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He’s just not that into you, Byron

The tragedy of Trump’s Complete and Total disrespect


Politician supporting Trump
Then-state Rep. Byron Donalds (center) addresses a Trump rally at the Collier County Fairgrounds, Oct. 23, 2016

By David Silverberg


Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) built his brand as “everything the fake news media says doesn’t exist: a Trump supporting, liberty loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man.”


That “Trump-supporting” clause is especially important. Time and again Donalds has reaffirmed his vocal, visceral, and vehement love, adoration and worship of former President Donald Trump.


But time and again, especially when Donalds most needed it, Trump has responded with absence, indifference or disinterest.


That was never more apparent than in the most recent battle for Speaker of the House. After initially saying he was going to stay out of the Republican congressional fight, Trump weighed in mightily on behalf of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-4-Ohio) but other members of the caucus resisted. When Republicans next picked Rep. Tom Emmer (R-6-Minn.), Trump felt Emmer was insufficiently worshipful and intervened to defeat him.


Ultimately, all the Republicans coalesced around Rep. Michael Johnson (R-4-La.) and voted him as Speaker, last Wednesday, Oct. 25.


In all of this drama, what Trump never did was endorse or support Donalds who was in the race, then out of the race, then in the race again, then defeated and out for good.


This is nothing new. Trump’s slights and oversights of Donalds have been well documented in these pages over the years. The big question is: why?


Endorsements and their impact


All endorsements in political races are important. An endorsement both sways votes but it also conveys a seal of approval and allegiance. Their timing is also important; an endorsement at a critical moment can make all the difference in a close race.


Trump has made endorsements something of an art form. In the past his endorsement clearly carried enormous weight among a fanatically devoted following who would obey his wishes.


Perhaps the most famous Trump endorsement was of then-Rep. Ronald DeSantis for governor of Florida in 2018. The two men have differing versions of how it came about: DeSantis recalls that he merely asked Trump for his endorsement; Trump says that DeSantis came with tears in his eyes begging Trump to save a failing primary campaign.


However it came about, there is no doubt that the Trump endorsement made an enormous difference in the primary contest, enabling DeSantis to win. In the general election it helped DeSantis barely edge out Democrat Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee.


When he endorsed DeSantis, Trump reached down to involve himself in a Republican primary. That was territory where presidents traditionally didn’t go. In the past, party leaders would let primary contests play out at the local level and then endorse the party’s nominee.


But Trump was ready, willing and able to reach way down the ballot with his endorsements in primary and party races. His criterion was based on the candidate’s personal loyalty to him rather than the party or any abstract idea or policy.


In 2020 Trump intervened in other intra-party contests in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana. He even reached way down the chain of command to oust the Republican Party chairman of Ohio for opposing him. No office was too low or obscure to escape his intervention.


In general, during his time in office Trump had a seemingly uncanny ability to elevate candidates and get them elected when he gave them “my complete and total endorsement.”


That’s exactly what Byron Donalds needed in 2020.


The 2020 race


The 19th Congressional District of Southwest Florida had a particularly tumultuous contest in 2020. After two terms in Congress, Rep. Francis Rooney announced that he would not be running again, this after stating he was open to reviewing Trump impeachment evidence, a high crime and misdemeanor in Republican circles.


Sensing an easy win, at one point a dozen Republican candidates jumped into the primary fight for nomination in the district.


Byron Donalds was just one of these. He had the advantage of already representing the 80th District of the Florida House, a rural district that included the farming, mostly immigrant town of Immokalee.


Donalds had switched from Democrat to Republican after marrying his current wife, Erika, in 2003. After initially dismissing Trump as a “self-promoter” in 2011, before Trump became professionally involved in politics, in 2016 he threw himself into the Trump election effort. He addressed a Trump rally at the Collier County fairgrounds with his own ringing endorsement.


Eventually, the 2020 congressional primary race stabilized at nine candidates, of whom the leaders were state Rep. Dane Eagle and businessman Casey Askar. All vied to out-Trump each other, highlighting their loyalty, extremism and cultic enthusiasm in an effort to win the Make America Great Again (MAGA) voters who would determine the primary winner.


At any point, a Trump endorsement would have determined the outcome.


But for all his intervention in Republican primaries around the country, Trump chose not to get involved in this one. There was an element of caution in Trump’s endorsements by that time. He didn’t want to break his winning streak, so by 2020 he increasingly bet on surer candidates, particularly those who were incumbents or who had no opposition.


Donalds didn’t fall into that category. For a long time Eagle seemed the most likely anointee. Ultimately, there was no Trump endorsement. Donalds barely eked out a victory on his own, with Collier County providing the winning margin.


It was the first time he could have really used a Trump bump but he didn’t get it.


However, once he won the primary Donalds was endorsed by Trump in a Sept. 10 tweet. Trump wrote that he “will be a phenomenal Congressman for the people of Florida!” and “Byron is a Rising Star! He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” (Capitalization, of course, his.).


Once Donalds was confirmed as the nominee, Trump had a chance to endorse Donalds in person when he came to Fort Myers on Oct. 16, 2020. All the Republican grandees were present.



However, Donalds tested positive for COVID-19 before the event and had to stay away.


Once on stage Trump did shout-outs to DeSantis, whom he compared to Elvis (and praised the thickness of his shoulder muscles), and Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-12-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.). Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson (who had run for the congressional seat) and Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello (R) received praise.

But there was no mention of Donalds.


This was particularly noteworthy given that it was a chance for Trump to promote a prospective Republican member of Congress who would be implementing the Trump agenda in a second term. Of all the people to mention, it was the Republican candidate in the midst of an election race who should have been spotlighted.

But once infected he was rejected. It was as though Donalds had vanished from the MAGAverse.


Donalds won his race anyway. Trump lost his.


The leadership races


Rep.-elect Byron Donalds signs the pledge to overturn the 2020 election. (Photo: Office of Byron Donalds)


Like a good Trumper Donalds voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election. On Jan. 6, 2021 he even attended the “Stop the Steal” rally on the National Mall. He then signed a statement objecting to the election certification and voted against it. Although he later denounced the rioters as “thugs,” he never criticized Trump for inciting the violence.


After the insurrection he faithfully upheld the Big Lie that Trump had won. He put out reams of social media postings and did right-wing media interviews upholding Trumpist orthodoxy.


After Trump’s defeat, Donalds was present when Trump flew into Naples for fundraisers. The first time, on Dec. 3, 2021, Trump stealthily flew into town in the night and held his event at a Naples Airport hangar before departing equally secretively.


The second time, Dec. 4, 2022, occurred with more advanced notice but still at a secret location in Naples. It was more public in its purpose: to support “school choice” and benefit Hurricane Ian victims. Tickets started at $10,000 for individuals. The visit came a day after Trump had called for suspending the US Constitution.


In 2022 Donalds’ re-election run was far less perilous than his initial campaign. Trump endorsed him again, along with numerous other Republican incumbents. Donalds won both his primary and general election races with comfortable margins.


Leadership hopes


Now that he was in Congress for a second term, Donalds had ambitions to rise in the Republican congressional hierarchy.


His first opportunity came in November 2022 when he decided to challenge Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-21-NY) for chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, the third highest position in the caucus leadership. The Conference is the Party’s primary means of communicating its message among the Republican members.


Donalds put together a slick promotional video, titled “Championing Conservative Principles and Ushering In a New Republican Perspective to GOP House Leadership” that presented him as a rising star in the Republican Party. He was the Freedom Caucus candidate for the slot.


This was a time when a Trump endorsement would have made a big difference. But Trump ignored Donalds and endorsed Stefanik, whom he called one of the “greatest warriors” of the America First movement and a “rising star” in the Republican Party. She had joined the chorus of Trumpers condemning Republican members on the January 6 Committee investigating the riot and insurrection.


“Elise has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump wrote. Sure enough, she won against Donalds with a resounding 144 to 44 victory on Nov. 15. Donalds may have been a dedicated Trumper but apparently not dedicated enough.


Trump may have had other things on his mind: the day of the Conference vote was also the day he announced his candidacy for the presidency again.


Donalds’ next opportunity to make a bid for the leadership came on Jan. 7, 2023.


Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.) became mired in a struggle to win the House Speakership.


In the midst of the contest Donalds was nominated for Speaker by fellow Freedom Caucus members Reps. Chip Roy (R-21-Texas) and then Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.). Donalds’ candidacy lasted eight rounds of balloting.


Once again, a Trump endorsement would have made a significant difference for Donalds. For a moment it appeared that Trump had endorsed Donalds—but Trump shot down the rumor as “Fake and Fraudulent.

Trump endorsed McCarthy instead. In the end, Donalds withdrew and backed McCarthy as well.


Donalds’ endorsement


Trump was hardly the only one to making endorsements. In 2023 Donalds made a big endorsement of his own.

Given that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was planning to run for president, all Florida Republicans were facing a thorny dilemma and a dangerous choice between two vindictive, petty men who didn’t forget slights easily. Donalds had a foot in both camps, having extravagantly praised both politicians.


On Monday, March 20, when Trump announced that he was going to be arrested the next day, Donalds rushed to his defense and re-pledged his allegiance to the embattled former President.


On April 6, Donalds was the first Florida politician to endorse Trump over DeSantis, turning his back on the governor, with whom he had been close, at least in public.


In a lengthy statement Donalds argued that Trump would get the country “back on track, provide strength and resolve and make America great again.” The endorsement made headlines at a critical time in the Republican presidential nominating race.


So Donalds had prominently, publicly and extravagantly made clear his undying fealty and complete subservience to the now-indicted former president. Surely, that love and loyalty would be reciprocated.

Right?


The latest round


McCarthy reigned as Speaker for nine months before being overthrown on Oct. 3, inaugurating three weeks of turmoil and uncertainty. During the course of it, Donalds again made a bid for Speaker.


Initially Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.) was the leading contender. But he abandoned his quest after about a day in the face of fanatical MAGA opposition.


Next up was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-4-Ohio), a loud, rude, disruptive Trumper in the true master’s style. Trump enthusiastically endorsed Jordan, calling him a “STAR” (in all caps!) and arguing “He will be a GREAT Speaker of the House, & has my Complete & Total Endorsement!”


This time, though, the Republican caucus pushed back in the face of threats and bullying by Trump, Jordan and grassroots zealots. Despite the Trump endorsement, after three rounds of voting, Jordan couldn’t clinch the 217 votes needed for Speaker. It seemed that the Trump endorsement magic had worn off among the Republican caucus.


Next up was Rep. Tom Emmer (R-6-Minn.), the House majority whip and the second man in the Republican congressional hierarchy. Initially considered a likely winner and acceptable to Trump, instead Trump turned on him, calling him “totally out-of-touch with Republican Voters” and a “Globalist RINO” (Republican In Name Only). He worked the phones against Emmer.


Emmer’s crime? According to a Politico article, “‘I killed him’: How Trump torpedoed Tom Emmer’s speaker bid,” Emmer had the temerity to criticize Trump for the Jan. 6 riot and insurrection in 2021 and re-posted a Trump comment that the two had always gotten along—which indicated they were closer than Trump preferred.


Trump’s ability to dispose of Emmer indicated that while he might not have the strength to get his preferred candidate elected he still could veto anyone he didn’t like.


With Emmer gone the race became wide open and nine Republicans jumped in—among them, Donalds. He was quickly endorsed by fellow Southwest Floridian, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-26-Fla.) and numerous other Republican Floridians.


As in the nine-candidate race Donalds had faced in Southwest Florida in 2020, a Trump endorsement might have made all the difference.


Trump had shown the strength of his negative voodoo but could he reclaim his past magical powers? Would he cast his spell on Donalds’ behalf? Would he raise the ambitious sophomore to Speaker?

But once again Trump chose to ignore Donalds.


“I am not going to make an Endorsement in this race, because I COULD NEVER GO AGAINST ANY OF THESE FINE AND VERY TALENTED MEN, all of whom have supported me, in both mind and spirit, from the very beginning of our GREAT 2016 Victory. My strong SUGGESTION is to go with the leading candidate, Mike Johnson,” he posted on Truth Social on Wednesday morning, Oct. 25.


Finally, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-4-La.) received enough votes to become Speaker. His ideas might be those of Trump and MAGA world, but his behavior was that of a country club Republican—and much more acceptable to the caucus.


All Southwest Florida Republican congressmen voted for Johnson, including Donalds.


The big question


At every inflection point, when his endorsement could have made a significant difference in Rep. Byron Donalds’ political career, former President Donald Trump has chosen to ignore, overlook and disregard his faithfully loyal, utterly obedient, slavishly adoring acolyte from Florida’s Gulf coast. On this, at least, he has shown a most unusual consistency.


Why?


Why does Donald Trump consistently ignore Byron Donalds? Why does Donald Trump refuse to support Byron Donalds as he seeks to rise up the hierarchy of the Republican congressional caucus? Why does Donald Trump never publicly reward Donalds’ extravagant expressions of fealty? Why is Donald Trump always absent at the critical moments when Byron Donalds needs him most? And why does Donald Trump look Byron Donalds in the face but never seem to see him?


Until Donald Trump provides an explanation, the public can only wonder—and guess.


Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on October 30, 2023.

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