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  • The Daily Knight

Trump’s Strength Is Strength

The Daily Knight

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a 2024 election campaign rally in Waco, Texas, March 25, 2023.(Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)

One of Trump’s advantages in the 2016 primaries was that, as the leader in the polls, he always stood dead center in the debate stage, taller, more vivid, and more commanding than the other candidates.

There haven’t been any 2024 debates yet, but he has never relinquished that position.

It almost didn’t matter what Trump said or did on stage, because the way he acted and looked projected strength — there’s a reason the old pros, like the late Roger Ailes and Trump himself, watch TV with the sound off to get a true sense of the impression being made.

If Trump wins the nomination next year, it will be partly because Republicans are once again drawn to what they consider his distinctive and unmatched sense of personal power.

Trump’s is an odd and obviously very flawed kind of strength. For him, it’s a quality that is consistent with whining, insecurity, defensiveness, and a refusal to take responsibility — all of which usually lead us to conclude someone is weak.

Trump makes up for it with what Michael Brendan Dougherty calls “willfulness,” a deep-seated, near-primal drive to impose what he wants, whether on a political narrative, a negotiation, a set of rules, or, over the last few weeks, a potential prosecution.

Trump’s reaction to the Alvin Bragg case has been a typical storm of fists that hasn’t been honest, responsible, or worthy of a former president of the United States, or, for that matter, a medium-sized town’s first selectman.

He threw a hand grenade over the parapet last weekend about his pending Tuesday arrest, to drive attention, heighten emotions, and put Bragg on the defensive. His information wasn’t accurate, but he was just softening the ground up. He kept making his case with hyperbole, threats, exaggerated legal arguments, and every favorable video clip or link that he could find.

The goal: to get Bragg to conclude that he was in for much more than he bargained for, and simply give up.

Does this signal strength on Trump’s part or desperation not to get indicted? Clearly, the latter, but the fact that he won’t take a lawyer’s advice, abide by anyone else’s rules, or give the other side the slightest deference or respect comes off as strength for many Republicans. The more he says things he shouldn’t, by this logic, the stronger he seems.

Trump is treating Ron DeSantis like a Republican equivalent of Alvin Bragg. His case against the governor isn’t coherent, but it’s the sheer aggression, not the cogency, that matters.

One way that Trump hopes to out-MAGA DeSantis is to appear stronger by all the usual Trump metrics — always being on offensive, never being abashed about his own contradictions or mistakes or weaknesses, making himself the constant focus of attention, and overall just being a bigger personality.

Trump has been helped for years now by the fear that other Republicans have of him, broadcasting their weakness and underlining his dominance. A version of this dynamic has played out in his competition with DeSantis. Trump is attacking heedlessly, and DeSantis is deflecting strategically; Trump gets to say whatever he wants, while DeSantis thinks about every word.

Of course, Trump’s is, to a large extent, a faux strength. There’s a place for discipline, selflessness, and knowledge in true strength. It also will avail Republicans little if Trump projects his characteristic showy and outrageous strength in the course of winning the primaries and then loses the general election — or wins, only to govern in an even more shambolic fashion than the first time around.

There’s a lot that DeSantis or another candidate has to work with here, but no one else is becoming the nominee unless at the end of the day Donald Trump is no longer the biggest person in the room.