Trump Can’t Mask His True Self Behind a Think Tank

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It looked just like Fox News’ greenroom. The bathrooms were reminiscent of a CPAC VIP Backstage. Doubled the size of a donor summit, Starbucks ran was also doubled. This week’s phalanx, which included policy experts and politicos, gathered at the basement hotel near the White House. It had everything you would expect from a standard policy conference. However the presenter was a think tank that operates under former President Donald Trump. The bold speakers were still on the stage, and delivered their thoughts in such a calm, measured manner that you could almost hear the footnotes within the answers. In its own right, it was conventional.

Trump was the mainstay of his return as ex-President. As his ex-Cabinet, White House and campaign staff gathered around the walls of The Swamp’s subterranean ballroom, Trump, undisputed frontrunner for 2024, ate the grievances and gnawed at any threat to his path to the White House.

This was an unexpected rejoinder to what had happened in the days before. Trump made his passionate plea to Rick Perry (former Energy Secretary) about small-scale nukes to secure American bases. Kevin Hassett, the former Chair of Council of Economic Advisers, worked through possible amendments to the federal employment laws. Where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich backed current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pending trip to Taiwan, Trump pledged to execute drug dealers and build tent cities in rural America for the homeless. While Sen. Joni Ernst fought through Iran’s challenges, Trump chose to portray a grim picture of America he hopes to lead again.

This split-screen truth served as an illustration of how Trump is still out of his party’s grasp and the difficulties his party has in escaping his shadow.

After two days listening to Trump’s team make the case for a GOP 2022 renaissance, it’s easy to see why they are optimistic. According to polling, Democrats are crawling out of the trenches. Republicans appear to have the upper hand. There are still reasons to believe that Democrats can win, but none as powerful as Republican overreach or their ability to keep the country in its place. de facto leader’s hubris.

Republicans are more solid by most objective standards. Inflation is rising, but the economy remains strong. Although gas prices have fallen, they are still high. The consumer confidence has dropped and interest rates are currently higher. If elections are won—and lost—over kitchen-table issues, then Republicans can more or less sit back and let the macro forces do the heavy lifting.

Trump is determined to drag the apple cart in the tar pits. Trump, for instance, leaned in to an anti-transgender message during Tuesday’s keynote. “He’s named Alice,” Trump joshed about a transgender individual, drawing laughter from the crowd. He waded with a mean spirit into the culture wars in a major way, arguing he prefered Michael Jordan over LeBron James based on each’s tolerance for political engagement. The embedded message was one he held as President, that professional athletes should shut up and wear the uniform, leaving the policy talks to those who won votes and didn’t score points. Trump’s return to that rhetoric played well this week in a room that was overwhelmingly white.

Because Trump drives so much of the current Republican Party, it’s good odds that many candidates will follow his model and slide into this posture. A low-grade debate over parental rights helped Glenn Youngkin win the governorship in Virginia last year, with schools standing as proxy for suburban voters’ anxieties over losing control of a 1950s-style ideal. As they challenge Democratic control in Washington, scores of candidates are following this model. They hype crime fears and grime as well as fear of being sued by the police.

It was not about policy, but it was nominally. This whole thing landed right in the area where the IRS would like such a gathering to take place. Although there were many sins committed, none of them merited excommunication by the campaign-finance priests. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Gingrich were among the many Republican legislators at all levels who spoke of their hopes for an increase in GOP support this fall. However, they were cautious with their statements. Although all signs are pointing that direction, no one has yet to spike the ball.

Even people without speaking rights were well aware that the leader in their party might end up losing votes in the suburbs.

“We need to figure out if there’s support for the President. In the world we live in, it can be divisive to even say his name,” says Monica Newton, a 51-year-old physician from Gainesville, Ga. “Like most folks here, I focus on the policy, not the personality. And President Trump is a character.”

There’s no disputing that. Trump is “the star of the show,” as the think tank’s chief, Brooke Rollins, described him on Tuesday. The only question is whether he will headline the GOP’s next act or merely come through for a cameo. Given the GOP’s current script, the decision is in his hands, and no one else’s.

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