The deepening radicalization of Donald J. Trump

Watch how the former president’s positions and rhetoric have grown more confrontational and extreme as he seeks a second term

Former president Donald Trump's positions on a wide range of topics have become more extreme. (Illustration by Adriana Usero/The Washington Post; CNN, C-SPAN)
9 min

In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021, President Donald Trump stayed mostly silent, and when he finally delivered his farewell address to the nation, he disavowed the attack on the U.S. Capitol as something that “all Americans were horrified by” and “can never be tolerated.”

Now, as Trump seeks to return to the White House, he speaks of Jan. 6 as “a beautiful day.” He says there was no reason for police to shoot the rioter attempting to break into the House chamber, and he denies there was any danger to his vice president, Mike Pence, who was hiding from a pro-Trump mob chanting for him to be hanged. He has promised to pardon many rioters if he becomes president again.

LEFT: Trump during his Jan. 19, 2021, farewell address. RIGHT: Trump at a Manchester, N.H., CNN town hall on May 10, 2023. (Video: The Washington Post)

On this and a host of subjects, from sexual assault to foreign and domestic policy, Trump’s positions have become even more extreme, his tone more confrontational, his accounts less tethered to reality, according to a Washington Post review of Trump’s speeches and interviews with former aides. Where he was at times ambiguous or equivocal, he’s now brazenly defiant.

Embracing extreme positions is nothing new for Trump: Since launching his 2016 campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and then pledging to ban Muslims from entering the country, he has promoted divisive policies, made inflammatory comments and prompted constitutional showdowns with Congress and the courts. But a return to the White House, in Trump’s own articulation, would be his chance to take revenge on his political opponents and push even further on his most polarizing programs.

The hardening of Trump’s stances comes as he has been operating for more than two years without the official apparatus of the White House, putting fewer gatekeepers and layers of review between him and the public. It also follows a long list of grievances he has accumulated from his eight years in politics.

To experts who have reviewed his proposals, Trump is sketching out the contours of a second term potentially more dangerous and chaotic than his first. Critics across the political spectrum have voiced alarm at his increasingly menacing rhetoric. But Trump’s most loyal supporters have relished his combative speeches and followed him in espousing harsher stances.

“I was a Democrat before,” said Greg Bouchicas, a construction business owner from Plaistow, N.H., who came to hear Trump speak in Manchester last month, which he said was his first political event ever. “The fake FISA warrant on Trump tried to take the election from him and failed,” he said, referring to the court-approved surveillance of some of Trump associates’ contacts with Russians in 2016. Bouchicas raised his arms and extended two fingers on both hands when Trump spoke about rebuilding the economy.

LEFT: Trump at a Nov. 2, 2020, campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. RIGHT: Trump speaking at a March 25, 2023, rally in Waco, Tex. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the storyline Trump presents, he is always the victim, but so are his supporters: The shared experience of suffering through conflicts brings them closer and strengthens their bond, according to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”

“When authoritarian leaders lose office, they come back, like, 10 times worse — they never get less extreme, they always get more extreme,” Ben-Ghiat said. “January 6 was a profoundly radicalizing event for the base, for the GOP and for Trump himself, because even assaulting the Capitol you could get away with. His campaign events have to be seen as that of an extremist radicalizing people and emotionally reeducating people to hate people.”

At a rally in Waco, Tex., this year, Trump sought to discredit criminal investigations and the indictment he faces, disparaging them without evidence as examples of “prosecutorial misconduct,” and added, “when they go after me, they’re going after you.” Later in the speech, he repeated a refrain that has become a standard line at his rallies: “Together, we are taking on some of the most menacing forces and vicious opponents our people have ever seen, some of them from within. But no matter how hateful and corrupt the communists and criminals we’re fighting against may be, you must never forget, this nation does not belong to them — this nation belongs to you.”

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung pointed to a recent report by special counsel John Durham to support Trump’s claims. The report criticized the FBI’s investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, though it acknowledged the agency’s “affirmative obligation to closely examine” the initial allegations.

“President Trump has been proven right time and time again,” Cheung said in a statement. “The American people know the illegal witch-hunt by the [Justice Department] and Deep State tried to take down his Presidency, influence the 2020 election, and are now running the same playbook to influence the 2024 election,” he added, referring to the criminal probes the ex-president is facing, which Trump has attacked as politically motivated.

Trump’s aides have repeatedly encouraged him not to talk so much about Jan. 6 and the rioters, believing it is not a winning issue politically, according to advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions. They have tried to get him to talk about the ongoing criminal probes he faces as “election interference” rather than looking back to the last presidential election. But Trump has regularly talked to some of the families of people in prison, aides say, and has convinced himself that they are being mistreated. He also has a number of aides now who stay in touch with Jan. 6 families and rioters.

Trump’s former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly said he understood Trump’s recent defense of Jan. 6 to be his actual view, adding that Trump is prone to changing his position.

“All those people who tried to overturn the election, that’s exactly what he wanted them to do. He can’t be turning his back on the people who tried to save him in the election,” Kelly, who is no longer working with Trump, said in an interview. “There’s no compass. What is right today is not necessarily tomorrow. What’s right this morning may change four times before this evening. It all depends who he’s talking to and what he’s trying to accomplish in that moment.”

Trump’s escalation is not merely rhetorical. In 2018, he signed an executive order distancing himself from the “zero tolerance” policy that separated migrant families at the border, aiming to tamp down the public outrage at photos of children in cages and a tape of children crying for their parents. But in a recent CNN town hall, Trump defended the policy and suggested he might reinstate it to deter people from immigrating.

LEFT: Trump speaking to reporters at the White House on June 20, 2018. RIGHT: Trump at a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H., on May 10, 2023. (Video: The Washington Post)

Not only has Trump never acknowledged his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, but over time his false claims of rampant fraud have become more elaborate. In the past, he attacked the expansion of mail voting during the pandemic to suggest the Democrats could have inflated their tallies; now he claims (falsely) to have definitively found millions of fraudulent ballots stuffed into drop boxes.

LEFT: Trump during his Ellipse speech before the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. RIGHT: Trump at a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H., on May 10, 2023. (Video: The Washington Post)

Even in the rare instances when he has appeared cowed or contrite, such as after Jan. 6 or after revelations about comments he had made on sexual assault, Trump has gone on to deny, dissemble or even outright defend, as evident in some of his recent remarks.

When The Washington Post first reported that Trump bragged about groping women in a 2005 tape from the set of “Access Hollywood,” he started shedding support from top Republicans only weeks before the 2016 election. He scrambled to privately apologize to his shaken running mate and release a video apology. He also apologized for his remarks during a debate the next night with Hillary Clinton.

But later, Trump started privately questioning whether the remarks caught on tape were really his. And in a videotaped deposition for the lawsuit by writer E. Jean Carroll accusing him of sexual abuse and defamation, Trump took a different tack: standing by his assertion that famous men can have their way with women. Trump doubled down on that defense during the recent CNN town hall.

LEFT: Trump during the Oct. 9, 2016, presidential debate. RIGHT: Trump at a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H., on May 10, 2023. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump has a long pattern predating his current campaign of backtracking or even apologizing in the face of public outrage, then later retrenching and taking an even more defiant position, according to The Post’s review. In the latest instance, earlier this month he suggested that he would rehire Michael Flynn, whom he fired as national security adviser in 2017 for lying about contact with the Russian ambassador.

“He has a unique talent and skill and understanding that he has the ability to revise history,” Marc Short, a top adviser to Pence, who is taking his own steps toward running for the 2024 nomination, said of Trump. “He’s not one to ever retreat. He views confessing errors as a weakness. He’s always going to double and triple down.”

Trump has also said that he regrets letting local officials lead law-enforcement responses, and that in a second term he would be more aggressive in deploying the National Guard and even active-duty military to put down social unrest, street demonstrations and crimes. His speeches are often punctuated with graphic descriptions of violent crimes that are frequently embellished or unsubstantiated.

LEFT: Trump during a Nov. 1, 2020, campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa. RIGHT: Trump speaking at a March 13, 2023, rally in Davenport, Iowa. (Video: The Washington Post)

And over the years, Trump has intensified his vilification of Democrats and those Republicans who don’t support him. In 2016, he said he was running against “globalists” and elites; in 2020, it was radical-left socialists. Now, he now routinely describes the 2024 election as an apocalyptic showdown with nothing less than the irreversible destruction of the country at stake.

LEFT: Trump at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 27, 2015. RIGHT: Trump in Orlando on March 3, 2023. (Video: The Washington Post)

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.