Like many conservatives, I thought it was just a publicity stunt.
One GOP national security expert who would go on to work for Trump told me in 2016 that “Trump is a total fool. He won’t make it. This is the party of Reagan, of John McCain, not that nut job.”
Some have even surmised on these very pages that it was just a tactic to get a better deal for his TV show, The Apprentice.
However, history would prove me wrong.
The Left Understood Trump – To a Point
I remember watching MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow night after night back then – I was hooked. I was not a fan, but her coverage of Trump was as good a lens as any on how the left thought of him or what his political chances were.
And, for the most part, she predicted many things right – it pains me to say. First, many progressives saw his early poll numbers and saw him bringing in so many new voters with his populist messaging combined with a no-BS attitude that it was a winning combination.
Also, he took his WWE wrestling persona from years back and molded that into some sort of political playbook that worked. Watch his WWE appearances, and you will a lot of Trump the politician comes from that time. Trump, in many respects, looks like he is acting if you factor that time period of his life into his political calculus.
The early read in 2015 is that he would peak too early, that he would flame out, that he would say something so controversial that he would get the boot by GOP voters.
It never happened.
That didn’t mean, of course, the GOP did not try and stop him.
As I said, many experts and even longtime GOP insiders I know thought Trump was just a clown show, the trendy thing to watch until Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio got serious and ran a campaign that could take parts of Trump’s messaging and beat him with it.
And, indeed, they did take parts of his messaging, and the GOP, by and large, did go populist – but only after Trump won the White House.
I think back now when I would meet with GOP party officials and fellow national security experts when I worked on the Ted Cruz campaign.
We all said the same thing: any day now, Trump will fall apart. Any day now, he will make that fatal mistake. We were wrong. All of us.
As one former George W. Bush official explained to me: “[Trump] used a sort of Jedi mind trick to get the GOP to appreciate his policies and then adopt them. I never thought Trump was even a conservative, more a populist with conservative leanings that would nominate Supreme Court justices and enact overall conservative policy.
Trump’s great skill, however, is that he knows how to make the media cover him in an age of 24 hours news cycles and social media dominating everything.”
Donald Trump: The Problem
The challenge now is what to do about Trump, as he has brought in millions and millions of new voters into the GOP – but has lost what amounts to three elections in a row since his win in 2016.
Republicans in positions of power are thinking about this night and day at this point – as they see Trump as possibly losing the GOP nomination in 2016 and then taking his voters and going third-party like he has in the past or poisoning the well with these MAGA voters staying home and electing what looks like Joe Biden.
“Donald Trump terrifies the GOP for one reason,” a GOP polling expert explained to me who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns.
“What happens if Trump does get beaten by Ron DeSantis and won’t push those voters to him? Would Trump undermine the party? Would he decide to launch his own MAGA party, if you will, and try what amounts to destroy the GOP?”
As he said: “This is what conservatives fear most. Look at his comments about evangelicals being disloyal. He is even willing to throw his most loyal supporters under the bus. Don’t think for a second he won’t go nuclear on the GOP.”
Food for thought indeed as 2024 takes shape.
About the author: Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar task force in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree in International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization. Kazianis also has a background in defense journalism, having served as Editor-In-Chief at The Diplomat and Executive Editor for the National Interest.