America’s Post-Trump Delusion Is in Full Swing

Daily News

Soul-searching, back-biting, recriminations,
denunciations: This is the usual stuff of post-election seasons, though few
would have predicted a month ago that all of it would be happening on the
right. The “Red Wave” many expected never materialized; Republicans might have
won the House, but they utterly failed to win it “bigly,” to borrow a term of
art from the man being widely blamed for their underperformance. And there are
signs that Trump himself may be looking to switch gears. In his speech
announcing a 2024 campaign last week, there were, to be sure, a few references
to the cultural wedge issues that shaped—and tanked⁠—MAGA approved
campaigns this cycle, including swings against critical race theory and trans
athletes. He spoke about putting drug dealers to death ⁠(a provocation in
keeping with the tone of his 2016 campaign) and Hillary Clinton. He whined
about voting methods and the Steele dossier.

But the bulk of his speech was dedicated to
the issues likely to dominate what we might generously call a second term
policy agenda: the economy, immigration and, foreign policy, including more
sparring with China. “Every policy must be geared towards, that
which supports the American worker, the American family, and businesses both
large and small and allows our country to compete with other nations on a very
level playing field,” he said. “That means low taxes, low regulations and fair
trade, much of which I’ve already completed, but now we’ll even greatly
enhance.” “When given the choice, boldly, clearly, and directly,” he predicted
elsewhere, “I believe the American people will overwhelmingly reject the left’s
platform of national ruin and they will embrace our platform of national
greatness and glory to America.”

While Trump’s speech was widely framed as an underwhelming salvo in the fight
for the soul of the Republican Party, the familiarity of much of the platform
he laid out suggests the substantive gap between him and the Republican elites
loudly denouncing him again – never very large to begin with – is shrinking
further still. At least one of the elite’s preferred standard-bearers, for his part,
has spent the last few years moving in Trump’s direction. In all probability,
we’ll find the future of the Republican Party in the places where the two meet.
And we have every reason to believe the party’s future bodes poorly for our
politics, whether or not Trump wins out.

Over the course of his first campaign and
presidency, Trump’s vision for bringing “glory to America” shifted from an
erratic and occasionally heterodox pseudo-populism towards the familiar
platitudes of conservative orthodoxy. Every indication is that the
transformation has held—the next campaign, as Trump renders it in his remarks,
will be a fight between “freedom, values, individual responsibility, and just
plain common sense” on the right and “an extreme ideology of government
domination and control” on the left.

And in a notable departure from the bulk of
his post-2020 rhetoric—one mirrored by surprisingly conciliatory pro-Trump
candidates across the country in recent weeks—he blamed the right’s failure
in this particular election less on voter fraud than on an electorate that has
yet to grasp the severity of the country’s troubles.  “The citizens of our country have not yet
realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through,”
he said. “I have no doubt that by 2024, it will sadly be much worse. And they
will see much more clearly what happened and what is happening to our country
and the voting will be much different.”

It’s up to three parties whether Trump will
have the opportunity to build that case to the public once the campaign begins
in earnest: the Special Counsel just appointed to lead the January 6th and
Mar-a-Lago documents investigations, Republican primary voters, and the
Republican elites now straining to convince those voters that Trump is a
liability—a task made awkward by the fact that there are now few substantive
differences between Trump and the party establishment figures trying to disavow
National Review’s latest and
perhaps last major statement against Trumpism, which leads with a summary of
his accomplishments, captures that tension well. “To
his credit,” editors wrote, “Trump killed off the Clinton dynasty in 2016,
nominated and got confirmed three constitutionalist justices, reformed taxes,
pushed deregulation, got control of the border, significantly degraded ISIS in
Syria and Iraq, and cinched normalization deals between Israel and the Gulf
states, among other things.”

But Trump’s mode of
politics⁠—“his erratic nature and lack of seriousness,” in their words —has
become inordinately costly; the editorial pairs the
Review’s putatively
principled objections to his disrespect for the American constitutional order with
the bare fact that his antics, well before this month’s midterms, cost Republicans
the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020, in turn paving the way for “trillions
of dollars in spending” and the appointment of progressive judges under Biden.
The GOP’s task now, per the
is to face that record squarely and pivot to an already large set of potential
candidates: “Republicans who aren’t, in contrast to him, monumentally selfish
or morally and electorally compromised.”

“It’s too early to know
what the rest of the field will look like,” they wrote, “except it will offer
much better alternatives than Trump.”

What does ‘better than
Trump’ really mean?  The candidate who
fits the bill for most of the GOP’s anxious donors and bigwigs at the moment is
Ron DeSantis, a man who spent the campaign season stumping for candidates who
backed Trump’s election claims and who vowed to take on nonexistent voter fraud
within Florida. The GOP partially owes their House majority to DeSantis’
insistence on pushing through a more aggressively
congressional map for the state than Republican lawmakers had intended. He inveighed
against critical race theory and transgender people as or more aggressively
than the party’s Trumpiest candidates in the rest of the country; sending
migrants off to Martha’s Vineyard was as wicked and depraved a stunt as
anything Trump has ever pulled.

There’ll probably have
to be more where all that came from if DeSantis hopes to win over enough Trump
loyalists and party activists to make the 2024 primary a real race. Trump,
after all, is less an independent font of right-wing extremism than a
particular, replaceable conduit for energies that have been shaping Republican
politics for decades now. And the establishment’s bet that DeSantis might
present a less threatening face to voters troubled by Trump will be undermined
if the primary is particularly hard fought—returning Trump to his not-so-old
self⁠—or if Republicans in the House
capture a large share of the public’s attention. Right now, the new, majority,
as narrow and fragile as it is, seems poised to antagonize the Biden
administration and the Democrats in much the same way Republicans did when a
much larger majority swept into the chamber under Obama: a flurry of
investigations, a looming fight over the national debt, and sociocultural
dog-whistles aplenty about decadent cosmopolitans subverting American values.

Conservative media
deserves most of the blame for emboldening the party’s fringe, but the right’s
hacks have had a hand from some of the right’s putative critics. In the weeks and months before the election, predictions that
Republicans would sweep into Congress on the basis of progressive cultural
overreach were issued not only by the likes of Fox News but by  
The New York
. For three straight elections now, Republicans have staked
their campaigns on the exaggerated, imagined, or invented excesses of the left.

For three straight elections, the institutions
of the mainstream press have covered Democratic campaigns and policymaking with
the expectation and implication that the right’s messaging on cultural issues
would largely succeed. And for three straight elections, the anticipated
general backlash against cultural progressivism has utterly failed to
materialize. Standing against all available evidence⁠—the proof, in surveys
and election results, that the electorate had moved measurably left on issues
like racial justice, LGBT rights, and immigration over the last decade, the
clear tendency of Republican politicians, unlike their Democratic counterparts,
to embrace their party’s least popular ideas, like overturning
center and the right have been locked in a cycle of mutual delusion.

The mainstream press’ dogged insistence that
most voters are alienated by the push for transgender rights in particular was belied
by the right’s failure⁠—not the first⁠—to take electoral advantage of the
issue space this cycle. Republican candidates and conservative groups spent an
million dollars on anti-LGBT ads, much of it dedicated to messaging on
trans children specifically. They had little to show for it in campaigns across
most of the country; in Michigan, where Democrats swept statewide races and
secured their first trifecta in decades, state GOP chief of staff Paul Cordes
lamented that gubernatorial candidate Tudor
Dixon had seemingly pushed more ads on trans athletes “than inflation, gas
prices and bread and butter issues that could have swayed independent voters.”

But measured by the onslaught of anti-trans
measures Republicans have advanced across the country and the hatred
conservative activists have stoked over the last few years, it’s hard to say
that Republican messaging hasn’t worked, in the sense that the party has
succeeded in making life more difficult and more dangerous for LGBT people. The motive of the recent mass shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Colorado Springs is still being investigated; it’s possible the attack might soon be appended to the list of massacres against Jews, Latinos, and African-Americans that right-wing politics has inspired over the past few years.

The Republican Party understands the climate its
rhetoric and strategies have created kills people and will continue to do so;
it remains important to Republican politicians that the men being provoked to
murder have the right tools at their disposal. It’s of some comfort that many
Americans have come to seethe right’s degeneracy for what it is, and that
Republicans continue to pay an electoral penalty for it. But given the mounting
structural advantages the GOP enjoys within the federal system, this election
barely qualifies as a setback. The 2024 campaign will be hard fought no matter
who winds up on top of the Republican ticket. And even if they lose at the
polls, we can rest assured that the right will snatch whatever victories it can
manage from the jaws of political defeat. 

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