trump and that the hearings are accelerating their disillusionment.
If half of Republicans want him to run, that means half do not. A not-small group — 16% — of GOP voters say they’ll never vote for him. In New Hampshire and Michigan, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis runs even with Trump in trial heats. The former president’s fundraising has slowed significantly, and “There is definitely Trump fatigue,” Republican strategist Mike DuHaime told Reuters.
“You can see the effect of the hearings in the percentage of Republicans who want him to run again,” Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster, said in The Washington Post. “A great many Republicans are protective of him and defensive of their support for him but increasingly of the view that he carries way too much baggage to be the nominee in 2024.”
Republicans afflicted by “Trump fatigue” fall into three categories, and the first group shares Cheney’s belief that Trump’s behavior disqualifies him — morally as well as practically — from returning to power. Two publications owned by Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon and longtime Trump supporter, have reflected this conclusion in recent editorials.
“As a matter of principle, as a matter of character, Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again,” wrote The New York Post Editorial Board. Added The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board: “Character is revealed in a crisis, and (Vice President) Pence passed his Jan. 6 trial. Mr. Trump utterly failed his.”
The second group still shares Trump’s views on issues like immigration and the economy, but are tired of the chaos and craziness that constantly surround him. Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former White House communications director, senses this exhaustion among Republicans “who are on the margins and are not ultra MAGA.” The hearings, she told The Washington Post, have “weakened him in a massive way” because they remind “people of the drama and the four years of having to explain why they supported him.”
The third faction is thinking more politically than emotionally. They want to win in 2024, and they think, with good reason, that President Biden is vulnerable; they worry that Trump is the wrong horse to ride.
“He’s got a hardcore base, and there’s no doubt about that,” Dick Wadhams, a longtime party strategist, told Politico. “I voted for him twice, I loved his accomplishments. But I do think he’s compromised himself into a situation where it would be very difficult for him to win another election for president.”
The next election remains far in the future. Many questions remain to be answered: What else will the hearings reveal? What will the economy, and Ukraine, look like in the fall of 2024? Will Trump be indicted, either on federal charges or by state prosecutors in Georgia or New York? Will health be an issue for Biden, who will be almost 82 on Election Day, or for Trump, who will be 78?
But we do know this: The hearings are encouraging a growing number of Republicans to answer Liz Cheney’s question by saying, “No. I don’t trust Donald Trump.”
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.)