Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Donald Trump Is Trapped by His Own Strategy. That Doesn’t Mean It Won’t Work.

In his effort to outflank Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida — his most potent challenger-in-waiting for the Republican presidential nomination — Donald Trump goes only in one direction: hard right.

At the start of this year, Trump announced his education agenda, declaring that he would issue mandates to “keep men out of women’s sports,” end teacher tenure and cut federal aid to any school system that teaches “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children.”

“As the saying goes,” Trump declared, “personnel is policy and at the end of the day if we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids we have a major problem.”

Later in January, Trump revealed his “Plan to Protect Children from Left-Wing Gender Insanity,” in which he promised to bring a halt to “gender-affirming care,” to punish doctors who provide gender-affirming care to minors, and to pass legislation declaring that “the only genders recognized by the United States government are male and female and they are assigned at birth.”

“No serious country should be telling its children that they were born with the wrong gender,” Trump declared. “Under my leadership, this madness will end.”

At one level, these pronouncements reflect Trump’s determination to prevent DeSantis from outflanking him. On a larger scale, they reveal a predicament facing not only the former president as he seeks renomination in 2024, but the conservative movement in general, including white evangelicals, the Republican Party and Fox News.

Trump’s strategy requires him to continue his equivocation on white supremacism and his antisemitic supporters and to adopt increasingly extreme positions, including the “termination” of the Constitution in order to retroactively award him victory in the 2020 election. The more he attempts to enrage and invigorate his MAGA base in the Republican primaries, the more he forces his fellow partisans and conservatives to follow suit, threatening Republican prospects in the coming general election, as demonstrated by the poor showing of Trump clones in the 2022 midterm contests.

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Trump’s claim that he won in 2020 and his mobilization of an angry, resentful center-right electorate traps him in an approach to elections that has simultaneously ensnared the Republican majority in the House, where the Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has diluted his own authority in order to empower the party’s reactionary fringe — including such volatile figures as Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert.

These same forces pushing McCarthy into a corner have prompted Fox News to consciously air conspiracy theories network officials knew were untrue for fear of losing market share to conservative media further to the right, disclosures in the Dominion Voting System’s defamation law suit against the network revealed.

Emails and other documents made public in the suit show, for example, that Tucker Carlson believed that the claims that Dominion corrupted its software to allow voter fraud were false: “The software shit is absurd,” he wrote. When, however, Jacqui Heinrich, a Fox reporter, tweeted “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” Carlson texted his Fox colleagues Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham: “Please get her fired,” adding that “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

“The inclination to conspiracy and paranoia is the bond that links Trump to the far right,” Jeffrey C. Herf, a historian at the University of Maryland, wrote in an emailed response to my inquiry. “Trump without conspiracy theorizing is a nonentity,” he added, in a comment with wider applicability to the contemporary conservative movement.

Trump’s core voters, Herf continued, “love him for expressing their resentments, and for pointing to tangible targets for their anger. Trump’s ‘fine people on both sides’ after the neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville indicated that he understood very well that his coalition included voters who were both openly racist and antisemitic.”

Republicans in both the House and Senate, in Herf’s view, have acceded to the pressures created by Trump and his loyalists in the electorate.

In the case of the Senate vote on Trump’s fate after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, “Mitch McConnell flinched,” Herf wrote, because he “understood that he and the G.O.P. establishment had made a Faustian bargain with the far right, with Trump’s base, and that without that base the G.O.P. would probably be consigned to becoming a permanent minority party at the national level.” McCarthy, in turn, understands “exactly the same dynamic, that is, without Paul Gosar, Scott Perry, Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert — and Marjorie Taylor Greene — the G.O.P.’s electoral prospects look dim.”

Herf contended that Trump’s message of 2016,

was one of national liberation for constituencies whose anger had been growing since the 1960s. He smashed taboos. His rallies were enormously liberating, a huge rush of emotion and relief for his supporters. It was the return of the repressed, a cultural counterrevolution, a genie that was now out of the bottle. Once you unleash those hatreds, and the huge pleasure that many people take in those hatreds, it takes some time to put the genie back in the bottle.

I asked Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, about Trump’s 2024 strategy and he argued in an email that

This is not so much a dilemma for Trump, who has always catered assiduously to his followers with only the feeblest attempts to expand his appeal beyond them. But it is a dilemma for the Republican Party generally, which cannot win without the enthusiastic support of the MAGA faction but also has a hard time winning when they dominate the party’s image with the wider public. At present, party leaders (notably McCarthy) seem more worried about keeping the far right happy than about any long-term damage to the party’s image, and this does put them in something of a trap, because it is hard to see how they can gracefully move toward any more moderate and popular stances without upsetting the extremists.

In some respects, Jacobson continued,

Trump is trapped by the base. For example, he can’t campaign on the crash program to develop the Covid vaccines during his administration, a popular success, because much of his base is anti-vaccine. Trump’s strength has always been his capacity to convince supporters that he is one of them, sharing their opinions, grievances, sense of victimhood, etc., and it would be a problem for him if they become disillusioned on this score.

The parallel to Fox News, Jacobson noted, “is obvious: Trump’s support depends on continuing to meet expectations he has created; doing otherwise might turn his audience elsewhere.”

In the view of Stella Rouse, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Trump and the Republican Party have become so reliant on a hard-right constituency that there is no turning back:

Trump has built his political brand and the loyal and fervent following of his base on both implicit and explicit expressions of grievance and fear of the “other.” As such, he is extremely dependent on projecting the right messages, some of which directly target groups (“Mexico is not sending their best…”) and some of which are more indirect and ambiguous and can be justified if there is sufficient blowback. Equivocating on antisemitism falls in this category as he doesn’t outright make antisemitic statements and claims not to have known he was dining with a self-proclaimed antisemite.

The same “is true of the contemporary G.O.P.,” Rouse argued in an email. “When the party fell in line behind Trump in 2016, the horse was out of the barn, not only for Trump, but for those who have embraced and promulgated this politics of grievance. And the ‘establishment’ wing of the party gets enough ambiguity to justify continued support of Trump and these members without much or enough political backlash.”

I asked Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami, whether “Donald Trump built and became dependent on a coalition that requires him to equivocate on antisemitism, QAnon and other extremist expressions for fear of losing any constituency.”

“Yes,” Uscinski replied by email:

Trump built a coalition of people who were attracted to conspiratorial, racist and xenophobic claims. Both Trump, and other G.O.P. politicians who want to tap into that coalition, need to play the tune the crowd wants to hear. When G.O.P. politicians go against the coalition’s reigning conspiracy theories, they pay a price for it. For example, when Trump told supporters he got vaccinated, he got booed.

There seem “to be two factions in the G.O.P.,” Uscinski continued, “one more aligned with traditional Republicanism and conservatism (e.g., Mitt Romney) and another more aligned with Donald Trump or his movement, and consequently with populism and conspiracism (e.g., Marjorie Taylor Greene). One or the other faction could win this battle in the coming decades, but that depends on how successful either faction is at getting elected.”

Uscinski argued that

while there are conspiracy-minded Republicans in the mass public, Republicans in the mass public are no more conspiracy-minded than Democrats in the mass public. So, while there is a market for G.O.P. candidates who traffic in populist and conspiratorial claims, not all Republican voters are conspiracy theorists or MAGA. Trump only got about 40 percent of the primary vote in 2016, and his voters were different from those who voted for more traditional G.O.P. candidates. Think of Trump’s coalition as a combination of a little traditional conservatism, social conservatism on steroids, and a very heavy dose of anti-establishment sentiment and populism.

In this context, Uscinski wrote, “the person to watch is DeSantis. By attempting to appeal to the anti-vaxx crowd, the anti-Ukraine crowd, and the Covid-denying crowd, he is battling Trump for the coalition Trump built.”

Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, argued that the Republican Party has, over time, encompassed an extremist fringe that has not so much grown in recent years, but has gained a loudspeaker in the form of social media. In an email she wrote:

I do not see any change in the broader Republican Party. Yes, there are some congressional Republicans who have a closer relationship with the far right than others, but such figures have had a presence in the Republican coalition for longer than I can remember, including back to Charles Lindbergh and other isolationists who opposed intervention against Nazi Germany.

Social media, Lee continued,

gives extreme members a bigger megaphone than they had in earlier eras. There was a notable far-right fringe in the Republican Party back in the 1990s when Pat Buchanan made stronger-than-expected runs for the Republican presidential nomination. That fringe still has a presence. But I do not see any large-scale change in the size or influence of far-right groups in the congressional Republican Party in Congress.

I asked Alvin Rosenfeld, a professor of English and Jewish studies at Indiana University, about Trump’s ambivalent relationship with antisemitism. He replied by email:

Given some things that he’s said (and not said) about Jews and antisemitism, I’m sometimes asked, ‘Is Trump an antisemite?’ Not in any ideological sense, but he’s not adverse to keeping company with some people who are outspokenly hateful in what they say about Jews, as the now infamous dinner at his Florida home with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes clearly showed.

At bottom, Rosenfeld contended,

Trump’s a self-serving opportunist and courts people who glorify him and enable him to keep a puffed-up image of himself as an indispensable leader prominently before the public. He needs and wants to stay front stage center. And for that to happen, he will court and cater to a coalition of ardent supporters — his MAGA crowd — and if they include, as they do, people on the far-right wing of his party, including white supremacists, Christian nationalists, and antisemites, he’ll evidently go along with them.

Adam Enders, a political scientist at the University of Louisville who has often written with Uscinski about conspiracy thinking, argued in an email that

Trump identified a fairly large segment of the American population that is not particularly ideological, nor particularly attached to the two major parties. Moreover, these individuals are distrusting of the government, animated by an anti-establishment political worldview that holds that politicians are unresponsive to their constituents, corrupt, and all too eager to conspire against “the people.”

Enders said he doubts that Trump

sees himself as “trapped” in this strategy — rather, this coalitional expansion represents his primary value to the Republican Party. This is his magic trick. And I suspect Trump’s Republican electoral competitors recognize this to be the case. For example, it is precisely these anti-establishment voters that DeSantis is vying for when he engages in conspiracy-related culture war posturing on issues such as Disney “grooming” children, C.R.T. and the like.

In their July 2021 paper, “The Role of Anti-Establishment Orientations During the Trump Presidency,” Enders and Uscinski write:

The toxicity emblematic of the Trump era — support for outsider candidates, belief in conspiracy theories, corrosive rhetoric, and violence — are derivative of antipathy toward the established political order, rather than a strict adherence to partisan and ideological dogma. We conclude that Trump’s most powerful and unique impact on American electoral politics is his activation, inflammation, and manipulation of pre-existing anti-establishment orientations for partisan ends.

Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge and the author of the forthcoming book “Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build,” wrote by email:

Based on recent public opinion data, I think it is definitely reasonable to conclude that conspiracy theories increasingly characterize the G.O.P. One explanation for this observation is the finding that “conspiracy theories are for losers.” We typically see that those out of power or those who perceive a loss of power and control are much more likely to espouse conspiracy theories. In fact, we know from research that lack of trust in the mainstream media, science, formal institutions, and the electoral process is a major predictor of belief in conspiracy theories and the return of the “paranoid style” in American politics.

Trump, van der Linden wrote,

has partly created and now has to maintain support from an increasingly radicalized movement. I think this is also evident in Trump’s implicit and explicit endorsement of ‘Q’ on his social media (even wearing the ‘Q’ lapel pin) and his retweeting of prominent troll accounts such as ‘Cat Turd. He is basically amplifying extremist viewpoints and ideologies in order to maintain support.

Van der Linden cited a significant difference between the conservative party in England, which regularly rejects conspiracy thinking, and the Republican Party in the United States, which tolerates and even endorses it.

“Andrew Bridgen, a conservative MP and former party whip was recently suspended by the conservative party after comparing Covid-19 vaccines to the Holocaust,” van der Linden wrote, and “Boris Johnson referred to anti-vaccination activists as spreading completely false ‘mumbo jumbo’ on social media. ”

The problem in the United States, in van der Linden’s view, “is that many Republican elites, including prominent members of Congress, are actively endorsing and spreading conspiracy theories themselves without consequence.”

Van der Linden contended that “as long as Republican leaders are not willing to actively counter, sanction and condemn members who spread baseless conspiracy theories, the party will continue to be characterized by outrageous falsehoods.”

The larger question, however, is whether Trump and other Republican leaders will not only continue to go deeper into the rabbit hole — a redoubt of victimhood, resentment and conspiracy — which at the moment appears probable, but whether they will drag the rest of the nation down with them.

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