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Trump campaign announcement deepens Republicans’ civil war

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Mike Lindell was full of passionate intensity. Wandering the white and gold ballroom of the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, the mustachioed pillow-maker predicted that Donald Trump’s candidacy for the White House would clear the Republican field.

“After he announces today, I think [Florida governor] Ron DeSantis will end up just endorsing him,” Lindell, a rabid Trump cheerleader and conspiracy theorist, told the Guardian early on Tuesday evening. “I can’t imagine anybody wasting the time, effort and money of the people. We need to unite our country and there’s only man who can do that and he’ll be up on that stage. Period.

It did not work out that way.

In fact Trump’s lethargic primetime speech beneath crystal chandeliers and the stars and stripes had the opposite effect, conveying the impression to many of a Yesterday’s Man who has lost his swagger, more vulnerable than ever to DeSantis and other would-be challengers in 2024.

Far from a coronation, it also deepened what Democrats gleefully called “an all-out civil war” engulfing the Republican party in the wake of midterm elections where, despite economic discontent and historical headwinds, forecasts of a red wave were scaled down to a pink splash.

Republicans are now soul searching over how they lost a very winnable Senate and bracing for two tumultuous years in the House of Representatives, where their wafer-thin majority is likely to enflame divisions and empower the far right.

Many point the finger of blame at Trump and his false claims of voter fraud, noting the underperformance of candidates he endorsed for the Senate and the near total wipeout of election deniers who ran for statewide office.

It is perhaps an unflattering insight into human nature that Republicans who were willing to tolerate Trump’s misogyny, racism and lies, and even his attempted coup against the government, have declared “enough is enough” when they discovered him to be a loser.

The Axios website reported that Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, won huge applause at an annual meeting of Republican governors after arguing that Trump had cost the party dearly for three elections in a row. Voters had “rejected crazy”, Christie said.

Media proprietor Rupert Murdoch also appears to be deserting the sinking ship. His New York Post newspaper covered his presidential announcement with an article buried on page 26 under the headline “Been there, Don that.” The story was teased at the bottom of the front page with: “Florida man makes announcement.”

Republican donors who previously backed Trump are out too. Ken Griffin, a billionaire founder of the Citadel hedge fund, has endorsed DeSantis for president. Stephen Schwarzman, of the private equity firm Blackstone, said he would support one among a new generation of leaders in the Republican primary.

And the conservative Club for Growth, once a staunch ally of the former president, released a polling memo that showed him trailing DeSantis in several crucial states. Even Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is staying away this time. Is the writing on the wall at last?

Mark Sanford, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, said: “There’s a shelf life to every political figure. We do have expiration dates, and in military terms, at some point people outrun their supply lines. It has that feeling of desperation.”

Trump’s potential rivals can smell blood in the water. DeSantis, Christie, former vice president Mike Pence – currently promoting a memoir – and ex-secretary of state Mike Pompeo have all dropped hints about running for president in 2024. Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, Nikki Haley, a former UN ambassador, and Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Tim Scott of South Carolina could also be in the frame.

Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, at an election night watch party in Tampa, Florida, on 8 November.
Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, at an election night watch party in Tampa, Florida, on 8 November. Photograph: Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images

Sanford added: “If Trump has been perceived as the alpha dog in the room and now he may be faltering, there are going to be a lot of people nipping at his heels.

“Politics is constructed in a very Darwinian level and, the moment you start to show a little bit of weakness, you got 10 people coming at you fast, and I think there are going to be 10 people coming at Trump in fairly short order based on both real and perceived weaknesses that are beginning to now show.

“Frankly, the only thing that he really had going for him, and this was the tagline in 2016, was ‘I’m a winner and you’re going to get so tired of winning’. He’s always been about the perception of winning and, once that mirror begins to crack, there is no there there.”

But Trump is hardly likely to surrender without a fight. A crowded primary could turn into a bare-knuckle political brawl peppered with insults and name-calling, reminiscent of the 2016 campaign when Trump deployed terms such as “low energy”, “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco”.

For a party that became a cult of personality around one man to then attempt decoupling from him could trigger something of an identity crisis. Nowhere will that be more evident than on Capitol Hill, where Trump has branded Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, “an old crow”.

On Wednesday McConnell was challenged for the leadership for the first time in 15 years amid post-election recriminations from the hard right. He prevailed by 37 votes to 10 over Rick Scott, the outgoing chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, in a secret ballot.

Republicans in the House, meanwhile, offered initial support for Kevin McCarthy of California to serve as speaker but, given their narrow majority, the job may prove akin to herding cats. Each member will have huge sway over the conduct of business, raising the spectre of partisan battles and legislative gridlock with pro-Trump extremists gaining huge leverage.

To secure the speakership, the Washington Post reported, McCarthy has promised to restore committee assignments for Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona. The former was removed for endorsing violent behavior and conspiracy theories; the latter for posting an animated video that depicted him killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Rick Wilson, cofounder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “McCarthy is the Sino – he’s the speaker in name only. Marjorie Taylor Greene runs the House caucus. Marjorie Taylor Greene has more control over the caucus than Kevin McCarthy does. That symbolic vote was very clearly sending him a signal: do what we want or we’ll blow you out. They will if he does not obey them.”

“So we’re going to have endless investigations of Hunter Biden’s laptop. We’re going to have endless ‘Did Anthony Fauci brew up the virus in a Chinese lab?’ All this crap is coming down the pike and that’s because Kevin cannot resist the power they have over him. He is going to be the weakest speaker in the history of the US House.

Some prominent Republicans, including House conference chair Elise Stefanik of New York, have already endorsed Trump for president in 2024. Others are sitting on the fence or calling for change. Asked whether she would back Trump, Senator Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, one of the most conservative states in the country, replied: “I don’t think that’s the right question. I think the question is who is the current leader of the Republican party. Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis.”

Trump faced opposition from Republican donors and establishment figures in 2016, when his insurgent campaign energised the grassroots and ultimately made the party capitulate. But this time, aged 76, he lacks novelty value, shock value or a Twitter feed. And his four-year record in the White House is there for all to see.

A Trump supporter outside Mar-a-Lago on 15 November.
A Trump supporter outside Mar-a-Lago on 15 November. Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “He starts out in a weaker position than he did in 2016 in that voters are very familiar with the Trump show both in government and out of government. Not enough of them are willing to buy the tickets to the show to get him to the nomination or get him to the presidency.

If the mega-donors are already cutting ties it means they’re open for business for alternative candidates and they’re going to want to get behind some of those candidates pretty early to fill the vacuum, which nobody did after January 6. Republicans have now seen the electoral consequences of not filling the vacuum after January 6.

But many analysts and pollsters suggest that Trump still commands absolute loyalty from around a third of Republican voters. These “Make America great again” (Maga) fans display quasi-religious fervour at his campaign rallies, vow to stick with him through thick and thin and adopt his “big lie” about the 2020 election as an article of faith.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “There is a split in the Republican party between the Trump populists who want to savage the existing electoral and political system – we see that with the extraordinary number of election deniers out there – and a group of people who are committed to governing and the constitution and believe they can achieve conservative ends through those existing means. That’s a very fundamental split. I don’t see it going away.

For Democrats, the sight of Republicans at each other’s throats offers respite from scrutiny of their own internal divisions. Journalists with a taste for alliteration are fond of using the phrase “Democrats in disarray”. But with Trump looming large, Republicans could be facing years of Maga meltdown.

Drexel Heard, a Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles, said: “Donald Trump put Republicans in disarray and that is what that campaign is going to be like. Do I think Donald Trump has a chance to win? Absolutely not. It’s going to further erode the Republican party. It’s going to split them. Ron DeSantis can’t out-Trump Donald Trump but he’s certainly going to try.”

Heard added: Democrats, as you saw in this midterm, did a pretty good job of holding the line across the country. My question is, why is it always ‘Democrats in disarray’ because of a small internal fight when you’ve got three major levers of the Republican party going at it?”

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