WASHINGTON — Two weeks into his third presidential campaign, former president Donald Trump has made one thing clear: The extremist fringe that was always part of his base is moving to center stage.
There was his shocking dinner at Mar-a-Lago last week with the white supremacist Nick Fuentes and Ye, the rapper better known as Kanye West who has made a series of antisemitic statements. Trump also reposted memes from QAnon conspiracy-mongers on one of his social media accounts, an increasingly common occurrence.
“It’s not a flirtation, it’s a cohabitation,” said Tim O’Brien, a biographer of the former president. “If the only difference is he’s now dining with them and in the past he’s refused to denounce them . . . he’s just more comfortable taking it all the way.”
The shift was more subtle but evident at his campaign announcement earlier this month. Even as Trump delivered a kickoff speech that hewed faithfully to the teleprompter, his cheering audience was dotted with supporters who had rallied on his behalf at the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to Politico — people who, just like Fuentes and Ye, had been welcomed onto the grounds of his private club.
The sequence of events shows that, far from being chastened by the losses of the extreme candidates he endorsed in the midterms, the former president is betting on the far-right fringe of his party. It’s a development that could embolden peddlers of hate speech while also creating a massive headache for Republicans who are trying to pick up the pieces after an underwhelming performance at the polls.
“There is no bottom to the degree to which he is willing to degrade himself, and the country for that matter. Having dinner with those people was disgusting,” said Utah Senator Mitt Romney, one of numerous Republicans who was asked this week to respond to the news of Trump’s meeting with Ye and Fuentes.
“I don’t think he should be president of the United States,” Romney added. “I don’t think he should be the nominee of our party in 2024. And I certainly don’t want him hanging over our party like a gargoyle.”
At least in the near term, Republicans like Romney will be forced to toil in Trump’s shadow — as MAGA enthusiasts like Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Arizona Representative Paul Gosar are poised to wield more power in January when their party narrowly controls the House.
Both Greene and Gosar have made their own appearances at Fuentes’s political conference and have been photographed with him. Rather than kill their political ambitions, their popularity with the far-right, paired with their status as villains on the left, has bolstered their power with the base of the party and their clout with Trump himself.
“I worry that there is no real way to rein in the crazy,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime aide to former GOP House speaker Paul Ryan, who had to manage the conservative House Freedom Caucus during his tenure. The current House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, is relying on support from the far-right lawmakers like Greene to secure his spot as speaker in January.
“He needs every single one of those people,” Buck added, “and picking a fight with even one of them could be fatal.”
Trump confirmed the dinner with Ye and Fuentes, which took place Nov. 22, but in the days after issued a series of sometimes conflicting explanations as why the 24-year-old white supremacist and right-wing media personality was present.
He claimed that he did not know Fuentes, a founder of a white nationalist youth organization, America First, who attended the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Va., while a student at Boston University.
Trump’s meeting has been denounced by the Anti-Defamation League, by some of Trump’s Jewish supporters, and by prominent Republicans such as former vice president Mike Pence and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who said anyone holding such meetings is unlikely to be elected president.
Asked for comment by the Globe, a spokesman for the Trump campaign responded with a link to a Fox News story in which Trump called McConnell a “loser” and maintained Fuentes didn’t express his racist views at dinner, “or it wouldn’t have been accepted.”
Still, Trump has not forcefully denounced Fuentes or his beliefs — just as he did not after David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard, praised him in 2016. He also failed to condemn the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, referring instead to “very fine people on both sides.”
“He doesn’t fully disavow or criticize avatars of racism and in fact, as he did at Mar-a-Lago, he dines with them, because white nationalism and racism are core motivating forces for his base,” O’Brien said.
Emily Dreyfuss, a coauthor of “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America,” said Trump used to treat his most extreme supporters with more of a wink and nod than a full embrace.
“It used to be a liability for Trump if he would come out and endorse and recognize his most extreme supporters, because it would risk him losing his more mainstream audience,” Dreyfuss said.
But now, she added, “Trump’s brand is diminished, as proven by the midterms, so him embracing these figures outwardly goes to show that this is his remaining base, these are his remaining supporters.”
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who is opposed to Trump, said the episode highlights a central problem for Republicans: the fact that their base voters are increasingly willing to embrace the extremism and MAGAism Trump is tending, while general election voters are increasingly not.
“Trump is doing what he can to push every boundary and consolidate fringe elements into a pretty devoted core for himself. Institutional Republicans are responding by putting their heads in the sand,” Longwell said.
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump campaigned on xenophobic statements about Mexicans and Muslims that were denounced by Republican leaders but ultimately embraced by voters.
“In order for him to be transgressive, he has to become even more extreme now,” Dreyfuss said.
In a sign of Trump’s continued power over the party and his current status as 2024 front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, when McCarthy stepped to the podium in front of the White House on Tuesday, he refused to call out Trump directly.
“I don’t think anybody should be spending any time with Nick Fuentes — he has no place in the Republican Party,” McCarthy said, before adding, incorrectly, that “President Trump came out four times and condemned him.”
Other Republicans have also looked for ways to sidestep direct criticism of the former president.
“Both parties have problems with fringe people, and both parties need to denounce the fringes and keep them far away,” said Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush.
On Capitol Hill, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican, said she condemned both white supremacy and antisemistim, “and I do not believe that President Trump should have met with, much less had dinner with, Nick Fuentes.”
Numerous Republican senators sought to avoid mentioning Trump by name, even as they were asked directly about his latest outrage — a sign of their continued fear of angering his base.
Others simply dismissed it as a sideshow.
“I can care less who they have dinner with,” said Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, with a laugh. “Do I look like somebody that cares?”
“Oh yeah,” said Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, when asked about the dinner, “it was ridiculous.”
Republican strategists say the comments of elected politicians only hold so much weight and it’s ultimately up to those base voters to reject Trump’s influence now. It’s not clear whether they want to, or who might emerge to directly take him on, the strategists say.
“You can’t run and ignore Trump,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and a former aide to Romney. “You have to slay the dragon. At this point, it’s a big question of whether anyone is capable of doing that.”