Donald Trump’s 2016 primary campaign was relatively breezy. He was a long shot out of the gates, unencumbered by expectations (beyond his own) or any commitment to policy positions beyond what conservative media outlets were hyperventilating about in the moment. He could position himself as an insider and an outsider, as a moderate and a conservative, as whatever made sense at the moment to the audience he was in front of. He was “Amazing Race”-ing his way to the nomination, using whatever vehicle seemed most efficient at the time.
His 2020 campaign was easier. Now the Republican Party chartered him a direct flight to his destination, scrambling F-16s to escort him safely to renomination. Trump had a record — one constructed to appeal to the GOP base — but he was the incumbent Republican, so it didn’t really matter where he stood. He was their guy.
But now we come to 2024. For the first time in eight years, Trump is forced to prostrate himself before his party, seeking its approval. And for the first time, his actions and comments can’t simply be brushed off as the temporary whims of an apolitical businessman. He is not a blank slate onto which Republicans can project any sort of candidate they want. He’s Trump, perhaps the most clearly defined politician in American history.
That may prove to be quite unhelpful.
Consider Trump’s nascent fight against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a candidate for the nomination in every way besides having made a formal announcement. DeSantis has been in politics for a while, but his political identity is largely centered around the decisions he has made during his most recent three years as governor. This is mostly because DeSantis has been forceful about crafting a political persona over that period, staking out increasingly right-wing positions in an effort to bolster his appeal to conservative media and, by extension, Republican primary voters. And it’s working; the primary contest at this point is Trump, DeSantis and everyone else.
The advantage DeSantis enjoys, as I wrote in December, is that he gets to both capture headlines on right-wing culture war fights by leveraging his power as governor and to do so in the current political context. Trump can post on Truth Social about whatever “Fox & Friends” is spun up about, but DeSantis can hold a news event and announce legislation aimed at combating “wokeness,” or whatever. DeSantis is defining himself in real-time as the primaries approach, while Trump is often forced to play catch-up.
A good example is the right’s increasingly toxic effort to marginalize transgender people. This was not an issue that Trump focused on in the 2016 primary campaign, since it was not really an issue that conservative media was highlighting. A law signed in North Carolina mandated the use of bathrooms based on gender at birth, prompting a quick, loud outcry, including from businesses pledging to leave the state.
Asked about it on NBC’s “Today” show, Trump shrugged.
“There have been very few complaints the way it is,” he said. “People go. They use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble.” Asked if he would let Caitlyn Jenner use her preferred bathroom at Trump Tower, he said sure. And that was that.
As the 2016 campaign unfolded, Trump even tried to use the rights of LGBTQ people as a wedge against Hillary Clinton. After the mass killing at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Trump tried to position Clinton’s approach to national security as allowing terrorists to target gay people.
“Ask yourself,” he said in a speech in New Hampshire that June: “who is really the friend of women and the LGBT community, Donald Trump with his actions, or Hillary Clinton with her words?”
Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 14, 2016
His allies suggested that Trump was different from other Republicans, a cosmopolitan New Yorker who at worst was indifferent to LGBTQ Americans. Soon after he took office, in fact, his administration released a statement pledging to uphold the Obama administration’s approach to LGBTQ people.
“The President is proud to have been the first ever GOP nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression,” the January 2017 statement read. “The executive order signed in 2014, which protects employees from anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination while working for federal contractors, will remain intact at the direction of President Donald J. Trump.”
Less than a month later, though, the Trump administration rescinded a policy allowing students to use school bathrooms that comported with their gender identity. That July, he announced on Twitter that he was reversing an Obama-era policy allowing openly transgender people to serve. He continued to position himself as a champion of the LGBTQ community, including as the 2020 election neared. In part, this was an effort to be everything to everyone once again, and in part to give cover to Republicans who wanted to see him as more moderate on social issues.
Since the 2020 election, though, the GOP has moved much further right on transgender issues. Hundreds of bills have been introduced in the past two years that would curtail efforts to transition, among other things. Extremist groups such as the Proud Boys are joining the push to demonize drag performances. The politics have changed — with DeSantis eagerly working to shape those politics. This month, he moved to revoke the Orlando Philharmonic’s liquor license because it hosted a drag performance.
Trump is trying to catch up. Among his critiques of former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley after she announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination this week, he wrote that she “Did Not Support a Transgender Bathroom Bill to Protect Children.” The attack linked to a Washington Post story about Haley’s decision — one dated two weeks before his “Today” show appearance in 2016, in which he, too, opposed such laws.
That’s his problem in the moment. To the extent that his supporters or Republican primary voters care about his being accurate or consistent — which is not well-demonstrated, certainly — Trump 2024 can be compared unfavorably to Trump 2016 or Trump 2020. DeSantis can attack Trump for endorsing business closures during the pandemic, something DeSantis also did but which has effectively subjugated to his aggressive anti-shutdown politics. Trump now has a record, and it doesn’t always match up well with the party’s current fervors.
Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe DeSantis’s breathless efforts to wring approval from viral tweets will backfire, painting him into a corner that has suddenly become unpopular. Maybe Trump will simply brawl his way back to the nomination, attacking DeSantis, Haley and other competitors as dishonestly as he attacked his 2016 foes.
But it’s clear that he’s lost one key advantage he enjoyed in 2016. Then, he was the outsider who might just be exactly what Republican voters were looking for. Now a lot of them know whether he actually was.