Former President Donald Trump has all but dropped a key word from his vocabulary: Republican.
He didn’t say it when he met with supporters — including a Jan. 6 defendant — at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, late last month.
During remarks to a packed ballroom at the DoubleTree hotel earlier that day, he said it only in praising some GOP governors’ work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since he hit the campaign trail in early March, according to an NBC review of Trump’s speeches, interviews, video posts and face-to-face interactions with voters, the front-runner for the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination has used the name of the party he seeks to represent in sparing fashion — and typically to disparage other party luminaries.
“Fox News and [Senate GOP leader] Mitch McConnell and the Republican donors have basically signed a pledge to stop Trump at any opportunity. So, why should he be touting the Republican Party?” Steve Bannon, host of the “War Room” podcast and the CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign, told NBC News. “He shouldn’t be loyal to the Republican Party. They haven’t been loyal to him — they’ve scheduled 10 primary debates to wound him.”
In essence, according to advisers and allies, Trump is returning to the anti-establishment themes of his successful 2016 bid for the presidency that rallied voters to slay the favorite totems, orthodoxies and candidates of both parties.
"Yes, there’s the Republican primary still, but some of the strategies and tactics in regard to how we’re engaging Joe Biden will look a lot more 2016 than 2020,” said Jason Miller, a Trump campaign senior adviser who worked on both of the former president's prior bids.
Trump advisers say the short shrift he's giving the Republican label reflects a view that he is the leader of a movement that is broader than one party.
“It’s a recognition that it’s not just an R versus D — it’s about the current state of the country and who, on Day One, is going to fix it,” said another Trump campaign adviser who requested anonymity in order to discuss internal strategy. “Whether that’s the ‘uniparty’ or the ‘deep state’ or the world government, there is most definitely a recognition amongst the electorate at large that there is an ‘us versus them’ component in all of this.”
During his presidency, Trump grew closer to the Republican Party establishment as he began to take control of it. He hired Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus as his first White House chief of staff and installed Ronna McDaniel — who still serves in the role — as Priebus’ successor at the party committee. In 2020, he staged part of the Republican convention from the White House.
Trump at the time praised the “Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln” and said it “goes forward united, determined.”
Trump’s shift away from acting like the standard-bearer of the party comes after a year in which he waded into countless GOP primary contests, promoting some candidates who aligned with the Republican establishment and some who did not. He was able to knock out many of his loudest Republican critics, including then-Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Tom Rice, R-S.C.
But there appears to be an acknowledgment in Trump’s approach now that he can’t win the general election without expanding his reach outside the overlapping Venn diagram circles of his existing base and the Republican electorate. He lost in both the Electoral College and the popular vote in 2020, after winning the former — and the White House — in the more anti-establishment, less rah-rah-Republican 2016 campaign.
“There is a recognition and realization from our standpoint that the 'them' is going to mean different things to different people,” the adviser said. “You’ve got conservatives who are concerned about the administrative state or what they’re teaching kids in schools. There are people who are worried about the politicization of the justice system or that the military has gone woke. ... All of these things for different people mean different things, so being able to put all of those in the 'them' column provides a wider breadth.”
We are the front-runner, damn it, and we're acting like it.
— A Trump campaign adviser
When Trump talks about the Republican Party, it is often to blast rivals, the GOP establishment or both. At a rally in Waco, Texas, in March, Trump took a moment to laud House Republican allies, including Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and James Comer of Kentucky, by name and party. But he also took aim at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a still-unannounced candidate for the 2024 GOP nomination, who runs second to him in polls of Republican voters.
“I will protect, unlike DeSanctus, Social Security and Medicare for our great seniors, defending them from both the radical left and the Paul Ryan-Republican establishment,” Trump said, referring to DeSantis by a nickname and to Ryan, the former House speaker from Wisconsin.
The former president’s early distancing from the Republican establishment is also a sign of his desire to skip past internecine primary battles and focus solely on Biden.
“We are the front-runner, damn it, and we’re acting like it,” the campaign adviser said. “We are doing what we have to do, and that’s beating Joe Biden.”
National surveys at this early stage in the race show Trump and Biden running neck and neck, typically within the margin of statistical error. While Trump's standing in GOP primary polls has emboldened him to primarily pursue a general election strategy, that could change if he starts to feel heat from DeSantis or another challenger.
On Wednesday, Trump's co-campaign managers, Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, published a memo to "interested parties" that ripped DeSantis for losing ground in polls while his super PAC, Never Back Down, has spent millions of dollars on national and early-primary-state television ads.
At the end of March, Trump led DeSantis 46% to 30% in the RealClearPolitics average of GOP primary polls. On Monday, the gap had grown to 52% for Trump and 23% for DeSantis.
The Trump team “will not take our eye off the ball of winning the nomination,” the adviser said, adding that they will “continue to rush the passer” when it comes to DeSantis and other rivals.
The spokesperson for the DeSantis-aligned Never Back Down super PAC picked up that ball and ran with it.
"It's cute to see the Trump team acknowledge that the person who can win the game and general election is Ron DeSantis, their admitted QB," Erin Perrine said.
At the same time he is distancing from the GOP, Trump is reaching out to a broader set of audiences. He is set to participate in a CNN town hall next week in New Hampshire, and aides hint that there may be more efforts on his part to reach voters who aren't already aligned with him.
One sign of Trump’s commitment to running against the establishment of both parties — despite his status as the last GOP president — is his refusal to pledge his support to the eventual nominee if he loses the primary.
“There are probably people that I wouldn’t be very happy about endorsing who are running, so we’ll see,” Trump said when asked about a Republican National Committee proposal to require candidates to sign a loyalty pledge in order to participate in debates.
The RNC’s debate committee, which is headed by former Trump aide David Bossie, announced plans for its first televised matchup of the candidates — a Milwaukee debate in August — without securing Trump’s agreement to participate.
He is considering skipping that debate and the next one, people aware of his thinking told NBC News.
The dispute between his team and the RNC over the first debate may foreshadow a more fractious relationship as he recasts himself as an outsider.
Charlie Kirk, co-founder of Turning Point USA and a Trump supporter, is one of a number of conservatives promoting the quixotic Democratic nomination hopes of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a liberal critic of vaccines, as part of a broader argument about political realignment outside the two-party system.
“I believe there is a new coalition being built — not a coalition that is right versus left, but instead, bottom-up versus the ruling oligarchy regime,” Kirk said on his right-wing radio program Monday. “When I got Robert F. Kennedy Jr. getting standing ovations and sitting Republican senators getting booed at a right-wing conservative event, it’s an exciting time to be alive.”
Trump proved once that he could win as a candidate that bashed the two parties and their dominance in Washington. Rather than the last war, he may be intent on fighting a central battle of the 2016 election.
“He’s there to beat the administrative state and the uniparty, which is their political appendage,” Bannon said. “You’re seeing a reversion to the original Trump.”