Why Trump Can’t Mask His True Self Behind a Mainstream Think Tank

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The hallways looked like a Fox News greenroom, the bathrooms resembled a VIP backstage at CPAC. The Starbucks run doubled as a donor summit. The phalanx of politicos and policy wonks assembled at the basement of a hotel not far from the White House this week had all the markings of your standard-issue policy confab, except that the host was the think tank operating under the auspices of former President Donald Trump. Even the bold-faced speakers on stage were keeping up the bit, delivering their ideas at such a soothing, level cadence, you could practically hear the footnotes embedded in the answers. It was, in its own way, conventional.

But then came the headliner, Trump himself, in his first trip back as an ex-President. And while much of his former Cabinet, White House staff, and nascent campaign staff stood along the walls of the subterranean ballroom deep below The Swamp itself, the undisputed 2024 frontrunner nursed the wounds of his 2020 loss, fed the grievances of his congregants of The Big Lie, and gnashed at any threats to his glide path back to the White House.

It was a jarring rejoinder to the two days that preceded it. Where former Energy Secretary Rick Perry made a credibly impassioned plea about small-scale nuclear plants to secure American military bases and former Council of Economic Advisers Chair Kevin Hassett ticked through potential changes to federal employment law, Trump came crashing in. Where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich backed current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pending trip to Taiwan, Trump pledged to execute drug dealers and build tent cities in rural America for the homeless. And while Sen. Joni Ernst ticked through the challenges of Iran, Trump instead opted to paint a dystopian picture of the country he wants to again lead.

It was a split-screen reality that serves as a reminder of just how out of place Trump remains in his party, and how his party cannot quite seem to figure out how to escape his shadow.

After two days listening to Trump’s team make the case for a GOP 2022 renaissance, it’s easy to see why they are optimistic. Polling shows Democrats crawling through trenches of weakness. Republicans, meanwhile, are seemingly anointed victorious. Yet, there are reasons for Democrats to hold onto hope, and none is as strong as Republican overreach and their de facto leader’s hubris.

By most objective measures, Republicans have firmer ground. The economy is strong but inflation is spiraling. Gas prices are coming down but still perniciously high. Consumer confidence is flagging, interest rates just today inched higher. If elections are won—and lost—over kitchen-table issues, then Republicans can more or less sit back and let the macro forces do the heavy lifting.

Yet, Trump seems intent on driving the apple cart into the tar pits. For instance, Trump himself leaned into an aggressively anti-transgender messaging during his keynote on Tuesday. “He’s named Alice,” Trump joshed about a transgender individual, drawing laughter from the crowd. He waded with a mean spirit into the culture wars in a major way, arguing he prefered Michael Jordan over LeBron James based on each’s tolerance for political engagement. The embedded message was one he held as President, that professional athletes should shut up and wear the uniform, leaving the policy talks to those who won votes and didn’t score points. Trump’s return to that rhetoric played well this week in a room that was overwhelmingly white.

Because Trump drives so much of the current Republican Party, it’s good odds that many candidates will follow his model and slide into this posture. A low-grade debate over parental rights helped Glenn Youngkin win the governorship in Virginia last year, with schools standing as proxy for suburban voters’ anxieties over losing control of a 1950s-style ideal. Scores of candidates from coast to coast are following that model, hyping fears of crime and grime alike as they run against Democratic control of Washington.

Nominally, the summit was about policy. The whole affair landed squarely in the sweet spot where the IRS would prefer such a confab exists. While there were plenty of sins, none was worthy of an excommunication from the campaign-finance bishops. While House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Gingrich, and dozens of Republican lawmakers at all levels described their hopes for a GOP spike this fall, they were careful with their words. All signs point that way, but no one is spiking the football just yet.

Even those without speaking slots were aware of the double-edged sword that the leader of their party could end up costing Republicans votes in the in-play suburbs.

“We need to figure out if there’s support for the President. In the world we live in, it can be divisive to even say his name,” says Monica Newton, a 51-year-old physician from Gainesville, Ga. “Like most folks here, I focus on the policy, not the personality. And President Trump is a character.”

There’s no disputing that. Trump is “the star of the show,” as the think tank’s chief, Brooke Rollins, described him on Tuesday. The only question is whether he will headline the GOP’s next act or merely come through for a cameo. Given the GOP’s current script, the decision is in his hands, and no one else’s.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com