Trump Is Caught in a Double Bind

The former president’s winning strategy is also a losing one.

Illustration showing two Donald Trumps against a red background
Win McNamee / Getty; The Atlantic

After seven-plus years of performing the same act, Donald Trump is finding it harder and harder to surprise his audience.

But despite his noted laziness, he sure is trying. Last week, he used his Truth Social site to share (or “ReTruth,” in the platform’s tortured jargon) a series of messages promoting the QAnon-conspiracy universe. A day later, he told a conservative Pennsylvania radio host that if he was reelected president, he would “very, very seriously” consider pardoning people convicted for their roles in the January 6 insurrection, and said that he was financially assisting some defendants. (Don’t take it to the bank.) Then this past weekend, he hosted a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where—among other lowlights—he attacked the current president as an “enemy of the state” while praising the autocrats Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Trump also hit all the customary false notes about the 2020 presidential election being stolen, but he hit them harder than usual, including saying that Republican officials who didn’t aid him should be “ashamed of themselves.”

Guessing the cause of all of this is not hard: Trump finds himself in a dicey situation over his alleged improper removal of presidential records, many of them classified, from the White House—the subject of an FBI search at Mar-a-Lago last month. Even after a federal judge issued an order Monday pausing the Justice Department’s review of the documents, the investigation is a real threat to Trump, and that’s only one of the many current political and legal dangers he faces. Meanwhile, numerous Republican candidates are struggling, among them two he was stumping for in Pennsylvania: Doug Mastriano, a true-believing Trumpist seeking the governorship, and Mehmet Oz, a stiffly phony Trumpist trying for the U.S. Senate.

When Trump finds himself backed into a corner, he often responds with particularly extreme remarks. Whether this is simply a defensive reflex or is a conscious attempt to find something wild enough to change the subject is a question for a psychologist or, better yet, a psychic, not a journalist. The political effects of the pattern, however, can be explored here.

These outbursts tend to bind Trump’s strongest supporters to him ever more closely while alienating the general electorate. This puts Republican officials in a dilemma: They can either preserve their immediate political future by aligning themselves with him or risk it by getting off the bus. They nearly always choose the first option. Sometimes, as in his two impeachment trials, that’s enough to save Trump. Other times, as in the 2020 election, it is not.

Since before Trump was elected, pundits have puzzled over his tendency to do and say things that endear him to the base at the expense of broader popularity. Typically, politicians want to find a way to maintain a political identity while maximizing the number of supporters they can attract. Moving too far toward maximizing support can, ironically, backfire: You risk coming across as having no convictions. Trump has long erred in the other direction. He has not only stuck to a political identity but sometimes gone out of his way to convey it in the most pugnacious way he can, at the risk of turning off even some ideological compatriots.

But Trump has sometimes succeeded anyway. He won the 2016 presidential election with a minority of the popular vote, thanks to some good instincts, a weak opponent, and good luck. Once he was in office, the antipathy of the general electorate was less important. Rallying his base had the effect of forcing Republican officeholders to back him too. It didn’t matter that Trump’s overall approval rating hovered in the low 40s. GOP officials understood that thanks to a decline in competitive constituencies, their fate would be decided by the most motivated primary voters, which often means the hardest-core Trump backers. As a result, even if many of them personally detested or distrusted Trump—and private quotes suggest that they did—they still gritted their teeth and lined up behind him.

That dynamic helped Trump survive several serious scandals. When Republicans controlled the House and the Senate, they made no serious effort to restrain the White House. Once Democrats won back the House in 2018, they twice impeached Trump, but Republicans remained unified enough to prevent him from being convicted in the Senate, including after his post-election attempted autogolpe.

But the trick is not perfect; reread that previous sentence: “Once Democrats won back the House …” Republicans took a beating in 2018 because Trump was very unpopular, and even though he was not formally on the ballot, he sought to make himself the focus of the election. This is not my interpretation, but Trump’s. As he said in October 2018: “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me. I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

Two years later, Trump was literally on the ballot, and he again lost. It is true, as he has said, that he won more votes than any other Republican candidate in history. Trump is very good at turning out his voters. The problem is that revulsion to him also drives voters who oppose him, who turned out in even greater numbers to vote for Joe Biden, or perhaps for not–Donald Trump. Republican candidates actually outperformed Trump in many cases, but even if he had them in the palm of his hand, they couldn’t help him actually win—though it is true that some of them, in some states and in Congress, did their best to aid his election-subversion campaign.

This week in the classified-documents case, Trump once again got help from a Republican in office, though not an elected one: On Monday, he received the very favorable ruling from Judge Aileen Cannon, whom he appointed to the bench, and whose decision drew incredulous reactions from a range of experts. One question that remains is how voters will respond. Polling suggests that a majority of Americans believe that the investigation into Trump’s handling of presidential records is justified. Polling also suggests that Republican hopes for a huge victory in November have dimmed somewhat: Democrats now stand a decent chance of holding the Senate, and the expected size of the GOP majority in the House has shrunk. That is in part a testament to Trump’s visibility, and also a testament to backlash to the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights in Dobbs—a decision made possible by Trump’s focus on the courts.

Though it seems fair to say that Trump is complicating Republican midterm efforts, isolating his role in the final result in November will be impossible. But his continued hints—if anything so blunt can be called a hint—that he intends to run for president again in 2024 mean that we’ll get another chance to observe the trend. That election may not work the same way, though. Trump and his allies have already shown that they have a workaround for the broad public antipathy toward him: They’re planning to make sure he goes back to the White House, even if it means rigging the election.