Comment: A Trump supporter’s flip-flop a dilemma for Trump

The GOP’s Senate candidate in New Hampshire now says Biden won. Will Trump be silent or retaliate?

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

Donald Trump isn’t known as a great strategic thinker. But he sure has a major strategic choice to make right now, and it’s far from clear what the best play is.

Trump’s predicament stems from a whopping flip-flop by the Republican nominee for Senate from New Hampshire, Don Bolduc. Bolduc campaigned in the primary as a true conservative and Trump supporter, including fully endorsing Trump’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 presidential election. But as soon as the primary was safely won, Bolduc declared that “the election was not stolen” and acknowledged that Joe Biden was the legitimate president.

This sets up quite a problem for Trump. While the former president’s grip on the Republican Party is partly based on how helpful he can be to candidates seeking nominations, the main reason Republicans fear him is the possibility that he could turn against them in November, either by asking voters to stay home or even suggesting they vote for GOP candidates’ Democratic or third-party rivals. Republicans worry that many voters would remain loyal to him.

That threat isn’t serious because Trump is unusually popular; it’s because he’s unusually untrustworthy. And not just because he has a history of being unreliable and turning on his allies, as former Vice President Mike Pence and a host of former White House staffers and cabinet officers could attest.

After all, most major politicians, especially former presidents, have had a lifetime of close ties to their political party, so much so that it’s almost impossible to imagine them betraying the people they have worked with and the policies they have cared about by openly aligning against that party unless something cataclysmic happened. Trump simply doesn’t have that party allegiance and doesn’t appear to care very much about most public policy questions.

All of that reinforces the fear that he might turn against the party in the general election.

But at some point, if he doesn’t do it, the threat goes stale. So far he hasn’t taken that step. Indeed, while Trump doesn’t exactly hold rallies for Republicans who cross him, he hasn’t gone so far as to ask his voters to oppose those candidates.

Bolduc seems like a very good test case, given that Trump didn’t endorse him in the primary and that his reversal was so complete and total. If Trump supports him anyway, or even if he just ignores the whole episode, people in the party inclined to oppose him but hesitant about the political cost will be more likely to think of him as a paper tiger.

Trump already has risked being perceived this way in Georgia, where he has apparently dropped his opposition to Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the two incumbents that Trump unsuccessfully attempted to defeat in primaries based on their willingness to stand up to him during his attempt to subvert the election. If he ignores Bolduc’s treachery, too, what wouldn’t he ignore?

The flip side is that if Trump actually did break from the party and tried to defeat Republicans insufficiently loyal to him in general elections this fall (or even in 2024), Republicans would know they could no longer duck the choice of either fully accepting his dominance or fighting him, and they might choose to fight.

Normal party politicians back candidates all the time that they aren’t thrilled about. But normal party politicians aren’t trying to blackmail the party into doing whatever they want. This one is going to be interesting to watch.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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