Analysts and strategists see his pivot toward the far right as an intentional strategy to recreate political momentum that the former president may be losing, with at least some polls showing him trailing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida for the Republican nomination in 2024.
But his Republican critics worry the move taints the party at a time when it needs to broaden its support. “It continues to damage the brand, especially with centrist and suburban voters,” said former Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida. “But it also makes it easier for Republican leaders to break away from him and start a new chapter.”
Mr. Trump has long flirted with the fringes of American society as no other modern president has, openly appealing to prejudice based on race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation, among others. He generated support for his 2016 presidential campaign by spreading the lie that President Barack Obama was secretly born outside the United States, then opened his candidacy by branding many Mexican immigrants rapists.
He vowed to ban all Muslims from entering the country and was slow to disavow support from David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. Most famously, he equivocated after the ultraright rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that turned bloody, denouncing neo-Nazis even as he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict.
But in the final days of his presidency, as he waged an all-fronts war to overturn the election he had lost, Mr. Trump increasingly was willing to entertain allies urging him to declare martial law while groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys mobilized to come to his aid.
In recent weeks, he has adopted QAnon themes, retweeting baseless conspiracy theories from a movement that believes he is a champion against a cabal of Satan-worshipping, pedophiliac elites. He has characterized those who attacked Congress to stop the transfer of power on Jan. 6 as patriots to whom he would likely grant clemency if elected again. “I mean full pardons with an apology to many,” he said in September.
“Trump’s inner orbit is keenly aware that he’s lost the excitement of 2016 and there’s a school of thought that ginning up the most die-hard part of his base is the key to bringing it back,” said Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as White House strategic communications director for Mr. Trump before breaking with him after the 2020 election. “The reality is, however, that means reaching out to fringe, racist elements that have traditionally been sidelined by the mainstream of the party.”