Republicans view 2017-2021 as a golden age. That makes it hard to run against Trump.
The perils of unchoosing the chosen one.
By Noah Berlatsky
Donald Trump is running for president again. And though there are a lot of Republicans who wish he wouldn’t, he’s still the favorite. The GOP has spent six years telling the faithful and themselves that Trump is orange Jesus. Who’s going to end the kingdom of heaven by playing Judas?
Trump’s Tuesday speech officially launching his 2024 campaign was, as you’d expect, rambling, endless, and soaked in self-pitying aggrandizement. His central argument, though, was clear.
“Two years ago when I left office, the United States stood ready for its golden age. Our nation was at the pinnacle of power, prosperity, and prestige, towering above all rivals, vanquishing all enemies, and striding into the future confident and so strong … [But now] the blood-soaked streets of our once great cities are cesspools of violent crimes.”
In short, Trump’s speech indicated that his campaign strategy will be to scare people about the current state of the country, lie to them about what an awesome job he did as president, and hope voters buy it. And that might be enough to get him through the Republican primary.
Trump’s rewriting of history is obvious BS — unless you’re a Fox-watching Republican
To anyone who can actually remember two years ago without the clouding veil of slack-jawed foaming Fox propaganda, this argument seems ludicrous. Trump left office at the height of a brutal pandemic which he had resolutely refused to confront. Hundreds of thousands of people died; the economy contracted as disease and fear of disease kept people from work. Trump’s failure was symbolized when he himself fell ill with Covid and lied to the American people about his own brush with death.
And then, to top off four years of paranoia, failure, hate, and plague, he refused to accept the results of a democratic election, and stoked a violent fascist insurrection in which his violent militias threatened to kill his own vice president.
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Biden’s tenure hasn’t been a paradise. Covid continues to kill more than 2,000 people a week with little effort to restrain it; inflation has finally started to fall, but remains high; a recession looms. But he’s also had a range of impressive victories, including a strikingly successful response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a robust jobs recovery from the Trump Covid recession, and a genuine policy response to global warming.
Trump’s fantasy of a triumphant America under his tenure is just nonsense. His vision of a crime-soaked Biden America with blood running in the gutters like liberal tears is also nonsense. Together they are nonsense squared. Only partisans drunk on hate and lies could believe his ranting for a second.
The thing is, though, the GOP base is made up of partisans drunk on hate and lies. Republican-aligned media, from the pasty Goebbels that is Tucker Carlson on down, have been telling GOP voters for six years that Trump is a stable genius and even that he is God’s chosen one. And for the past two years they’ve been railing about how Biden is both hopelessly senile and a criminal mastermind who has destroyed America with open borders and fentanyl.
Political scientists have known for some time that voters’ evaluation of the economy is driven by partisan cues rather than the other way around. In the week before the 2016 election, for example, almost 80 percent of Republicans said the economy was moving in the wrong direction. As soon as Trump won, that number plummeted to 45 percent. In 2020, after Trump lost, Republicans flipped in the other direction; before the election they were sure the economy was fine. Afterwards, even before Biden had taken office, they suddenly thought everything looked dire.
Democrats aren’t immune to this dynamic. Before the 2016 election, some 30 percent of them thought the economy was getting worse; after Trump won that bounced up to around 45.
A 15-point shift is big. But it’s dwarfed by Republican’s 35-point change. Thanks to the right-wing media bubble, Republican voters are almost entirely insulated from any hint of a reality check. The partisan story is the only story, and that story is simple: Everything is great when Republicans are in power while everything is a dystopian nightmare as soon as Democrats take control.
How does the party of Trump distance itself from Trump?
Trump’s presidency really is seen by many Republicans as a brief Golden Age between the foul Scylla of Obama and the bleak Charybdis of Biden. Trump was the Triumphant King, and now he is the Triumphant King returned. The former president is just reiterating the same message that Republicans see every evening on their talking boxes of rage. Or as Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s high priests of sycophancy, put it on Twitter about Trump’s campaign launch speech:
“If President Trump continues this tone and delivers this message on a consistent basis, he will be hard to beat. His speech tonight, contrasting his policies and results against the Biden administration, charts a winning path for him in the primaries and general election.”
This puts every other candidate, very much including Ron DeSantis, in a bind. You can’t run against Trump’s record, because the entire party (including Ron DeSantis) has been insisting for years that Trump’s record is perfect and every problem in America is the legacy of Obama or an innovation of Biden.
But if you don’t run against Trump’s record, how can you make the case that you’d do better? You can maybe argue that he loses elections. That’s what DeSantis is pivoting to; he fired back at Trump obliquely this week by urging people to "go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night."
This approach could work, but DeSantis isn’t the best messenger. Trump is already telegraphing he’ll attack him as an inauthentic lackey who’s only governor in the first place because his campaign was all about kissing his ass. And the thing is, he’s not wrong.
Mike Pence, for his part, is trying to thread the needle by associating himself with the pre-Covid record of the Trump administration while distancing himself from Trump’s personal failings. Pence insists that America wants leadership of “civility and respect.” The problem here is that the GOP has proven over and over that they do not want that. They want rabid red meat. Pence’s sole honorable moment in public life — his refusal to participate in Trump’s coup — has destroyed his reputation with Trump and by extension with the MAGA base. Usually a former vice president has an inside track for the next competitive election. The fact that Pence is a distant third (at best) to both his former boss and DeSantis underlines his weakness.
No doubt DeSantis, Pence, and other Trump rivals would like to pull an Orwellian rewriting of history, and pretend that the GOP has always been anti-Trump, just as Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. If they could get right-wing media to turn against the former Apprentice host wholesale all at once, maybe they could manage it. But a lot of influencers like, say, Sean Hannity, remain in Trump’s corner. And many others are going to be reluctant to embrace a worldview where Biden and the Democrats aren’t the source of all ills.
None of this is to say Trump is unbeatable. The future is always in motion, and primary season is still a year off. But Trump’s opponents have a steep climb that’s about more than his strong primary poll numbers. To run against Trump, you have to run against the bone-deep, GOP partisan certainty that everything in the country is better when a Republican is in power.
It’s hard to beat the Chosen One after he’s already been Chosen. And even if Republicans do succeed in that task, they still face the possibility that Trump decides to burn down the party instead of accepting defeat.
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