It might not seem that way to those of us who worry about how he can still control the Republican Party, but Donald Trump's political power may be more tenuous than it seems on the surface.
Trump's ability to control the party stems directly from his almost miraculous ability to dominate both the mainstream media coverage and social media chatter. Keeping his name in headlines through crazy antics and fascistic maneuvers helps keep him popular with the GOP base, who are motivated mainly, if not exclusively, by a desire to troll the liberals. Make no mistake: Trump is still widely hated and dreaded on the left, which is why he continues to be a near god-like figure with the more hardcore Republican voters. Modern conservativism isn't really about policy or even ideology, so much as it's about the bottomless insecurities of conservative white people and their need too soothe their fragile egos by dunking on liberals who they fear are laughing at them. Imposing this monster on the country was just a long act of revenge on the rest of America for failing to give them the respect and deference conservatives think they're owed.
Still Trump's main skill — trolling liberals — could also be his surprise weakness.
If Trump somehow loses his ability to outrage, terrify, or otherwise "trigger" liberals, then he loses all his value to the GOP base. They certainly don't love him because of his charm, after all. His own fans would often seem bored at his rallies, and only white-knuckled their way through out of a conviction that rallying around Trump was the best way to "own the libs." On that front, there are intriguing signs that Trump's Svengali-like control over the public discourse has been fading. As I noted last week, there's been a drastic decline in media mentions of Trump's name and, perhaps even more tellingly, a 91% drop-off in social media chatter about him. Getting banned from Twitter and Facebook has hurt Trump's ability to stir up attention by trolling. Even right-wing media shows signs of understanding that a Trumpism-without-Trump is possible, as long as they keep up a steady stream of B.S. stories about "cancel culture" and "replacement theory."
Another sign that things might not be going as great for TrumpWorld as Trump claims is the seemingly delayed kick-off to the rally schedule he promised.
On May 21, Trump's team successfully placed news stories across multiple outlets about these planned rallies, which Trump said they'll "be announcing them very soon over the next week or two." It has now been almost three weeks, and these announcements have yet to materialize. Instead, a series of events are being planned for December, and instead of rallies, they are "historical interviews" conducted by disgraced former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly.
The whole thing has a whiff of the same problem that drove Trump's "social media" fiasco. The former president promised he would soon be releasing a social media platform to compete with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, only to unveil, with great fanfare, what turned out to be a blog. The blog didn't make it an entire month before Trump self-canceled it, clearly embarrassed by how little traffic it was getting.
Part of Trump's problem is his own ego gets in the way of what his base loves about him, which is his trolling skills. The narcissistic injuries he suffered in the past year and a half — his utter failures on the COVID-19 pandemic (including contracting the disease himself) and his election loss — clearly obsess him to the point where he can't focus on the shiny new objects of right-wing grievance being offered up by Fox News and the like. He keeps demanding that the GOP and right-wing media focus their ire on Dr. Anthony Fauci, even though the public health official is likely to revert from celebrity status to being another nameless (but heroic!) bureaucrat before the year is out. His 85-minute speech at a North Carolina GOP function over the weekend was just a litany of the same lies he's been telling for months. Trump ended up getting more press interest over his ill-fitting pants than anything he said.
In light of all this, it's no wonder that Trump's team started to "leak" stories claiming that Trump believes he's going to be reinstated in August. He likely does not believe this, so much as he understands that pretending to be delusional was a good way to get a massive amount of media attention. As Alan Blotcky writes for Salon, "Trump is not detached from reality at all," but is simply floating "a conspiracy theory that he thinks has gained the most traction with his millions of supporters."
More importantly, doing so scared the crap out of liberals, for good reason. With the help of the likes of Mike Lindell and Michael Flynn, Trump is using this conspiracy theory as a vehicle to pump veiled but unsubtle violent threats into the discourse. The fear is that Trump and his cronies will use the fake audit in Arizona to reignite not just the Big Lie about the election being stolen, but all the right-wing outrage — and violence — that the Big Lie caused in January. Trump's lie may very well cause another riot or terrorist attack. But even if that doesn't happen, the mere threat of it certainly has focused media attention and caused that sweet, sweet liberal outrage that Trump thrives on.
Unfortunately, this new strategy of trolling for attention may work.
Trump's media coverage has soared since he first started "leaking" claims to believe he would be reinstated. When the fake Arizona audit inevitably declares, falsely, that Trump should have won the state, there will be another round of intense media attention, driven by completely legitimate fears that Trump's conspiracy theories are fueling violence and fascistic sentiment. No wonder Trump's people are eager to get fake audits going in as many states as possible. Each one creates an opportunity to push conspiracy theories about the election and raise the specter of more violence, grabbing the kind of media attention Trump is failing to get in any other way.
Of course, all of this illustrates the deep dangers of the situation. The fake audits and loony conspiracy theories may be reality TV-style stunts, designed to drive media attention and remind GOP voters of Trump's trolling skills, but by putting this nonsense out there, Trump is driving a very real fascist movement. It's one, as we saw on January 6, that is capable of very real violence. And as with "The Apprentice," where Trump made a fortune off merely pretending to be a successful businessman, there's a real fake-it-til-you-make-it quality with Trump's anti-democracy stunts. As the GOP loyalty to Trump after the insurrection shows, there's nothing Trump can do to lose the party — unless his name somehow starts slipping from headlines. So he will do anything and everything he can to make sure that doesn't happen, even if it means more violence.
Still, the fact that Trump shut down his blog and is desperately hyping conspiracy theories being fed to him by the MyPillow guy is a reminder that, while Trump's ability to get attention is truly outstanding, he is not invincible. He's now resorting to reality TV stunts because the blog-and-rally strategy doesn't seem to be working quite the way that his team thought it would. His obsession with relitigating the past is harming his ability to generate news hooks that keep him in the headlines. This new strategy of fake audits and stoking unhinged elements in his party is a sour reminder that he's unparalleled in his ability to get attention, if only because he's unconstrainted by basic morality.
He has a long three years ahead of him to keep finding ways to make himself the center of the conversation — and he's already resorting to unsubtle threats of violence. Trump 2024 is not inevitable, and progressives would be wise to find a way to balance taking the Trumpian danger seriously without giving into fears that there's nothing that can be done to stop him.