The Surge.

John Ellis
7 min readMay 15, 2022

1. Long shot.

It is amazing, to say the least, that after all this time and all the endless columns, analyses, articles and essays dissecting the political power of former President Donald Trump, it took Kathy Barnette, of all people, to get it right.

MAGA does not belong to President Trump. Our values never, never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”

That’s exactly right.

Trump didn’t create the “base.” The base created him. Trump doesn’t program what the base thinks and believes. The base programs what he says he thinks and believes. Trump doesn’t lead the base. The base leads him. In 2016, Trump wasn’t the base’s “messenger.” The base was the messenger. Trump, to borrow Charles Murray’s memorable phrase, was “the murder weapon.”

At every rally, when he makes his entrance, he applauds the audience, at some length, signaling his respect. He’s the only American presidential candidate and president (that I know of) who ever did or does that. He understands how much it is appreciated. And he understands, better than anyone, that he must not, ever, disrespect MAGA nation and all of its component parts. They’re loyal. They’ll forgive him any number of sins. But he must be loyal to them in return.

He occasionally slips up. At a rally last year he urged those in attendance to get vaccinated, telling them it was the right thing to do. The audience wasn’t having it. Many among them booed. Trump never raised the subject (at rallies) again.

Trump slipped up in Pennsylvania. At the urging of his wife and casino mogul Steve Wynn, he endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose conversion to the MAGA cause seemed all-too-conveniently sudden.

At the time of Trump’s endorsement, everyone “knew” it was a two-way race between Oz and Iraqi War veteran, former US Treasury official and hedge fund CEO David McCormick. On paper, that choice was a no-brainer. McCormick was and is the vastly more qualified, experienced and knowledgeable candidate. But he made Trump nervous, politically and personally.

Politically, Trump understood that someone who ran a hedge fund that did significant business in China might be a hard sell to MAGA nation. The base views hedge funds and private equity firms with suspicion at best, outright hostility often. As for China, put it this way: it wasn’t Russia that made redundant all those manufacturing jobs and laid waste to Pennsylvania’s working class.

Personally, Trump viewed McCormick as a “comer,” another Glenn Youngkin, someone who might even challenge him for the 2024 presidential nomination. Trump flies first class. He likes everyone else in coach. On top of that, McCormick had, Heaven forfend, served in the George W. Bush Administration. Trump never tried or tries to hide his disdain for what he calls “Bushies.”

McCormick went out of his way to butter up Trump; hiring a squad of Trump operatives, praising him lavishly, overlooking Trump’s disgraceful conduct on January 6th, indulging Trump’s “Stop The Steal” fund-raising scam, even saying he would vote against Mitch McConnell as the Republican leader of the Senate. But all that pandering, both before and after Trump’s endorsement of Oz, was for naught. McCormick was reduced to airing television commercials featuring amateurish video of Trump saying McCormick was a good guy. Trump, at a rally to jump-start Oz’s stagnant campaign, attacked McCormick repeatedly.

As he did, however, the ground was shifting. The McCormick jibes missed the mood. Trump’s praise of Oz was greeted with catcalls and lengthy boos. The rally itself was almost beside the point, because out there in the ether, Kathy Barnette was telling her story, in a long-form video on YouTube. It was powerful stuff and immediately went viral. One strong debate performance later (the last debate of the campaign), she catapulted from single digits into a tie for first place.

The political world, insular as ever, was flabbergasted. The national political press corps had (narratively) set the race up as a test of the power of a Trump endorsement. If Oz won, Trump still had juice. If McCormick won, Trump’s “hold” on the party faithful could be described as “increasingly tenuous” or “diminished” or words to that effect. (That was the story 96.5% of the press wanted to write.)

The press’s narrative construct was nonsense. Both McCormick and Oz had twisted themselves into pretzels pledging devotion to Trump and all things “MAGA.” The contest between the two of them was described by their television commercials as a contest of whose devotion to Trump was deepest.

What was really happening was not some imagined “old school Republicans” taking the GOP back from Trump (or not). What was happening was the MAGA base was sending Trump a message: Don’t send us imposters. Send us the real thing. We’re inclined to believe that Kathy Barnette is the real thing.

Trump responded with a lame reassertion of his support for Oz and a two step hedge on that endorsement. The obligatory don’t vote for “Kathy” (and vote for Oz) was described by Trump as necessary for two reasons: (1) she would lose in the fall, and (2) she hadn’t been vetted. The press wrote this up as a major development, damaging to Barnette’s prospects, perhaps fatally so. Out there in MAGA-land, it didn’t move the needle.

For starters, who says she’ll lose? What makes anyone think that? All she has to do is say “Biden-inflation-woke-Biden-inflation-woke-DEFUND THE POLICE” and she’s got 47.8% of the vote. Getting to 50%-plus-one doesn’t seem like a bridge too far.

As for vetting, well, the MAGA base’s reaction might be translated as follows: If you come to us with a lot of TV ads based on opposition research masquerading as news stories from The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, good luck to you, because we wrote off that kind of fake news long ago. And by the way, don’t take this personally. It’s not like we’re going to elope with Ron DeSantis. We still love you. We just don’t like being told what to do. Endorsements come from us, through you.

Having given his two reasons to vote against Barnette, Trump immediately hedged. First he said if she won the primary, he would love her. He would be all in with Kathy; 100 percent. The exact quote was this: “but if she is able to (win the nomination), she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party — and I will be behind her all the way.” Atta boy.

Second, he endorsed the MAGA gubernatorial candidate, lavishly, as if to make up for the sin of endorsing Oz. The entire GOP apparatus in Pennsylvania (and nationally) is apoplectic at the prospect of Doug Mastriano being the party’s gubernatorial nominee in the fall. They foresee decisive defeat in the offing and not without reason. Mastriano probably is a bridge too far.

Trump’s endorsement ices Mastriano’s nomination. It’s an endorsement that comes from the base, through Trump. Who cares if Mastriano can’t win in the fall? From Trump’s point of view, the more important thing is that he is back in synch with “the base.” And should Oz lose, he can say: “I won the gubernatorial race and I love Kathy Barnette.”

And all will be well.

Who is going to win the GOP Senate primary? No one knows. I have a theory that Barnette doesn’t kill Oz off, she just bleeds him and thus prevents him from getting to 30% of the total vote (which would almost certainly be enough to win). She on the other hand, might have a ceiling of 25%, depending on the composition of the primary electorate (and the number of early voters who might not have considered her when they voted prior to her dramatic surge of support). Which would make it theoretically possible for McCormick’s money and stellar résumé to prevail with, say, 28% of the vote.

But who knows? I’ll have a note on the results on Wednesday or Thursday of next week. Turnout in the rural counties will be decisive, in my view. We’ll see soon enough. The primary election is on Tuesday, the day after tomorrow.

2. Bonus item!

My friend Mickey Kaus had a great post a couple of weeks ago about an obvious question regarding the Biden Administration. To wit:

Why aren’t the knives out for Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff? I’m not saying he’s necessarily bad at his job. Sure, he led a White House that misread its mandate, went way too big and too left and then was unable to prioritize, resulting in a legislative car crash of epic, probably fatal, proportions.** But, hey, maybe that was Biden’s fault. Klain seems to have ticked off Joe Manchin, and Speaker Pelosi holds him in minimal high regard. You can’t please everybody! And it’s true that (according to Axios) a new book says that when “tasked with vetting vice presidential candidates” Klain told Biden “that Harris was most qualified for the job” — a misjudgment so complete you can only hope it was the product of corruption.

But Klain could be the reincarnation of Harry Hopkins and it wouldn’t matter. Whatever he’s been doing isn’t working. A staff shakeup — in which the chief of staff gets replaced — is just something you do when a President is polling at 23.5% among independents and your party is about to lose power in Congress for perhaps a decade. It’s a local ritual. The tom-toms of doom start beating around the fringes of the campfire, the chants grow louder, and soon the unlucky chief of staff is carried off to head up a new International Pandemic Prevention Initiative, or to fight “disinformation” for Marc Benioff.

The result, at a minimum, is that the floundering President gets at least a brief fresh look from the public, a second chance to make a first impression.

The Biden Administration, for the moment anyway, captured in three paragraphs.

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John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.