Why Trump’s dictator remarks are working for him

Republicans are mostly shrugging off President Trump’s comments about being a dictator for a day if he wins reelection to a second term.

Trump, who doubled down on his dictator comments over the weekend, has faced sparse pushback from others in the GOP and in most cases has seen Republican lawmakers and allies rally to his defense and brush off the comments as yet another manufactured media storyline.

The reaction underscores Trump’s enduring power in the party and serves as the latest example of how legal woes and incendiary rhetoric have done little to damage his standing with GOP voters.

One former Trump White House official told The Hill the reaction to the former president’s remarks “plays into his hands,” arguing obsessive media coverage and outrage among Democrats and Trump critics only serves to reinforce the “us against them” narrative Trump has pushed for years. 

Trump initially set off a furor last week when he told Fox News host Sean Hannity at an Iowa town hall that he did not plan to be a dictator if reelected, “except for day one.”

“He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said, no, no, no — other than day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator,” Trump added, drawing applause from the crowd.

As if to underscore that he relished the media’s reaction to his comments, Trump at a weekend gathering of conservatives in New York singled out a New York Times piece that outlined how the former president and his allies had leaned into concerns that he would rule as an authoritarian rather than try to dispel them.

“[Peter] Baker today in The New York Times said that I wanna be a dictator. I didn’t say that. I said I wanna be a dictator for one day,” Trump said at the Saturday event. “You know why I wanted to be a dictator? Because I want a wall. Right? I want a wall, and I wanna drill, drill, drill.”

The crowd again responded with applause and chants of “Build the wall.”

If the response from Trump supporters to his comments was applause, the response from other Republicans has largely been a shrug.

Trump’s original comment was only directly mentioned once at a GOP primary debate held the next night, and the only candidate on stage to address it was former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is an outspoken critic of the former president.

“Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history, and that’s why failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim empowers him,” Christie said, admonishing his three rivals on stage. “You want to know why those poll numbers are where they are? Because folks like these three guys on the stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”

Others in the party have dismissed the alarm over Trump’s rhetoric.

Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio), a Trump ally, told CNN’s “State of the Union” he had no concerns that Trump might try and abuse power if he’s back in the White House.

“The idea that Trump is going to be radically different than what he was four years ago is just preposterous,” Vance said. “He was an effective, successful president. I think he will be an effective, successful president again. That’s why I have endorsed him.”

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was ousted as Speaker in October in part by a small group of Trump allies, similarly downplayed the prospect of a Trump presidency with a dictatorial bent and even suggested he’d be willing to serve in Trump’s Cabinet.

“What President Trump needs to do in this campaign, it needs to be about rebuilding, restoring, renewing America. It can’t be about revenge,” McCarthy told CBS News in an interview that aired Sunday.

“America doesn’t want to see the idea of retribution,” he added.

GOP primary voters have stood by Trump even as his legal woes mounted and as he faced backlash for inflammatory comments, such as calling his political opponents “vermin,” a comment that drew comparisons to dictators from the 1930s.

Initial polling suggested Trump faced little harm for his dictator comment to Hannity. A Reuters poll conducted Dec. 5-11 showed the former president leading his next closest opponent in the primary by 50 percentage points, and a Morning Consult poll conducted Dec. 8-10 showed Trump ahead by 54 percentage points.

By comparison, President Biden and Democrats have sounded the alarm over Trump’s remarks, arguing it is the latest example of the former president openly announcing what his intentions are if he regains power.

Biden has at recent fundraisers repeatedly described Trump as an imminent threat to American democracy who must be defeated at the ballot box next November.

Biden has cited Trump’s past comments about terminating the Constitution, his description of his political enemies as “vermin” and his vow to his supporters that “I am your retribution.” 

Trump has also suggested it would be fair game to investigate Biden and his family because of the Justice Department charges against the former president. He has pledged to implement an expanded travel ban, and he has repeatedly floated the idea of punishing media outlets such as MSNBC.

The Democratic National Committee campaign this week made clear how it views Trump’s weekend remarks, issuing a four-word statement: “Obviously, he’s not joking.”

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