Nor was he the only one getting boos that night. The crowd also lustily jeered Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, one of Trump’s close allies, when he told them to move past the 2020 election (even while reiterating the false claim that it had been fraudulent).
At the rally, both Trump and Brooks were confronted with something Republican leaders have experienced — but never quite learned from — time and time again over the last 30 years: the more hard core and conspiratorial base of their movement can be leveraged for electoral gain, but they can never be contained or controlled. And no matter what loyalty elected leaders once commanded from this base, any politician who tries (once they’ve been unleashed) to restrain them or disabuse them of a conspiracy ultimately must tack even further right or risk being rendered irrelevant.
That reality has been a defining characteristic of the American right since the Reagan era. By the end of the 1980s, there was a fully-fledged conservative establishment in the US: a network of think tanks, politicians, donors and media personalities who wielded significant social and economic influence. The conservative wing of the GOP also finally wielded real political power: the presidency in the 1980s, Congress in the 1990s. That mattered, because it meant that the right was big enough to fight for power and had enough power to fight for.
This pattern of creating and then losing control of a monster was also on display with the tea party. Born in response to the election of President Barack Obama and the global financial crisis, the movement re-energized a flagging Republican Party, helping to secure a landslide in the 2010 midterm elections while also shifting it sharply right. Party leaders like Speaker John Boehner gleefully embraced their new majority, eager to use their victories as leverage in negotiations with Obama, as Gingrich had with Clinton. In his first week as Speaker, he warned them that they would have to shift tactics in office, saying, “Campaigning is different than governing.”
But the tea party caucus disagreed. Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, for example, lobbied for legislation requiring presidential candidates to release their long-form birth certificates, injecting the birther conspiracy (so relentlessly flogged by Trump) into Congress.
Trump took a different approach. Rather than trying to appeal to the party’s base, he sought to embody it. He could do this because, unlike Gingrich, Bush and Boehner, he was not part of the conservative establishment: he targeted it, presenting himself as an outsider at war not just with liberals and Democrats but with conservative and Republican leaders. There seemed to be no space between Trump and the more wild-eyed parts of the party’s base; in fact, he dragged the rest of the party to the base’s positions, commanding an unsettling and nearly universal loyalty for the party as he did.
Yet even that has proven not to be enough to contain the right-wing base of the party or lead it to compromise. Seldom has that base had to choose between Trump and their favorite conspiracies. But as the response at the rally showed, if forced to choose, a good portion of the base would abandon Trump.
That does not mean that Trump is suddenly on the outs. He has always been more of a political lemming than a political leader, scrambling to meet the party’s base where it’s at. His onstage modulation suggests that he will continue to do so, as will other Republican leaders eying the 2024 election. For all the talk of Trump transforming the Republican Party, what he mostly did was realize who was really in charge of it.