By Tom Baxter

You just have to wonder where Sonny Perdue’s shiny bald head is at these days.

It was the secretary of agriculture and his former chief of staff Nick Ayers, you will recall, who came to President Donald Trump before the 2018 Georgia Republican primary for governor and convinced him to endorse Brian Kemp. “I did that for Sonny Perdue,” Trump would later say.

The president was happy enough to take credit for Kemp’s landslide primary victory (which we’ll get to in a minute), but speaking to Maria Bartiromo over the weekend on Fox News, Trump regretted his decision with a bitterness that was striking, even for his post-election period.

“He’s done absolutely nothing. I’m ashamed that I endorsed him,” Trump said.

On Monday the president amplified that sentiment with a Twitter blast which began, “Why won’t Governor @BrianKempGA, the hapless Governor of Georgia, use his emergency powers, which can be easily done, to overrule his obstinate Secretary of State, and do a match of signatures on envelopes. It will be a ‘goldmine’ of fraud, and we will easily WIN the state…”

So Sonny Perdue finds himself in a unique pickle, with his president at odds with his governor and his first cousin, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, caught in the middle, counting on Trump’s support to boost him in his runoff battle with Jon Ossoff. All because he was trying to do someone a favor.

But a favor for whom? That question is central to the political situation we have in the state today. Trump claimed that Kemp was 10 points behind Casey Cagle when he endorsed him. I didn’t see that poll, but I did drive across a swath of rural Georgia, and that convinced me that we were in for a major upset in the Republican primary.

If I could see that, Perdue and Ayers surely could. They must have known when they walked into the Oval Office that most of the Trump vote in Georgia was already going to Kemp. They must have known that an endorsement would not only give Kemp an extra boost, but would enhance the president’s reputation as king and kingmaker, with little risk to him.

That gets to a deeper truth which has national significance. Trumpism predates Donald Trump. Before he announced for the presidency it was called the Tea Party movement, and it mirrors what is now called Trumpism, right down to the habitual exaggeration of crowd sizes and the fascination with Barack Obama’s birth certificate. There’s a reason Mark Meadows, the Tea Party leader who embraced birtherism, is Trump’s longest surviving chief of staff.

Just as the movement came before the man, it will live on past him. In his very measured response to Trump’s taunts, Kemp appears to be aware of this fact. Just as he did when Trump criticized him for easing the coronavirus lockdown too early, and when they clashed over his appointment of Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate, Kemp has espoused his continuing loyalty to Trumpism, while avoiding any direct back-and-forth with Trump.

So has Loeffler, one of the few grown women in America who says she’s not familiar with the Access Hollywood tape. Not even attorney Sidney Powell’s claim that Loeffler owed her victory over Doug Collins to the same rigged voting machines that denied Trump a victory in Georgia was enough to shake her loyalty to both Trump and Trumpism. Powell was disavowed by the Trump campaign shortly after she made that claim, and by last weekend Collins and Loeffler were campaigning together.

Meanwhile, David Perdue has been unable to shake questions about his alleged use of insider information to profit from the pandemic. Both Loeffler and Perdue were cleared by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee over trades they made following a classified briefing at the beginning of the pandemic. But new questions have been raised about his trades in the Navy contractor BWX Technologies which goes back to 2018, and a previously undisclosed turnaround trade in the Atlanta firm Cardlytics.

Perdue has declined to participate in the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series, which might have been the smart thing to do before these new questions were raised. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the APC debate committee.) But these new disclosures deserve a much more detailed explanation than he’s given, and the debate would give him the opportunity to do that. Otherwise Loeffler and Raphael Warnock will square off, and Ossoff will have a stage to himself with Perdue represented by an empty podium.

With the nationally televised debates and Trump’s campaign visit to Georgia, this is shaping up to be a very interesting weekend.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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