The last time Donald Trump gave a speech that truly roused his supporters was on January 6th, 2021. As he stood behind a wall of bulletproof glass in front of tens of thousands of roaring MAGA fans at the Stop The Steal rally, he hit all of the talking points that had compelled them to attend: attacking the “fake news media,” claiming that “big tech” had rigged the election, vowing never to concede the election, and encouraging the crowd to march on the Capitol. “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” he told them. And then, seemingly ignoring the “peaceful” part, those fans ran into the Capitol, smashed property, beat up cops, threatened to kill Mike Pence, and smeared feces on the walls, refusing to leave even as Trump sent several tweets asking them to do so. It took the National Guard, as well as a reportedly strenuous effort behind the scenes to convince Trump to tape a video statement, to disperse the crowd.
Regardless of whether Trump could be held responsible for inciting a mob, it’s a perfect metaphor for Trump’s current grasp, or lack thereof, of the dynamics between the MAGA movement and the G.O.P. Over the last several months, Trump has endorsed dozens of candidates for state and local midterm elections in order to flex his continued power within the party. Some of the candidates, like J.D. Vance in Ohio, appeared to benefit massively from his support. In other races, his picks were too far outside the scope of mainstream acceptability: Janice McGeachin, the lieutenant governor of Idaho who’s uncomfortably chummy with the states’ white nationalists groups, lost by a staggering 20.4 points to the sane-by-comparison incumbent Brad Little. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, whose MAGA fluency was overwhelmed by a litany of tabloid-level problems, also went down to an establishment alternative.
More telling, however, was Trump’s potential miscalculation in the still too-close-to-call Senate primary in Pennsylvania, where his head-scratching endorsement of the dubiously conservative Dr. Mehmet Oz over former hedge fund C.E.O. David McCormick provoked a far-right backlash, allowing a pure MAGA ideologue (and Stop the Steal rally attendee) Kathy Barnette to make a stunning, late-game sprint for the nomination. The base, which used to follow Trump religiously, had got out in front of him. Trump tried to have it both ways, belatedly endorsing Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano—Barnette’s QAnon-espousing, election-truthing, Christian nationalist ally—but the result was only more confusion. “How can you say Kathy Barnette cannot win a general election, but then state that Mastriano can?” Larry Ceisler, a Philly-based communications consultant, asked me rhetorically.
As of this morning, Oz and McCormick were separated by about 0.2 percent of the vote, with a tranche of mail-in and absentee ballots still waiting to be counted, and Barnette behind by 7.4 points. (Adding Trump insult to Trump injury, McCormick looks like he might win based on the fact that the uncounted votes are likely to favor him.) In the end, Barnette’s stunning rise was handicapped by a massive, coordinated effort by establishment Republican groups to ensure she didn’t run away with the race. And besides, Barnette did herself no favors. It’s hard to portray yourself as the most authentic candidate if you cannot, as a profile from Salena Zito described it, answer basic questions like “what is the name of your hometown” and “when did you serve in the military.”
Nevertheless, the fact that the “ultra-MAGA” candidate, as Steve Bannon called her, nearly triumphed over Trump’s pick signals trouble in Mar-a-Lago. Indeed, there have always been dueling theories as to whether the cult of Trump was a reflection of his politics or simply of the man, himself. It remains to be seen whether any MAGA alternative, such as Ron DeSantis, can replicate Trump’s accomplishments at the national level. But at the state level, at least, it appears that the America First movement has been unbound.
“All of those America First priorities that Trump had articulated still resonate loudly and strongly with an electorate. But the embodiment of that candidate—Who’s the message bearer? Who’s the standard bearer for that?—is the only question,” David Urban, Trump’s 2020 election campaign chair in Pennsylvania, told me. “All those Trumpy talking points, values, articulation, those things all remain very strong.”
Trump vs. “Trumpy”
The use of “Trumpy” as an adjective to describe Trump’s 2020 platform, rather than any particular policies, was always telling. Today, Trump’s name describes a brand of person, and a brand of political campaigning, and serves as a useful catchall for a specific set of priorities that one could also call MAGA or America First. But it doesn’t always actually describe the man, itself. These days, Trump doesn’t have much ownership of the movement, the same way that McCarthyism came to define the practice of wildly accusing your opponents of communist treason, while Joseph McCarthy himself faded into irrelevance after three years of anti-pinko hell-raising in the Senate.
Similarly, while Trump conquered the fusty Republican establishment by playing to its base, he didn’t originate any of the ideas or aesthetics that vaulted him into the White House. On the contrary, he was a student of right-wing media—Fox News, A.M. radio, the New York Post—who made campaign decisions based on what he was watching on television or reading on social media. The election fraud narrative, for instance, was spun up based on conspiracy theories Trump encountered online and passed along to his legal advisors. He promoted early Covid snake-oil cures that he’d seen mentioned on Tucker Carlson Tonight. During his administration, he scheduled daily meetings based on what he’d seen on Fox and spent hours each morning studying the morning newscasts. (There was an entire subgenre of reporting that was based solely on connecting various executive orders and tweets to segments of Fox and Friends.)
But the avant garde of the Republican Party has moved well beyond Murdoch-owned media properties like the Journal or the Post, or even Breitbart, in the years since Trump first ran for office. They’re watching random shows on Rumble, not Fox. Trump, despite his attempt to create a new MAGA safe space on Truth Social, has fallen slightly out of step with the movement he once led.
Not that the priorities of said movement have changed. “Border security [is a] big deal, people still care about it. They still care about inflation, they still care about the military,” said Urban. “All of those America First priorities that Trump had articulated still resonate loudly and strongly with an electorate.” But within the ever-increasingly QAnon-dabbling base, the conversation about those topics has evolved over the past two years so rapidly that they are having it entirely without Trump, on obscure communications channels that Trump doesn’t watch, and which Fox and even Newsmax cannot moderate, elevating personalities that he probably didn’t even know existed—like, say, Kathy Barnette.
Over the past year, I’ve watched as figureheads of this largely hidden movement, from the likes of Mike Lindell to D-list MAGA influencers deliberately not on major social media platforms, built their own scattered media universe that, in the aggregate, has reshaped the base’s priorities. In this shadow world, Fox is rejected as a bastion of corporate elitism, Tucker Carlson is dismissed as a MAGA opportunist, and QAnon adherents fume over Trump’s promotion of Covid vaccines. It was inevitable that someone from this new guard would call out Trump’s judgment, and that it would happen when he miscalculated an endorsement as badly as he did with Oz. Barnette’s bold proclamation—“It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”—makes me wonder if we’re halfway there.
Can Trump get back in front of this new, more radical movement, which has metastasized for an entire year and a half without his input? Would he even wish to do so? It depends, as always, on whether he can set their agenda, or at least serve as a tribune for their goals, the way he did back in 2016 and 2020. In the meantime, he’s still trying to hedge his bets. Last week, as Barnette was threatening to unseat Oz at the top of the Pennsylvania primary polls, Trump released an amusingly contradictory statement urging his fellow Republicans to reject Barnette while also positioning himself to ally with her, should she come out on top. “She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted,” he said, “but if she is able to do so, she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party—and I will be behind her all the way.”