A viral video that caused outrage a few years ago had Donald Trump body-slamming the cable network CNN personified as a professional wrestler.
This “MAGA” fantasy was all but made a reality at a CNN townhall with the former president in New Hampshire the other night.
Trump steamrolled the moderator Kaitlan Collins, relentlessly stuck to his most outrageous contentions on everything from Jan. 6 to claims the 2020 election was stolen, lit up the audience of supportive Republicans, and proved that he is as outlandishly entertaining and compulsively watchable as he was at his height in 2016.
The message to the rest of the GOP field was, “Watch out, below!”
The forum underlined how one of Trump’s greatest strengths is the sheer force of his personality.
One of his advantages in the 2016 primaries was that, as the leader in the polls, he always stood dead center in the debate stage, taller, more vivid, and more commanding than the other candidates.
It almost didn’t matter what Trump said or did on stage, because the way he acted and looked projected strength there’s a reason the old pros, like the late Roger Ailes of Fox News and Trump himself, watch TV with the sound off to get a true sense of the impression being made.
If Trump wins the Republican nomination next year, it will be partly because Republicans are once again drawn to what they consider his distinctive and unmatched sense of personal power.
Trump’s is an odd and obviously very flawed kind of strength. For him, it’s a quality that is consistent with whining, insecurity, defensiveness and a refusal to take responsibility -- all of which usually lead us to conclude someone is weak.
Trump makes up for it with what my National Review colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty calls “willfulness,” a deep-seated, near-primal drive to impose what he wants, whether on a political narrative, a negotiation, a set of rules or, at the CNN townhall, an interviewer.
Incapable of shame, he didn’t display the slightest defensiveness about Jan. 6 or his conspiracy theories about the election, despite Collins repeatedly challenging him on them. He bulldozed through every fact check, even saying he’d completed his border wall. He mocked the claims of E. Jean Carroll, who had just won a jury verdict against him in New York. There was never a sense that he wasn’t in complete command -- Gulliver easily swatting away a determined but unthreatening Lilliputian.
Was Trump truthful or respectful? Of course, not. The dynamic, though, is that the more he says things he shouldn’t, the stronger he seems. For Republicans, there was also the advantage of Trump taking on the cable network they disdain most; he turned the much-hyped town hall into an embarrassment for its sponsor.
This points to the way that Trump can out-MAGA Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the rest of the GOP field -- by always being on the offensive, never being abashed about his own contradictions or mistakes or weaknesses, making himself the constant focus of attention, and overall just being a bigger personality.
It always helps when other Republicans seem afraid of him, and they usually do.
Of course, Trump’s is, to a large extent, a faux strength. There’s a place for discipline, selflessness and knowledge in true strength. It also will avail Republicans little if Trump projects his characteristic showy strength in the course of winning the GOP primaries and then loses the general election or wins, only to govern in an even more shambolic fashion than the first time around.
There’s a lot of material that DeSantis or another Republican candidate has to work with against Trump, who is vulnerable to attacks from the right on his response to the coronavirus and his performance on other conservative priorities as president. But no one else is becoming the nominee unless at the end of the day Donald Trump is no longer the biggest person in the room.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.