Trump, on the Trump intensity gap

TRUMP, ON THE TRUMP INTENSITY GAP. I have a story on the website about a recent visit to Mar-a-Lago for a conversation with former President Donald Trump. (You can read the whole thing here.) At any given moment, there are lots of subjects in the news one could ask Trump about, but I decided to focus on a longer-term story — how he managed to come back from the disastrous end of his presidency in early 2021 to become the 2024 Republican Party presidential nominee. It’s really a story about the intensity gap between Trump’s supporters and everybody else.

Remember that after Trump left office on Jan. 20, 2021, he was still awaiting a Senate impeachment trial (his second), Washington was reeling after a series of failed election challenges and Jan. 6, he was facing all sorts of investigations, and much of the political world had written him off for dead, “rebuked by many in his own party and exiled at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago,” in the words of a recent New York Times story. 

But Trump saw, and felt, something completely different. Here’s the short version of what he told me during our conversation in Florida: He never felt politically dead. He knew he could run again. He was already planning it when he returned to Mar-a-Lago. He knew he had the support to do it because he could feel the emotional engagement of his voters.

“I feel the crowd, and I feel a love,” Trump said. “I never felt that [I was finished politically]. Just never felt it.”

Over and over during our talk, Trump said he “felt” a strong level of support even though Washington opinion influencers counted him out. Yes, he commissioned some polling that, he said, “showed there was a tremendous thirst for what I was saying.” But he relied, to an enormous extent, on his own instincts to believe that he could come back. “I felt I had [emotional support],” Trump said. “I didn’t see it in the fake news, but I felt I had it. I felt I never lost it. I felt I could have run for office the week after Jan. 6 and done just as well.”

What Trump was feeling was an intensity gap. In the Republican primary race, more GOP voters were emotionally committed to him than to any GOP challenger. And now, in a general election matchup, those same Republican voters are more enthusiastic about supporting his candidacy than Democrats are about supporting his Democratic opponent, President Joe Biden.

As we talked, Trump showed a practical example of what he was talking about. He had to interrupt dinner to make a brief speech to the Palm Beach County Republican Party, which was holding its annual Lincoln Day event that night in another building at Mar-a-Lago. When Trump walked in, the crowd went wild. To say the reception was enthusiastic would be an understatement. Yes, it was a hometown crowd, but the group’s reaction to Trump was more than just political enthusiasm: more intense, more personal, more devoted. 

After his speech, Trump walked a rope line on his way out of the room. Even the handshaking was more intense than politics as usual. Trump shook hand after hand, but rather than a simple handshake, some excited admirers would grasp his hand so heartily and squeeze so hard that Trump had to pull back to move on to the next person. Near the end of the line, one woman seized Trump’s hand so vigorously that a Secret Service agent had to deliver a sort of mini karate chop — nothing violent, just a firm tap — to break up the one-sided embrace.

As we walked back to dinner, Trump held out his right hand and showed that the back was covered by a large, greenish bruise. There were also marks left by female admirers with carefully manicured nails. It happened all the time, he said, marveling at the emotional connection people in the crowd felt with him. He feels it and realizes it is unusual, not the sort of thing one sees every day in politics or in life. He knows it is the foundation of his comeback.

Trump also sees that connection in the Republican electorate’s reaction to the indictments against him by the Biden Justice Department and elected Democratic prosecutors in New York and Georgia. “They hate the lawfare that’s being done,” he said of his supporters. “I don’t ever like to say, because it’s never happened before, but I think it’s raised me 25%.”

I mentioned that in conventional political terms, it made no sense that a politician could be indicted and that his support would go up while his opponents’ support went down. “Who would have thought that, right?” Trump said. “Usually when that happens, you announce you’re leaving, you’ll fight for your name, and you’re going back to your family, right? I would say usually — 100% of the time.” But not this time.

The intensity gap was on full display in the Republican primaries. If you went to rallies held by Trump and then by Trump’s longest-lasting challenger, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, you saw entirely different events. Haley’s rallies were smaller events in which supporters expressed mild enthusiasm for her candidacy. Trump’s were loud, tumultuous, and nearly over the top. There was a candidate-voter connection that was lacking at Haley’s events. And it wasn’t just the events. The Haley-Trump voter intensity gap was also reflected repeatedly in polls of Republican primary voters in South Carolina and beyond. 

Now, the intensity gap is playing out between Trump and Biden. It works both ways, of course, between the intensity of Trump’s supporters and the intensity of voters who want to defeat him. The gap is visible not just in campaign events but in polling showing a heightened intensity around Trump. Pollsters routinely ask Trump voters whether their vote will be more a vote for Trump or a vote against Biden. Most say it will be a vote for Trump. Then, they ask Biden voters whether their vote will be more a vote for Biden or a vote against Trump. Most say it will be a vote against Trump. The bottom line is it’s all about Trump.

Trump sensed all of that back in the dark days of 2021. At Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, the new co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, recalled a family dinner the night after Trump left the presidency. “I know I can do this again,” Lara Trump recalled her father-in-law saying that evening. A comeback was clearly on Trump’s mind, even in his earliest post-presidential hours. 

Lara Trump’s recollection spurred Trump to think more about his feelings as he arrived in Florida in early 2021. Here is a key excerpt from the article in which Trump explained his thoughts from that time:

“I felt that — I know that I won the election, by a lot,” Trump said. “If I felt I lost the election, I would not have done this. You understand that? I hope that makes sense. If I felt I had lost the election, I would not have done this. But I knew I won the election by a lot. I have no doubt. And by the way, neither does 78% of the people, when you take a look. And you can’t have that, where a large majority of people in a country think that the elections are rigged and stolen. And you can’t have open borders, either. You can’t have certain things.”

Trump had almost changed the subject on himself, but he moved back on track. “I would say that I started in my mind campaigning the day after I lost the election,” he said. “That didn’t mean I’m out there campaigning per se. But we had tremendous love, tremendous spirit from the day — that was not interrupted by Jan. 6. Jan. 6 was a protest against a rigged election. That’s what Jan. 6 was. It was nothing else. It was a protest against a rigged election. And the ones that they should go after are the people that rigged the election, not the people that were protesting.”

It was an extraordinary statement. In the first portion of Trump’s thought, he said repeatedly that he won the election. And in the second, he said that he lost the election. What does that mean? I can’t read Trump’s mind, but I have listened to him carefully for several years, and my view is that 1) he really believes that he won the 2020 election only to have scheming Democrats steal it from him, and 2) he knows that he is not now president of the United States. He’s not the commander in chief. He doesn’t sign bills into law. So in the sense of whether or not the election was fair, Trump maintains he won. And in the sense of who is now the president, Trump obviously is not.

Now, as he seeks to become president again, Trump will rely on what he sees as unequaled loyalty among his base of supporters. As he surveyed the scene at Mar-a-Lago, he said to me, “Look, you got to see just a little dose of it. If anything, there’s more spirit now than I’ve ever seen.”

For a deeper dive into many of the topics covered in the Daily Memo, please listen to my podcast, The Byron York Show — available on Radio America and the Ricochet Audio Network and everywhere else podcasts can be found.

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