As Americans reflect on the grisly anniversary of Jan. 6, many will spend the time thinking that the worst outcome for American democracy could be an imminent return of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' On student loans, Biden doesn't have an answer yet Grill company apologizes after sending meatloaf recipe on same day of rock star's death MORE to power. The view is rooted in an understandable assumption: that to embolden Trump now would be to give renewed vitality to extremists like the ones who fomented the attack at the U.S. Capitol one year ago.
While there’s little doubt that a Trump White House 2.0 would be a worrying outcome for U.S. politics, it’s far from the worst possibility that the country could be facing. What’s more disconcerting than a Trump comeback that emboldens the far right in America? A far right in America that, at this moment, is so self-confident that it no longer needs emboldening.
From 2016 to 2020, Trump’s most artful political feat was enforcing compliance to an agenda that went to the extremes: calling the press the “enemy of the people”; insisting on “locking up” political opponents; claiming unchecked executive power; challenging the legitimacy of U.S. elections; and instigating violence at the seat of American democracy. By saying and doing the unthinkable, Trump energized and activated his supporters.
But here’s the reality today: Trump was perhaps more successful than even he anticipated in radicalizing the MAGAverse. With or without Trump, parts of the GOP base have actually eclipsed Trump in their extremist tendencies. In fact, here’s the once-improbable truth: To a nontrivial chunk of Republican voters, some of Trump’s messaging now looks increasingly tempered, increasingly moderate, increasingly stale — in short, increasingly intolerable.
Case in point: During an interview over the holidays, Donald Trump stirred a media frenzy by committing a cardinal sin for a politician on the right. “Yes” – in response to a question about whether he got the COVID-19 booster – was all Trump needed to say to start the mutiny. Audience members booed. Alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told his followers to “move on” from the former president. Conservative media personality Candace Owens dismissed Trump as “old.” Rightwing radio host Wayne Allyn Root demanded “an intervention” for Trump. For a leader with a supposedly unshakable base of support, the swift and unequivocal recoil was notable.
It’s far from just COVID-19.
Even as he impelled his party to the ideological poles, a significant slice of the GOP electorate is arguably now further to the right of Trump on plenty of policies: immigration, race relations, guns, the environment and criminal justice, among others. More disturbingly, at least some parts of the GOP base wish Trump would go much harder in defending organizations like the Proud Boys, pushing fringe QAnon conspiracy theories and fighting to usurp power from President Biden.
Even on Trump’s defining issue – the “Big Lie” – some voters actually want more from their man. Conservative commentator David A. French, for example, recently predicted that some Republican voters might turn away from Trump “not because he went too far (i.e. Jan. 6 and the election lie) but because he doesn’t go far enough.” It's no coincidence that, according to recent Washington Post poll, 40 percent of Republicans now think violence against the government is legitimate.
Trump was a novelty to his voters in 2016 when the reference point was Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPut partisan politics aside — The Child Tax Credit must be renewed immediately Trump remembers former 'Apprentice' contestant Meat Loaf: 'Great guy' Rock legend, actor Meat Loaf dies at 74 MORE and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Redistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race MORE. But thanks to Trump opening the door to the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.), who endorsed a “bullet to the head” of House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMan who threatened to kill Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi pleads guilty to federal charges The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia MORE (D-Calif.), Rep. Lauren BoebertLauren BoebertMask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House Boebert asked Jewish visitors to Capitol if they were doing 'reconnaissance': report GOP Reps. Greene, Clyde accrue nearly 0K in combined mask fines MORE (R-Colo.), who labeled Jan. 6th the country’s “1776 moment,”and many others, Trump supporters can get their fix elsewhere. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently observed, “It’s as if the Trump base felt some security when their man was at the top, and that’s now gone. Maybe Trump was the restraining force.”
Maybe the biggest misconception about Trump’s base is that it is beholden to Trump — full stop. As former West Virginia GOP leader Gary Abernathy observed, many political observers seem to “operat[e] under the delusion that Trump’s base is composed of sheep who will follow their leader’s every command.” The reality: “Trump’s supporters love him not because he’s their Svengali, but because he thinks like they do.” And when he doesn’t, they let him know.
That MAGA voters are now so quick to jump on Trump when he strays from their preferred views should be both comforting and worrying for Americans concerned about the country’s already fragile political state: comforting because, even as Biden’s poll numbers continue to fall, perhaps Trump’s loyalty on the right isn’t as solid as is often believed; worrying because, if Trump doesn’t go far enough for the Republican base, the question inexorably becomes, “What would be far enough?”