Donald Trump had been losing ground with the Republican base over the past couple months of polling. His main GOP rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, had seemed to beat Trump at his own game on wooing the diehard anti-vaxxer contingent of a voting bloc that was once the wholly owned subsidiary of Trump. And most of Trump's external communiqués, however outrageous, seemed to cycle in and out of the social media sphere with the rhythmic ease of the tide.
Trump has undoubtedly been a disruptive force for GOP strategists working on the midterm elections. But from a rhetorical standpoint, his interjections on the national stage were becoming routine. Trump was starting to seem less like the driving force behind the MAGA movement than a bit player predictably throwing stones at his political enemies from the cheap seats.
Then over the weekend, Trump took the stage in Conroe, Texas, and promised to pardon the insurrectionists if he’s reelected in 2024, declared the Black prosecutors investigating him "racist," and called for national protests if he is ultimately indicted for breaking the nation’s laws.
“We will treat them fairly,” Trump said of Jan. 6 attackers, some of whom have been charged with seditious conspiracy. "And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons."
The next day, Trump issued a statement making it crystal clear that had wanted to steal the 2020 election out from under Joe Biden—its rightful winner.
Referencing lawmakers' efforts to reform the Electoral Count Act, Trump offered, "Actually, what they are saying, is that Mike Pence did have the right to change the outcome, and they now want to take that right away. Unfortunately, he didn't exercise that power, he could have overturned the Election!" Trump wrote.
Finally, a Trump statement that really broke through—him admitting that he was rooting for the coup. Yes, dammit, I wanted the coup, I'll pardon the insurrectionists, and there better be hell to pay in the streets of America if I am held accountable by law enforcement for absolutely anything at all.
Trump is now acting like someone who is running in a primary. The man who was starting to upstage him, DeSantis, is fighting the same culture war that Trump is, as the crew on Pod Save America noted this week. But he has mainly been fighting it on the grounds of COVID-19 and parental control over schools.
Trump needed to make the fight bigger than COVID-19, particularly because his vaccine boosterism wasn't exactly sitting well with the base. Sure, DeSantis is fighting for the right of Trumpers to spread the pandemic as liberally as possible if they so choose, but Trump is fighting for their right to take control of the country by any means possible. Trump is fighting for their right to overwhelm the system and install their preferred ruler no matter what other voters say. Trump is promising to put them in the driver’s seat and hand out pardons if they violate the law en route to forcing their will on America.
In interviews and statements, Trump has since doubled down on what any normal politician in normal times would have considered a series of giant gaffes, not to mention treasonous gaffes.
"I would absolutely give them a pardon if things don’t work out fairly," Trump reiterated on Newsmax Tuesday.
This is where Trump wants to be—reclaiming the mantle of his cultists in a battle for total dominance of the Republican Party. The rise of DeSantis seems to have focused his mind. Trying to purge the Liz Cheneys of the party and oust Mitch McConnell from his Senate leadership post had been a kind of side hustle. But the main event is reclaiming his hold over the MAGA base—the linchpin to his dominance of the party. Without the undying love and devotion of those who have committed themselves to Trumpism, Trump is nothing.