The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Missouri, we see the quintessence of Trump politics

Donald Trump shouts to the crowd during the LIV Golf Invitational in Bedminster, N.J., on July 31. (Seth Wenig/AP)
5 min

What may have doomed former Missouri governor Eric Greitens’s chances of receiving an unqualified endorsement from former president Donald Trump in his bid for the state’s open Senate seat is a spate of recent polls showing him lagging further behind his rival, Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Any political endorsement is a balance between the endorser’s political worldview and the viability of the candidate, but, for Trump, the latter more frequently tips the scales.

Trump boasts constantly about his success in promoting primary candidates; if he runs in 2024 and falls behind, it would be perfectly reasonable to expect him suddenly to endorse whoever was beating him.

In Missouri, he did something nearly as odd. Late on Monday, about 24 hours before polls closed in the state, Trump announced his endorsement:


Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

At some point in the next few days or weeks, there will be a detailed description of the decision-making process behind the endorsement. We can sketch it out in broad strokes now: Torn between Greitens and Schmitt, Trump theorizes about doing a dual endorsement (as he has elsewhere). His daughter Ivanka thinks it’s a great idea. But then he says, “What if I just endorsed ‘Eric’?” Those within earshot in the dining room at Bedminster break out into guffaws; Ivanka nods in awe. Dan Scavino is tasked with writing up the Truth Social “truth” and — after Trump suggests that “Eric” be fully capitalized — the world is let in on the joke.

(Sure enough, as this article was being edited, Politico published a narrative first pass at the endorsement. It doesn’t mention Ivanka.)

In any case, it’s not a joke, is it? Trump’s fundamental desire to be admired pulls him in two directions here.

Greitens is a prototypical right-wing tough guy, releasing ads casually suggesting hunting down his political opponents. His campaign was hobbled, in part, by public attention focused on a variety of grim allegations of abuse from his former wife (that he denies). But this persona, coupled with his fervent advocacy for Trumpism, appeals to the former president.

“Eric is tough and he’s smart,” Trump said last month, referring to Greitens. “A little controversial, but I’ve endorsed controversial people before.” Notice that he starts with “tough,” viewing the controversy as little more than a possible wrinkle.

Schmitt is not similarly controversial. Like many Republican primary candidates, he has worked to appeal to Trump and Trump’s base. That included a trip to Mar-a-Lago for a fundraiser where Trump spoke. But, as The Washington Post’s David Weigel reported, he understood that his best card was his increasing lead in polling; Trump, he said, was probably “aware of the separation in the polls this last week.”

When Trump’s “ERIC” endorsement was offered, the immediate response was to wonder if Trump would clarify his intent. Greitens and Schmitt alike quickly jumped on social media to express their appreciation for the endorsement, which one would certainly expect from a candidate for office. Each man also spoke with Trump and thanked him for the endorsement, Weigel reported, removing any question about what was intended. This was a dual endorsement, couched as a winking endorsement of just one person.

In that, it’s a perfect distillation of how Trump has played Republican politics for the past seven years. His rise was a function of his willingness to embrace the party’s rightmost fringe, but his true skill was in being able to talk to both the fringe and the establishment base — and have each hear what it wanted to hear. He could make a comment about, say, immigration that nodded at what was burbling on Breitbart but which Republican donors could hear as relatively mainstream. He would make “jokes” that his base knew were intended seriously.

The “ERIC” endorsement is that, but explicit. He’s telling both segments of the party what they want to hear and pretending it’s all tongue-in-cheek. The fringe will be happy that Greitens got a nod, however indirect, and the establishment will be happy that Schmitt was in the mix. As always, Trump aims to remain palatable to, if not popular with, everyone in his party.

And, assuming that one of the Erics wins, Trump is well-positioned for the follow-up. Let’s say the victor is Schmitt. Trump will say that he won because of his last-minute endorsement, “joking” that Schmitt is who he meant all along. He’ll tack the victory on to his total as readily as he skips including the races in which his candidates lose. Over time, he’ll just talk about how he endorsed Schmitt all along.

Look, endorsers do this stuff all the time. Part of the process of making an endorsement is touting the endorsement; endorsements are made to build political power, and demonstrating the weight of one’s endorsement is a tool for building that power. For Trump, though, it’s slightly different. It’s about building political power, yes, but as a way of building his own sense of self, his own brand.

What it isn’t, really, is a statement of principle. Trump’s task in endorsing is made easier by so many primary candidates having signed on to his political agenda — because that agenda is sparse to the point of translucency. People are signing on to MAGAism knowing that the constituent elements of MAGAism are fungible; the main component is loyalty to Trump. So when Trump endorses, he’s balancing viability not with politics but with fealty.

Greitens won on fealty. Schmitt appears to be winning on viability. So Trump combines them — endorsement to ERIC! — and, with seven years of practice at playing both sides, will emerge a winner either way.

Unless Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) gets the most votes in the primary.