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Trump's secret 2024 weapon? He's ready to burn it all down

Republicans say they're done with Trump. But Trump is running for president again — and he definitely isn't done with them. 
Image: Former President Donald Trump at rally in Selma, N.C., on April 9, 2022.
Former President Donald Trump at rally in Selma, N.C., on April 9, 2022.Allison Joyce / Getty Images file; MSNBC

UPDATE (Nov. 15, 2022, 9:25 p.m. ET): After months of hinting, Donald Trump officially launched his 2024 presidential campaign from his Florida Mar-a-Lago estate on Tuesday evening.

Former President Donald Trump worked himself into a spittle-flecked rage after last Tuesday’s electoral embarrassment, lashing out and threatening fellow Republicans while also strongly hinting he will go ahead with tonight's planned presidential announcement. Trump attacked Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and launched a multipart screed against Florida’s newly re-elected Gov. Ron DeSantis, who committed the unforgivable sin of winning big while Trump was losing. 

Juvenile and racist attacks are, of course, nothing new for Trump.

Then, as the scope of the GOP’s losses became clearer, Trump fired off a bizarre racist attack against Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin: “Young Kin (now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?),” Trump wrote from his Truth Social exile, claiming credit for the governor’s success. 

Juvenile and racist attacks are, of course, nothing new for Trump. He’s mocked POWS, the disabled, dabbled in antisemitism and attacked a “Mexican judge.” Shortly before the election, he lashed out at McConnell’s “China loving wife, Coco Chow.” 

Republicans and their allies shuffled their feet and looked the other way.

But that was before the election, when the GOP felt the wind at its back. This week, the right-wing commentariat is appalled. This is delusional, mental-breakdown stuff,” tweeted the National Review’s Dan McLaughlin. Fox News contributor Joe Concha called it “unhinged, sophomoric stuff that is completely unprovoked.”

By the weekend, much of the conservative media, GOP donor class, and elected officials had come to the same conclusion. Republicans — at least for the moment — desperately seemed ready to turn the page. 

But, as they are about to find out, it’s already too late. They may be done with Trump. But Trump is far from done with them. 

In recent years, the evolution of the GOP increasingly has selected for traits like acquiescence, extremism and insanity. Until Election Day, many (if not most) Republicans apparently didn’t think there was a problem with that, because they told themselves that they were #winning. So they rationalized, enabled, covered up or ignored one incident after another, imagining they would never be held accountable. They swallowed his p---- grabbing, his Muslim ban, his vendettas; they gave him a pass on two impeachments votes, humored his increasingly unhinged lies about the election. They didn’t break with him after he chuckled with Putin in Helsinki, praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, tried to extort the president of Ukraine, or fomented an attack on the Capitol.

But electoral defeat, and the prospect of maybe even losing some power, has focused the GOP’s hivemind wonderfully. Following a twice-impeached one-term ex-president who has now led Republicans to defeat in three consecutive elections. 

This, of course, has nothing to do with principle, conscience or any revival of political courage. When Trump was a winner, they were willing to tolerate all manner of depravity. Now he is a political boat anchor, and they are suddenly discovering that their master is an erratic, demented and disloyal man-child.

Who knew?

The agita is apparent. “Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser,” proclaimed The Wall Street Journal. Another Murdoch newspaper, the New York Post, portrayed Trump as Humpty Dumpty, declaring Tuesday’s election showed “that Trump is perhaps the most profound vote-repellant in modern American history.” The National Review took the same line: “Republicans: Trump is your problem. Wake up.” Prominent elected Republicans are suggesting that the party move on from Trump, and there are even signs that the crash of the red wave may also be eroding Trump’s hold on the GOP base. A new YouGov poll gives DeSantis a 7-point lead over Trump among Republican and Republican-leaning voters.

There was even some brief hope that the GOP losses — and the impending Georgia runoff — might induce Trump to delay his big announcement.

There was even some brief hope that the GOP losses — and the impending Georgia runoff — might induce Trump to delay his big announcement. 

But delay would signal weakness, and above all, Trump has to change the narrative, and reassert his dominance. 

He has done it before. 

For years, Trump has taken the measure of his fellow Republicans. He remembers the outrage and opposition he encountered in 2015-16, and how it collapsed. He remembers how he brought the GOP back to heel after Jan. 6. 

Trump looks at the Republican universe — pundits, hacks, donors, lobbyists, consultants, elected officials — and says, “These are weak people. I have crushed them in the past. And they will cave to me again.”

And this is the importance of this weekend’s meltdown. Trump is making it clear that he will destroy the Florida governor if he has to. “I think if he runs he could hurt himself very badly,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal. “I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”

But, asks Christian Vanderbrouk in the Bulwark, “is DeSantis actually willing to destroy Trump, to see him ruined or even imprisoned?” That would cost him millions of votes. And this, writes Vanderbrouk, is the “asymmetry which drives the GOP’s cycle of dysfunction.”

“Trump can destroy the party whenever he wants,” she notes. “Yet the party can’t destroy him without also risking its own crack-up.” 

So, once again, Trump is playing to the GOP’s darkest fears. As I told MSNBC’s own Stephanie Ruhle the other night, his unhinged rants in Mar-a-Lago send the signal that he doesn’t care who he hurts. And he is ready to light his own house on fire if anyone dares to stand in his way. 

Plus, Trump knows that he can still count on around 30% of the GOP electorate to follow him through the gates of hell. The GOP’s gnawing fear? Even if someone like DeSantis could somehow wrest the nomination from Trump, no one imagines that the former president will graciously concede or go quietly into political obscurity. Could he take that 30% with him? Or a big enough chunk to destroy his enemies?

Trump is already fomenting a bitter civil war in the Senate GOP caucus and may demand a Red Wedding in the House GOP caucus as well. This evening (with multiple possible indictments pending) he makes his presidential restoration campaign official.

And there is not much the GOP can do about it. Republicans now know that they cannot win with Trump; but they also know that if he torches everything in sight, they can’t win without him either. 

They have trapped themselves in a political prison of their own making.