Trump will always be Trump

It was right at 9 p.m. eastern time, when I heard Kellyanne Conway on Fox News previewing Donald Trump’s victory speech in the New Hampshire primary, that I knew we were in for it. She said, “I think Trump will be gracious, . . . he’s been incredibly gracious to Ron DeSantis,” and at that moment the thought simply appeared in my brain as if there was no other possible answer: “Okay, so now he’s going to come out vomiting bile all over the front row.” Why? Because I’ve lived too long and seen too much when it comes to Trump: He’s the world’s greatest rug-puller, subverting expectations like Rian Johnson on a spree. He lives to sandbag those who attempt to speak for him in advance by blurting out some intemperate and highly public nonsense — and usually almost immediately, because when you orbit Trump’s professional or political sphere, karma usually gets you instantly. He is a chaos agent.

Minutes later I was proven correct as Trump, forever calling audibles only in his own head, went out and delivered what was a victory speech in name only and, more accurately, a protracted fulmination about the audacity of Nikki Haley, who dares to persist in her campaign against him. (Sample: “Who the hell was the imposter that went up on the stage before and, like, claimed a victory? She did very poorly, actually.”) It was a completely unfocused rant that said nothing about Biden or the 2024 election but focused exclusively on Haley’s refusal to drop out. Trump talked trash about her outfit (!) and then later hinted darkly that she would be under investigation if she ever overtook him. It was so tonally inappropriate and bizarre that only someone with Trump’s long history of similar speeches could have made it feel predictable — imagine a 20-minute-long hip-hop diss track during which Trump hands the mic off to DJ Vivvy Viv midway through for “one minute or less” of crowd-hyping. (Folks, it was a weird scene.)

It was hard to say who came away worse: Trump (who, after all, started from the position of having no discernible shame and few virtues left to lose) or poor South Carolina senator Tim Scott. After having terminated his own unimpressive campaign a month ago, Scott recently endorsed Trump over Haley, the governor who had appointed him to South Carolina’s open senate seat a decade ago. Some affect to be deeply offended by this, but for me it is just a predictable tacking to Trumpian political winds, however objectively cowardly. Trump is not going to forgive those who didn’t endorse him in a timely fashion, so you can choose your career or your political loyalty to a transparently lost cause. (Are you at all surprised that the vast majority of professional politicians choose option A?)

But, of course, Donald Trump is also going to humiliate you every chance he can get once you’ve bent the knee to him. So, enraged as he was at Haley’s defiance and her preempting of his speech, he attacked her and gelded Scott simultaneously in a two-for-one deal. After positioning Scott onstage prominently behind him and inviting him to speak briefly (sending a clear message that “South Carolina is not up for grabs” — fair enough, as far as political theatrics go), he then riffed on how hilarious it was that Scott had betrayed Haley. “Did you ever think that she actually appointed you, Tim? And think of it — you’re the senator from her state, and you endorsed me! You must really hate her.” Scott’s response to this was to nervously laugh and say, “I just love you!”

It was an utterly humiliating moment for Scott, who had the spotlight shone on his abandonment of his onetime ally and was forced into the role of laughing, smiling bootlicker in order to change the subject. And it’s nothing new for Trump. Rather, it’s the sort of public dominance ritual he notoriously seeks to engage in with all in his circle. He has no allies, only servile retainers. (Trump’s fanatics, especially the Extremely Online ones, notice this well and openly thrill to it; suburban women amenable to voting Republican, on the other hand, react to it like arsenic. Which is the larger voting demographic?)

What comes across the most in Trump’s churlish speech — and get used to this style, you’ll be hearing more of it during the general election from him and his online minions — is his personal outrage over Haley’s refusal to drop out. He is angry about what it represents: An entire segment of the Republican Party is now, during his third go-round, fundamentally unreconcilable to him. There aren’t enough votes out there for him to survive the loss of the slice of the GOP electorate that Haley’s vote share represents — a minority now, for sure, but a determinative one. And yet he cannot control his worst instincts, for outbursts like these are the worst possible way to win them over. They will not merely fall in line once threatened with four more years of Joe Biden and/or Kamala Harris. Negative polarization only goes so far.

Trump didn’t romp in New Hampshire, but he still won handily.

It’s unprecedented in the modern era for a Republican candidate in a contested nomination battle to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Republican primary voters not only are on the Trump train, they’ve bought first-class tickets and expect an on-time arrival.

Like Ron DeSantis before her, Haley has now finished second in her most promising state. She had the endorsement of the popular sitting governor, Chris Sununu, who campaigned tirelessly for her, while New Hampshire’s relatively moderate electorate, with a large bloc of independents routinely participating in the GOP primary, made for ideal terrain for her. She won 60 percent of independents and only 25 percent of Republicans. That was enough to get within about eleven points of Trump in New Hampshire but not enough to win there; nor, if the pattern holds, will it be enough to win anywhere else.

That said, it is not an act of partisan treason, as some are suggesting, for Haley to court and win independents. Trump won them in 2016, without any MAGA figures suggesting that it was wrong of him to do so.

Haley has pledged to fight on, but she is trailing badly in South Carolina and will face an intense pressure campaign to drop out.

If there were any doubt what Republicans are really signing up for with Trump, he removed it with his unhinged victory speech where he couldn’t control his anger at Haley for giving an upbeat speech earlier in the night pledging to carry on. Trump kept obsessively coming back to her speech. And he mocked Governor Sununu and described himself as bent on revenge — on a night when he won New Hampshire with more than 50 percent.

As if he hadn’t done enough to remind swing voters what they most dislike about him, he claimed to have won New Hampshire in the 2020 general election. (To make the spectacle more preposterous, veep hopefuls Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott were there on stage, happy to let Trump play them like puppets on a string.)

The Democrats want Trump as their opponent in the belief that they can salvage Joe Biden’s prospects by making the race all about Trump, and last night showed, once again, that they are making a sensible, if cynical, calculation. That independents turned out in such large numbers to cast votes in the Republican primary simply to protest Trump was an early indication of how he could lose the middle in November.

Republican voters could have avoided giving Democrats what they wanted, but instead are putting all their chips on their riskiest electoral bet.

We are all agreed — empirical evidence suggests that the current Republican primary electorate is in love with Trump and cannot be made to stop loving him. But here is the reverse of the medal: You can never make those in your own coalition who hate Trump love him, either, and as last night’s victory speech demonstrated, demands for a completely unreciprocated loyalty will fall on the pitilessly deaf ears of those he has already repelled. He cannot win them. Because Trump forever remains, undisguisably, who he is.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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