If you’ve heard of Robby Starbuck, it’s probably because you’re either an active participant in the pro-Donald Trump social-media universe or because you are someone who has run afoul of the pro-Donald Trump social-media universe.
There’s just one problem. Donald Trump.
Starbuck aims to win the Republican primary in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. It’s an open seat; incumbent Democrat Jim Cooper is not seeking reelection after legislators redrew his district to be far more friendly to Republicans. (As a glimpse of Starbuck’s approach to politics and social media, he implied on Twitter that he deserved the credit for Cooper’s retirement.) Nonetheless, Starbuck faces a number of declared and possible opponents.
In the latter category is Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman at the State Department during Trump’s tenure. And on Tuesday, Trump offered her his endorsement — if she runs.
Politico’s Alex Isenstadt explains how that came about.
“The would-be candidate, joined by her family, met with Trump on Monday at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where she informed him she was considering running. In the hours after their meeting, Trump began asking a range of people what they thought of Ortagus,” Isenstadt writes. “By Tuesday evening, the former president had decided to move ahead with the announcement.”
Very Trump! A pilgrimage, respect paid, an informal survey and an endorsement. Ortagus apparently played the game savvily.
But, as Isenstadt notes, the apparent coronation was poorly received. A number of other Trump-universe folks lined up to vocally support Starbuck, among them Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Candace Owens, Kurt Schlichter and, uh, “catturd.” One prominent member of that universe cited the endorsement as proof that Trump was now “firmly in the establishment camp.”
That’s a weird thing to say about Trump, who was once president of the United States. But it gets at the important divide here: Trump does not see his role the same way his supporters do.
Trump appears to be operating under two beliefs. The first is that he can mostly direct his long-standing base of support where he needs it to go — or, at least, that he is sufficiently attuned to the base that he can stay at the front of the pack as needed. The second is that the most important measure of his success in issuing endorsements is whether the endorsed candidates win. And in the case of Robby Starbuck, those two beliefs are not entirely reconcilable.
Consider why politicians and organizations offer endorsements. It’s usually a mix of factors that depends on the political power of the endorsement-giver. They are used to signal to voters where candidates stand. They are used to establish the giver’s credibility as a political force. They’re also used, at times, as an enforcement mechanism (as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) can attest). Those giving endorsements usually weigh two considerations, a candidate’s values — how she stands relative to the endorser’s political goals — and the candidate’s viability. There’s often little point in endorsing a candidate who’s going to lose, after all; it certainly doesn’t make the endorsement-giver look very effective.
For Trump, though, that’s the central concern. There’s no real indication that he views endorsements as anything more than his rewarding fealty from likely winners with a statement from his office. There was a story last week about how Trump’s fragmented kitchen cabinet was endorsing or working for various candidates, all of whom sought Trump’s endorsement. The subtext to that story alone is important: everyone trying to cash in on access to Trump but Trump not being able actually to police how his name is being used for influence-peddling. At the heart of his concern, though, was preserving his overinflated estimation of his own ability to anoint victors in Republican primary campaigns.
So we come to Starbuck. Remember, he’s heavily centered in a world where Trump’s message not only created a political movement but powered its own relevance. MAGAism is both a part of its adherents’ identity and a conduit for their loyalty to the former president. But Trump is unbound by the traditions of bilateral loyalty. His view of loyalty has always been that people are loyal to him and he’s nice back as long as he needs to be.
His view of the people whose support he enjoyed was similar: They would stick with him because they were loyal, but he certainly wasn’t bound to them. Trumpworld would be forgiven for assuming that Trump would at least pay lip service to considering fealty to the values that they believed he shared with them. But, instead, he went with the person who quickly convinced him she might win.
Put another way, Trump’s consideration of values in making his endorsement is like his consideration of most other things: It’s about himself first and other things second. Ortagus kissed the ring and was a loyal staffer, and those values are far more important to him than the campaign patter he put together in 2016. That his online allies bought the hype was helpful, sure. But it doesn’t mean they’re rewarded with a piece of his influence.
Knowing Trump and knowing Trump’s vehement dislike of being criticized, I wouldn’t be surprised if his already odd endorsement of Ortagus (since she isn’t yet running) gets some qualifiers. The point of last week’s story was that he was mulling multiple endorsements in the same race, a bid to ensure he can claim a winner after the fact. Might as well do that here, too.
But perhaps his base learned something from all this about how much they can trust Trump to show the movement the same commitment the movement has shown him. Of course, one doesn’t rise to the top of the Trump social-media world by learning lessons about Trump’s duplicity.