Will This Time Be Different?
Trump’s third campaign.
Well, that escalated quickly.
Less than a week after the midterms, the GOP burst into full-fledged civil war. Recriminations rolled down like water, and intra-party bitching flowed like a mighty stream. In the House, Kevin McCarthy faced multiple challenges in his campaign of self-humiliation; in the Senate, MAGA is coming for Mitch McConnell and, on cue, the symbol and architect of The Chaos announced that he wanted six more years of this.
You could tell from his low-energy body language that this was not the grand re-entrance that DJT wanted. If the GOP had swept the field last week, Trump would have ridden a wave of triumph and good feeling. Instead, as Amanda Carpenter writes, he looked . . . weak and even disgusted.
Trump—who dragged his party to midterm losses in 2018, lost the White House in 2020 to the oldest man ever to have the job, incited an insurrectionist mob into attacking the U.S. Capitol, was impeached twice, and contributed to yet another GOP midterm flop last week—sneered and grimaced through his announcement. He slow-read prepared remarks in a monotone, digressing to riff on whatever non sequitur popped into his mind. Maybe Trump’s spirits were low because he read the terrible press coverage running up to his announcement and could see the faces in the crowd, which were nothing close to the assembly of GOP elite he commanded in rallies past. The biggest bold-faced names spotted in the crowd were a grifter’s row of deplorables and has-beens: Roger Stone, Madison Cawthorn, Mike Lindell, and Dick Morris.
Yes, Trump beat the DOJ and his GOP rivals to the punch, and remains the presumptive Republican nominee in 2024. He knows he faces kvetching in the ranks, but he’s seen this before, and Trump is confident that he can reprise the takeover of 2015-16.
But the vibe isn’t the quite the same, is it?
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Yesterday, I made what I thought was a quite compelling argument—that, despite all of this, the GOP was stuck with Trump. Kevin Williamson made the same case, and you’ve probably heard it on a thousand Bulwark podcasts.
But given the record of the past six years, we need to consider the possibility that we’re wrong; maybe this time will be different.
Axios describes all of the ways that Trump’s support has been softening: Polls show him trailing Ron DeSantis, donors are fleeing, influencers bailing, and there is a growing sense that he is the Biggest Loser.
Trump needs to be seen as a winner. It's why he spent so much energy denying the reality that he lost the 2020 election. But with so many of his candidates headed to defeat — and nearly all of them conceding their elections gracefully — it's getting harder for his supporters to avoid the obvious.
To be clear: I don’t think this will be enough to derail a Trump nomination, but what would different look like? What would have to happen?
Here’s a short list:
The message that “It’s Time to Turn the Page” (repeated by every one of the challengers) would begin to land with primary voters.
The name-calling and attacks on his rivals (so effective in the past), backfire this time.
The MAGA media splinters.
The base does not rally. Trump’s pending indictment will surely inflame the MAGAverse, but it could also add to doubts about his electability.
The field coalesces. Like 2016, a crowded field helps Trump. A one-on-one match-up is much more problematic.
And perhaps most important: Trump begins to look like a loser — and even worse, like a boring loser. My colleague, Will Saletan, observes that “In the long run, cultism loses out to the great universal solvent, fatigue.”
When I gave him some props for the line, Will modestly attributed it to Jacques Barzun, who famously said, "Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces." But Will’s line is actually better, and may finally apply to the Orange Cult.
Bored, people tried to leave before Trump was even finished speaking. Others simply turned their back to him and talked through his remarks. Keep in mind, these attendees were ostensibly among his most dedicated and connected aides and supporters.
Even though election denialism is clearly a political loser, he notes, Trump will be incapable of moving on. And this time around, his attacks on rivals like DeSantis don’t come off as alpha. Instead, they make him look fearful. “And fear is a conspicuously bad look for an authoritarian who’s consumed with projecting strength, or what passes for it in his mind.”
For now, Trump has the spotlight all to himself, but that might not give him the advantage he imagines.
DeSantis will kick back for the next six months and greet every Trump attack with amused silence, I suspect, believing correctly that those attacks do Trump more harm than good. The one-sidedness of the war will contrast how panicked Trump is about the primary with how self-assured DeSantis is. And it will alienate Republican voters who’ll resent seeing Trump take pot shots at a man who isn’t in the race (yet) and hasn’t uttered an unkind word about him (yet). Inevitably ugly rumors about DeSantis will begin to leak into the media and everyone will know where they came from. DeSantis’ admirers will resent that, too.
Imagine this going on week after week, month after month, while a smiling DeSantis goes about enacting more base-pleasing conservative policies in Florida, like an abortion “heartbeat” bill. “The best thing for DeSantis is Trump gets in, DeSantis stays out for a while, and Trump runs a race against himself for the next six months,” one Trump confidante mused, shrewdly, to Axios. Trump has always framed his politics of cruelty and dominance as a matter of counterpunching against enemies who picked a fight with him first, but DeSantis hasn’t picked any fights with him. Nor has he betrayed the populist right by pursuing a squishy centrist agenda. Trump, unambiguously, is the one starting the fight here. To many righties, the counterpuncher will at last look like what he’s always been, a bully.
And if he prevails in the primary anyway, some will remember it and decide they have better things to do on Election Day 2024 than turn out for a bully.
1. Trump’s Authoritarian Promise
On Tuesday night, as he announced his candidacy for president in 2024, Donald Trump largely stuck to a script. He eschewed many of the rants and tangents that pad his rally speeches, particularly about the 2020 election. Even so, Trump made it clear that if he returns to power, he will rule as a lethal authoritarian. Here are four of his promises….
1. He will send military force into American cities against their will.
“I will restore public safety in American cities and other communities that need our help,” said Trump. “And if they don’t want our help, we’re going to insist that they take our help.”…
2. He will impose immediate, one-day trials for people charged with selling drugs…
3. He will execute all drug sellers.
“We’re going to be asking everyone who sells drugs, gets caught selling drugs, to receive the death penalty for their heinous acts,” said Trump. He didn’t specify drug kingpins or sellers who cause deaths. He said execution would apply to everyone who sells drugs…
4. He will seek to eliminate early voting.
“I will immediately demand voter ID, same-day voting, and only paper ballots,” said Trump. “Paper ballots, same-day voting, voter ID.”…
2. Revenge of the Never Trumpers
There has long been a debate over whether or not “Never Trump” Republicans are a meaningful cohort. Election results keep suggesting that, at the electoral level, they are. Never Trumpers propelled the Democratic House victory in 2018 and Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, and they were also behind some of the Democrats who overperformed last week.
3. Pro-Lifers Need a New Strategy
Every abortion is a tragedy and frankly, a moral failure. And while it’s unrealistic to use the law to forbid women to abort if that’s what they are determined to do, there are thousands of expectant mothers who wish there were an alternative. They need financial and moral support and we should provide it.
Wouldn’t it be better to devote time and money to support groups for struggling moms than to limiting the exceptions to pregnancy termination in Louisiana? Every child should be welcomed in love. The pro-life movement should concentrate on helping more women to avoid unintended pregnancies, and ensuring that expectant mothers who really just need financial or practical or emotional support can find it.
Dish served cold:
Feeling some deja vu here: