With the primary season officially over, conventional wisdom suggests that Republican candidates should now be pretending to pivot to the political center to pick up the less-Trumpy conservative voters that they need to win in November, especially in swing states. Some, like GOP Senate hopeful Don Bolduc, of New Hampshire, seem to have fallen in line. “I have come to the conclusion—and I want to be definitive on this—the election was not stolen,” Bolduc told Granite State voters last week, two days after winning his primary.
At first glance, this was a pretty radical shift for Bolduc, who has insisted during the last two years that the 2020 election was stolen, in between accusing Bill Gates of microchipping vaccine recipients and calling New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer.” But, just one month before the Fox appearance in which Bolduc appeared to change his tune on the validity of the 2020 election, he stated that he stood by his original position: that “the election had fraud … and I concurred with President [Donald] Trump's assessment of it. And I do not change my mind on that.” It doesn’t add up to a very convincing pivot to mainstream, democratic values—but it does add to mounting evidence that the Republican Party is getting even more extreme.
There are a few reasons why. Trump still looms large in the party and he still demands absolute fealty. Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott in Texas are rewarded with media coverage for their dehumanizing stunts involving immigrants; for better or worse, DeSantis’s expulsion of (mostly) Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last week has dominated the news cycle since.
But Republicans, as a party, aren’t the only ones getting worse. After spending much of his summer neglecting to return classified documents, Truthing (that’s like tweeting on Truth Social) content to and from QAnon accounts, and playing golf, it seems that Trump himself is getting more unhinged—a terrifying statement to have to type.
When Trump held a rally in Ohio last weekend, it was theoretically to support his chosen Senate candidate, J. D. Vance. But Vance presumably didn’t have the chance to decline, because he reportedly didn’t invite Trump. According to The New York Times, “aides to the former president simply informed the Senate [campaign] that he was coming.” And when Trump showed up, he assured the crowd, “J. D. is kissing my ass, he wants my support so bad.” He then added, “The entire MAGA movement is for J. D. Vance.”
Trump also appeared to be leaning into his recent persona as a late QAnon adopter. As Tom Nichols wrote in the Daily earlier this week, “Trump recently shared images of himself wearing a Q pin, and the Ohio rally seemed to meld a QAnon event with an evangelical meeting.” During the rally, Trump played a song called “Mirrors” that, as The New York Times pointed out, sounded a whole lot like the QAnon theme song. Some of the crowd seemed to acknowledge the tribute, raising their hands in a one-fingered salute.
If Trump is—as he seems to be—going full QAnon, the question is: Why?
His past holds at least a few clues. If you look at Trump’s political career since 2015, you can see that he’s never turned down a group of potential fans, no matter how radicalized or unpopular they may be. If you say nice things about Trump or support him, the record shows that he’ll support you right back. During a 2020 presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he disavowed far-right militias and white-nationalist groups like the Proud Boys. Instead of condemning the group, Trump embraced them, saying, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by!” Trump can’t bear to turn down an adoring audience, and his standards are low. Even Vladimir Putin gets a pass.
Trump is never, ever playing three-dimensional chess; he’s always just sticking pieces up his nose to see how they’ll taste. So maybe the better question is, why has it taken Trump so long to endorse QAnon? Perhaps the same could be said for the Republican Party, which has never been able to quit Trump despite an armed insurrection and his continual assault on democracy and democratic norms. Both Trump and the Republican Party appear unable or unwilling to reject radicalization of any kind. Time will tell whether this will hurt their political prospects, but it’s terrible for everyone else.