The last time Donald Trump took to the campaign trail in support of Republican candidates, his party dropped two Georgia Senate seats and lost control of the upper chamber. He became the first president since Herbert Hoover to oversee a party’s loss of the House, Senate, and White House in a single four-year term.
Just under six months and one insurrection later, the ex-president is set to embark on a series of his signature rallies.
On Saturday, Trump will take to a Wellington, Ohio stage at what his leadership PAC is dubbing a “Save America” rally — his first use of that branding since his disastrous January 6 event at the Capitol — in support of ex-campaign aide Max Miller’s primary bid to unseat GOP Representative Anthony Gonzales. Gonzales, a two-term congressman and former professional footballer, was one of ten House Republicans to vote for Trump’s second impeachment. It seems clear that this first rally’s time and place isn’t coincidental: it’s part of a quest for revenge.
According to Trump confidantes, the ex-president has been chomping at the bit to campaign against such members of his own party since the day they broke ranks. He is confident of his ability to move a primary race with nothing except a statement of endorsement and wants to personalize his revenge fantasies by campaigning in each apostate Republican’s home district.
But as the GOP gears up for a midterm cycle in which they are thought to have decided advantages, some Republicans and ex-Republican officeholders are sounding the alarm that Trump’s return to the stage will be a gift not to his endorsed candidates, but to Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While they acknowledge the former president retains his status as a fundraising powerhouse who can drive GOP voter turnout, they also fear that his continued reliance on false claims of having won the 2020 election will lead to more violence.
“We’re playing with lawn darts,” said one Republican consultant who has worked with House candidates in recent election cycles. “He [Trump] is fun for the base, but it’s only a matter of time until the fun kills people, our chances of winning a totally winnable election, or both.”
Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee Chair, said he frequently hears from GOP House members who do not want the former president bringing his “Save America” tour to their states — or anywhere.
“The House members I’ve talked to are like: ‘God, please keep him away from my district. I don’t want reporters putting microphones in front of my face, asking me about Donald Trump in the summer or fall of 2022,’” he said.
Steele noted that recent polling shows Democrats and state election officials of both parties have not had much luck in the way of countering Trump’s constant false claims about a “stolen” 2020 election. But he suggested that a Trump return to the campaign trail — and the violence that could accompany it — may well play right into the Biden administration’s anti-crime push.
“Democrats could find themselves in a situation where their narrative is written for them on this law-and-order package that the president wants to put out… because Trump and a number of Republicans, as well as the Proud Boys and all the little groups that they have fomented, are going to be front-page actors in this political melodrama around crime,” Steele said, “because a lot of them are going to be out there stoking it.”
One former GOP pol, ex-Virginia Representative Denver Riggleman, was a bit more skeptical when it comes to predictions that Trump’s reemergence on the rally circuit will aid Democrats’ quest to retain their majority.
Riggleman, who served a single term in the House before being ousted by GOP activists upset over his decision to officiate a same-sex wedding, also said that Trump’s return might energize some Democrats. But he cautioned that the Republican Party would gain more of an advantage from Trump’s ability to inspire excitement and turnout among the more committed voters who usually come to the ballot box in midterm years.
He also warned that the ex-president’s rhetoric could “absolutely” inspire more violence: “I believe it’s great for Pelosi, but it’s also great for the grass roots on the Republican Party side. I mean, if we have 78 percent of people still supporting Trump in the Republican Party… this is good stuff for those who have still attached themselves to Trump,” he said. “Trump being in there, whipping up the fundraising and the base, is a positive for 2022 for huge swaths of the GOP.”
Another ex-Republican House member, former Representative Joe Walsh, said Trump’s return to the trail “will be just the latest manifestation of the truth that he doesn’t give a flying f**k about anybody but himself, and he doesn’t care that it will damage the Republican Party.”
“If Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans had their wish, Donald Trump wouldn’t say s**t for these next two years, and Republicans would regain control of the House,” Walsh said, pointing to the tendency of the opposition party to win House seats in midterm elections.
Like Riggleman, Walsh predicted that Trump’s continued reliance on lies about the election and his possible reinstatement as president to fire up rallygoers will lead to more violence.
“It’s not funny, because it’s gonna lead to some ugly s**t,” Walsh said.
The former Illinois congressman faulted leaders and media figures in both parties for not recognizing the danger of the former president’s reemergence.
“Here we are, six months after the only insurrection I’ve ever seen in my life in this country, and we’re still on eggshells,” he said. “They don’t understand how f**king dangerous and violent this thing could get again. They just don’t see it.”