The GOP Base Still Loves Donald Trump, but the Party’s Funders Want Someone Else

Charles Koch and other big-money GOP donors are showing signs that they’re done with Donald Trump. Only one problem: the base isn’t ready to move on.

Donald Trump remains by far the most popular candidate for president among Republican voters. (Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

Despite his extremely low-energy campaign, Donald Trump remains by far the most popular candidate for president among Republican voters. He was more than 15 points ahead of the runner-up, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, in the most recent Morning Consult poll. As Jacobin’s Luke Savage notes, not only is Trump popular with Republican voters but he has effectively reshaped the party, making “his own priorities, reflexes, and affectations the lingua franca of the Republican base.”

Chasing Trump’s audience, conservative outlets like Fox News and figures from Steve Bannon to low-level internet personalities have amplified his message and tone and pushed them further, creating a self-sustaining cycle where the base expects continually crueler and more aggressive validation of these “priorities, reflexes, and affectations” from its elected officials and media. Years after he lost to Joe Biden, it’s still true that almost anything an American conservative does these days is, explicitly or implicitly, a reaction to Donald Trump.

That’s as true for Charles Koch as it is for anyone else. The billionaire heir, along with his late brother David, formed a vast fundraising network to influence Republican primary and general elections as well as conservative policy. Before Trump came along, the two Kochs were at the top of most people’s lists of the most influential members of the Republican Party. And, of course, even when Trump was in office, Koch organizations didn’t stop. In 2020 alone, the array of interlocking entities affiliated with Koch and backed by other wealthy conservatives spent a half billion dollars on Republican candidates and right-wing policy initiatives, according to the New York Times.

But in the 2024 presidential contest, Koch wants any Republican but Trump — and that will be a real test of his enduring influence. “The best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter,” the CEO of Koch’s political group wrote in a policy memo earlier this month. The memo, from the group Americans for Prosperity, did not mention Trump by name, leaving itself the option of supporting him if he does win the Republican nomination. But given that Trump was the only announced candidate at the time the memo was released, the implication is obvious: Koch and his allies want someone else. What’s more, they have stated they will throw their financial support behind a single candidate in an attempt to keep the field clear, thus increasing the chances of defeating Trump. (DeSantis has not formally announced his candidacy; former Trump ambassador Nikki Haley announced her candidacy this week, after the memo’s release.)

Trump has never had an easy relationship with traditional Republican power brokers like Koch, though after a first year of repugnant bluster (and popular pushback), Trump spent most of his time in office enacting standard Republican priorities of eliminating regulation, cutting taxes for the rich, and appointing reactionary judges. Ironically, given the opposition he faces from the Koch wing of the party now, Trump’s previous success came largely from his ability to convincingly give both major parts of the Republican Party what they wanted: xenophobic, tough-guy rhetoric for the die-hard voting base and class war from above for the party’s funders.

But with Trump’s failure to either raise significant money for the 2024 election or gain the kind of media attention that propelled his 2016 campaign, it seems Koch senses weakness. Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis is copying Trump’s old playbook, gaining support from hard-right voters with cruel, bigoted culture-war tactics and from party elites by taking aim at workers and public institutions. DeSantis has also been careful not to upset Trump supporters by responding to Trump’s increasingly vitriolic attacks on him — at least so far.

As the governor of a swing state with a lot of electoral votes and a persona that projects Trumpism without Trump’s baggage, DeSantis sure looks like the kind of candidate Koch and his allies want. Just one pesky question remains: How much money will it take to convince Trump’s voters to see things their way?