One of the most vexing qualities of Donald Trump's continued presence on the national political stage is the fact that while he remains a legitimate threat to the republic, his constant buffoonery makes it nearly impossible to take him seriously.
For instance, Trump sent out a statement this week, castigating reports about him devoting large amounts of time to concocting the perfect nickname for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
"They are all 100% wrong," he seethed. "I don't even think about it—A very unimportant subject to me!!!"
What's not to mock about such transparently juvenile digressions from a grown man?
And yet, Trump remains a front-runner—and perhaps THE front-runner—for the GOP nomination.
As former Obama aide and communications strategist Dan Pfeiffer noted in his “Message Box” Substack, Trump has hired some legitimate GOP operatives to guide his 2024 bid, instead of the ragtag group of hangers-on who ran his last two campaigns. That includes Chris LaCivita, who is perhaps best know for Swift Boating John Kerry to defeat in 2004.
So while Trump is making a mockery of himself, behind the scenes, some sort of actual strategy is taking shape.
Pfeiffer's Substack is paywalled, but the basic contours of Trump's strategy are visible. He is trying to outflank his rivals—chief among them, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—on the cruelty factor when it comes to issues such as transgender rights, education, and maybe even the death penalty.
As abhorrent as DeSantis' "Don't Say Gay" legislation is, for instance, Trump's aim is to entirely write transgender Americans out of existence—to simply erase them from the government books.
It goes way beyond the sick targeting of transgender youth in sports, bathrooms, and educational settings, as made clear in a Jan. 31 Trump 2024 campaign video. Trump proposed federal legislation stipulating that the "only genders recognized by the U.S. government are male and female and they are assigned at birth." Trump also promised an education plan that promotes traditional gender roles of mothers and fathers and celebrates the nuclear family. And he threatened legal action and/or potential loss of funding for any teachers, schools, doctors, or hospitals that promote or provide any type of gender-affirming care. It sounded frighteningly close to a nationwide re-education camp around gender ideology. Go ahead and give it a listen.
Trump's education platform—which includes some overlap with his war on trans Americans—was equally unhinged. He promised rampant funding cuts for any schools promoting critical race theory (CRT) or any other "inappropriate" racial or sexual content.
"Radical zealots and Marxists," he said, have "infiltrated" the Department of Education. "I will have them fired and escorted from the building," Trump pledged.
In essence, he’s promising a truly fascist federal takeover of schools nationwide, with lots of investigations, loss of livelihoods, loss of funding, and any other horrors he can visit upon educators, administrators, and librarians.
Yet ruining people's lives, reducing them to misery, driving many to suicide, and dumbing down the population—none of it is bloodthirsty enough for Trump. He's also reportedly got his eyes on restoring public executions—firing squads, hangings, maybe even guillotines. The cruelty is most definitely the point, and Trump has fantasized about going big, creating a flashy marketing campaign to roll out the new execution methods to a national audience. We likely won’t get any campaign announcements on this front, it’s more like a horror show in waiting if he is reelected.
DeSantis may have bolstered his MAGA brand using his bully pulpit in Florida, but no one's going to prove more sick and demented than Trump. After running far-right on several social issues, however, Trump plans to run left on fiscal policy, such as supporting Social Security and opposing the House GOP's national 30% sales tax.
It's actually not an unhinged strategy, from a GOP primary standpoint. Trump is hesitant to go hard right on abortion because he doesn't think it's a winning issue, particularly in a general election. But if he feeds the base enough red-meat on other social issues, while taking popular positions on issues like protecting Social Security and Medicare, the combination would provide Trump a way to separate himself from the GOP pack.
Of course, Trump will be Trump, and he will absolutely be going off-script and wreaking havoc on any half decent electoral plan. Still, Mitt Romney likely wasn't wrong this week when he suggested that Trump was "by far the most likely" candidate to become the GOP nominee.
In fact, Trump's advisers have a plan for that.