While Trump’s base rallies, the GOP fractures

NEW YORK — In a Manhattan park that served as a staging ground for America’s deepest political divisions on Tuesday, a Donald Trump impersonator posed for photographs in an orange jumpsuit. Nearby, a man waving a blue “Keep America Great” flag declared, “Trump is a little bit like Jesus.”

“We will rebuild, we will restore and America will be reborn. Mark my words,” one demonstrator shouted into a bullhorn during a rally hosted by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. He was followed by a woman who likened the indictment of the former president to actions of the Chinese Communist Party.

But if the pro-Trump rally laid bare the intensity of the Republican base’s support for the 45th president, it also suggested its limitations.

While polling, fundraising and public displays of enthusiasm indicate the indictment is emboldening Trump’s MAGA supporters, there is no evidence yet it has helped him expand his political base. In fact, many Republicans have expressed fears it may ultimately damage his prospects with swing voters the GOP will need to win the White House in 2024.

In New York on Tuesday, those absent from the rally said as much as those who attended.

“It is sad that we have a pretty large New York congressional delegation that has failed to show up. We’ve seen the party leadership fail to show up. We’ve seen local elected officials from the state Assembly to the state Senate fail to show up,” Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republican Club, said after the rally. “So I think it shows a complete disconnect between party leadership, party electeds and the establishment and the base of their actual party — their actual voters.”

Wax noted two New York congressional Trump loyalists — Reps. Elise Stefanik and Claudia Tenney — hosted a public demonstration of support elsewhere in New York. And newly-elected Rep. George Santos — infamous for lying about some aspects of his identity during his campaign last year — defended the ex-president and lamented that the indictment “cheapens the judicial system” as he walked by the courthouse.

But for others — specifically New York State Republican Chairman Ed Cox — Wax called it “a complete miscalculation on their part to not come out, to not be more strong on this issue.”

A Trump supporters poses for photographs before Former President Donald Trump arrives.

A Trump supporters poses for photographs before Former President Donald Trump's arrival at the Manhattan district attorney's office for his arraignment on Tuesday afternoon. | Bryan Anselm for POLITICO

Cox declined to respond, or discuss the reasons for his absence. The state party has supported Trump in the past, but has yet to make an endorsement this early in the 2024 primary cycle.

One of the only elected officials to show up to the rally, local legislator Ben Geller, questioned why New York’s Republican congressional delegation didn’t show up.

“A lot of them put out statements saying that they are disgusted at the politicization of this justice system, but where are they?” he asked. “None of them put the word Trump in any of their press statements.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin, who came within striking distance of winning the New York governor’s race last year, praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during an event on Long Island Saturday night, but was a no-show Tuesday. DeSantis is expected to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination, and was in town as part of a politically-focused book tour.

His communications director Daniel Gall said Zeldin is out of the country, and noted his tweets condemning the prosecution.

And Republican Joe Borelli, a City Council member who was once among Trump’s most visible defenders, disputed a connection between rally attendance and support for the former president.

“For the past 24 hours, the media told New York all to be afraid of a rally and then today is wondering why few elected officials were at the same rally. I don’t get it,” Borelli said.

Trump would appear to benefit in the short term from his legal troubles. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted shortly after the indictment was announced showed Trump running far ahead of DeSantis, his main GOP rival, among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

That finding reflected pre-indictment surveys that suggested the scandal would likely rally Republicans around Trump.

But the rush of the far-right to Trump’s side may come at a cost should he win the nomination. In the midterms in 2018 – and again in the presidential election two years later – many moderate Republicans and independents broke away from Trump, exhausted by the non-stop theater. The GOP failed to deliver the “red wave” Democrats feared last year as well.

“This is a prosecution that is being brought by a partisan,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist, and “Republicans may, at least in the short term, rally to [Trump’s] side.”

However, he said, “It’s still an indictment, and it’s a crime that’s being alleged that appears likely to be supported by evidence and testimony. … So, in a general election sense, this is a guy who lost the general election in 2020, and it’s difficult to imagine how this adds to his general election vote count.”

The question surrounding Trump in the primary – after this indictment and with other legal problems looming – is “ultimately, do Republican voters start to see him as having too much baggage.”

Tracking Trump investigations

  • Trump surrenders for alleged role in porn star hush money payment:Former President Donald Trump turned himself in Tuesday to authorities in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, where he will be booked on criminal charges connected to his alleged role in a hush money payment made to a porn star.
  • Classified docs probe:A federal appeals court has rejected Trump’s bid to block special counsel Jack Smith from obtaining key documents in the probe of Trump’s handling of classified documents.
  • Fulton County and 2020 election:Trump’s attorney urged a state court in Georgia to prohibit an Atlanta-area DA from filing charges related to his bid to subvert the 2020 election.
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