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After Iowa
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After Iowa

What to expect when you’re expecting a Trump primary landslide.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Hyatt Hotel on December 13, 2023, in Coralville, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

If Ron DeSantis is the Ted Cruz of the 2024 Republican primary, Nikki Haley is the Marco Rubio.

That was Ed Kilgore’s thesis in a piece published last week in New York magazine. There’s a lot to it. Like Rubio, Haley was carried to major statewide office by the Tea Party wave of 2010. Like Rubio, Haley is nonwhite and young, confounding stereotypes about what Republican politicians look like. Like Rubio, Haley is conservative by instinct yet willing to make accommodations to Trumpy nationalism—except on foreign policy, where both remain staunchly hawkish. Like Rubio, Haley gained traction in presidential polling shortly before Iowa, tantalizing Reaganites with the possibility that she might slay the dragon.

Like Rubio, Haley has received the support of a prominent governor in an early primary state. In her case, that came Tuesday night in New Hampshire from Chris Sununu. In Rubio’s case, it came in South Carolina from, er, Nikki Haley.

Oh, and like Rubio, Haley is almost certainly going to be flattened by Trump when voting begins, and probably bounced out of the race in her home state’s primary, assuming she makes it that far.

I commend her for trying this year and Sununu for lending a hand. But the occasion of his allegedly “big” endorsement reminds me that the only real suspense in Republican presidential politics over the next six months has to do with how America will react once it fully awakens to the reality of a third Trump nomination.

“Isn’t America already fully awake to that?” you might say, mindful of the comically ugly national polling. Surprisingly, no!

Sarah Longwell of The Bulwark talks often on her podcast about how clueless some focus-group panelists are about the likelihood of a Trump-Biden rematch. Ask them which party’s candidate they prefer in 2024 and they might say the Democrat—before adding, “Wait, it’s not going to be Biden again, is it?” Inform them that it is and they might reply that they’re willing to consider the Republican in that case—before adding, “Wait, it’s not going to be Trump again, is it?”

He may haunt my dreams like a nationalist Freddy Krueger, but many voters haven’t thought about him in years. Soon their nightmare will begin again. What happens when it does?

What happens to the many Republican voters who have convinced themselves that Trump might possibly, conceivably, with a little luck, if we wish upon a star, be upset in the primary? For the DeSantis diehards who “know what time it is” and the Haley fans fantasizing about a pre-Trump restoration, defeat is too bitter a pill to swallow until they’re forced to. What will it do to them to see their candidates not just beaten but annihilated by a guy whom they hoped the party would leave behind?

What will it do to Democrats?

It’s time to look ahead to the aftermath of a Trump primary landslide.

Grassroots anti-anti-Trumpers will fall in line immediately.

On Monday, one of our senior editors offered sage advice to young Dispatch staffers who’ve never covered an election in which Trump is on the ballot. Many of the right-wingers on social media who’ve spent the last year complaining that he’s too old, too divisive, too legally compromised, and too underachieving are about to turn on you viciously for criticizing him, he warned them.

Most voters are partisans, but the Republican Party of the Trump era is special in its lousy tribal hackery. All but a few influential entities on the American right since 2015 have devoted themselves to drumming a single shining principle into their audiences: The most corrupt, unfit Republican is preferable to even the best Democrat, therefore nothing Trump does can justify withholding support from him in a general election.

Reverting to that mindset will be easy for DeSantis voters despite the zest with which Team MAGA has ridiculed their man day after day, month after month. If you’re willing to vote for the governor of Florida, you are by definition comfortable with a dubious authoritarian as nominee. In a matter of weeks, DeSantis supporters will sound indistinguishable from Trump fanatics—possibly worse, even, to heal the rift and prove their worth to the tribe anew.

Haley supporters aren’t as comfortable with post-liberalism and will take longer to come around, but plenty of them will. For tribalists, the whole point of berating people like Dispatch staffers whose objections to Trump aren’t purely circumstantial is to show wavering normie Republican voters how unpleasant political life might get for them if they don’t scurry back onside. Most Haley-ites will knuckle under.

They stuck it out with this loathsome party for this long, haven’t they? They’re not bailing now.

DeSantis, Haley, and pretty much everyone else will endorse Trump.

Some Never Trump conservatives like the aforementioned Sarah Longwell have speculated that Haley might surprise us next year and decline to back Trump as a matter of civic conscience. It’s not likely, they concede. But it’s possible.

I’m here to tell you that it isn’t possible. The odds of Nikki Haley going “full Cheney” are about the same as her winning the Republican nomination. Technically not zero, I suppose, but basically zero.

She and DeSantis are too young and have disfigured too much of their dignity already for the sake of ambition to let it be for naught. The steep costs of accommodating themselves to Trumpism are sunk. And with Trump himself approaching 80 and unlikely to run again in 2028 (I think?), their common dream of leading a post-MAGA Republican Party will survive the beating they’re about to take in the early primaries.

That’s especially true for Haley, a potential vice presidential candidate who beat expectations in this year’s campaign and is poised to be the last challenger standing in New Hampshire. Had she flamed out of the race early, there’s a chance she might have given up on the party as terminally ill with populism. Instead, she and DeSantis have each done just well enough to make it plausible-ish that they’ll begin the 2028 cycle as frontrunners. Neither will complicate that by refusing to endorse Trump.

Nor will any other prominent Republican who intends to stick around politics. We might see a few disgusted members of Congress refuse to endorse him as they join the herd stampeding toward the exit. Certain prominent Reaganites in exile—Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Liz Cheney—will also decline to support Trump, of course, hoping to prick what’s left of the consciences of what’s left of traditional conservatives. But no one who fears the political wilderness will dare. Right, Glenn Youngkin?

Even Haley’s new best friend, Chris Sununu, has preemptively pledged to support the Republican nominee no matter who he or she might be. The most corrupt, unfit Republican is preferable to even the best Democrat, you see.

Democrats will freak out if the head-to-head polling doesn’t change rapidly.

Last year Trump critics like me coped with his lead in early primary polling by predicting that the numbers would shift once his legal troubles deepened.

And we were right, in a way. They sure did shift.

Lately we’ve had to cope with a new polling horror, the fact that he now leads Joe Biden head-to-head consistently. “That’s only because most voters aren’t following the race yet,” the optimists among us will say. “When America realizes that he’s going to be the nominee and starts paying attention to how crazy he’s become, his support will drop.”

Let’s hope. Because if it doesn’t drop within a month or two of him locking up the nomination, Democratic anxiety about Biden’s chances will supernova into panic.

For structural reasons, there’s thus far been no meaningful pressure on the president to quit the race. Incumbency is valuable even when an incumbent is weak; Biden’s number two is inept and would fare even worse against Trump; it’s frankly too late in the cycle for the party to swap in a new nominee. Sticking with Joe is tacitly contingent, however, on the assumption that his polling will improve once voters begin to view the race as a choice between him and his grotesque Republican opponent rather than a referendum on the Biden presidency.

The head-to-head polling this spring will tell us whether that assumption was correct.

It might be. Trump’s nomination could cause disaffected young progressives to tune into the race belatedly and begin viewing Biden less as “Genocide Joe,” the butcher of Gaza, than as Grandpa Joe. 

But if the polling doesn’t change, expect an urgent and unprecedented effort to begin behind the scenes to get the sitting president to quit the race and let the DNC choose a nominee at the convention. This party won’t allow itself to sleepwalk to a second Trump term next November. Or so I keep telling myself as I stare into the abyss.

The parties will polarize sharply around the prospect of a Trump dictatorship.

“Polarization” in this case doesn’t mean that the left will rally against the idea of a Trump autocracy while the right rallies behind it. Although the Very Online cohort of boorish Tucker-watching populist goblins will, of course.

What it means is that the left will tout the most apocalyptic scenarios for a second Trump term as not just possible or likely, but as inevitable. On the flip side, the right will treat any suggestion that there’s anything to worry about as a Democratic psyop.

That project has already begun. Since I wrote this piece on Friday, several new entries in the developing genre of “Chill Out, Libs” have been published that treat anxiety about Trump’s designs on executive power as little more than left-wing projection. At the Wall Street Journal, Allysia Finley argued that the Biden administration is at least as authoritarian as whatever Trump might have planned. (“Silly partisan twaddle,” Jonah Goldberg aptly called it.) Michael Brendan Dougherty went a step further at National Review by accusing alarmists like Robert Kagan of deliberately trying to “soften the ground for extralegal resistance to an elected Trump administration.”

I thought it would take until next summer at the earliest before fretting about the return of a coup-plotting strongman invited a charge of inciting domestic terrorism. We’re way ahead of schedule, even in the most mainstream of mainstream conservative media.

Soon we’ll find ourselves in a strange split-screen reality in which right-wing pundits swear up and down with increasing vehemence that Trump won’t do anything too crazy in a second term … while he rants at length at rallies about all of the crazy things he wants to do in a second term.

We’re about to spend the better part of a year litigating whether Donald J. Trump, who plainly now poses a greater threat to the American order than he did three years ago, somehow still deserves the benefit of the doubt as the lesser of two evils.

Politics will seep further into Trump’s criminal trials, probably affecting the outcomes.

At the moment, jurors in Trump’s many trials can reassure themselves that their verdicts won’t necessarily decide the presidency next fall. He hasn’t won any votes yet. He might not even be the Republican nominee!

We’re about six weeks away from that illusion being shattered. He will be the nominee, and those verdicts likely will decide the presidency.

A meaningful number of Republican voters keep telling pollsters that they can’t stomach supporting Trump if he’s convicted of a crime. Forty-five percent said so in a Reuters survey published in August; a follow-up released a few days ago placed the share at 31 percent. In case any jurors remain blissfully unaware of the electoral ramifications of a guilty verdict, intense media attention to numbers like those before his trials begin will sober them up about it.

Once it does, Trump supporters on a particular jury will know that voting to convict probably means nuking his chances at reelection. Trump opponents on the same jury will recognize that voting to acquit will send him on to the general election with the wind at his back.

We’re headed for a series of hung juries, I suspect.

We’re also headed for an aggressive messaging effort by right-wing media aimed at discrediting any convictions in advance, just in case. “The jury was rigged because the trial was held in a Democratic jurisdiction.” “It’s unfair to punish him when some Democrat who committed some other form of misconduct got off scot-free.” “The charges against Trump are not real. They’re not even for serious crimes.” Etc. Before you know it, that 31 percent figure—which is already on the way down—will have shrunk to insignificance.

There will be violence at some point, possibly at Trump’s explicit behest. People who claim to despise such things will work tirelessly to rationalize it.

Everyone into the third-party pool!

The third-party pool this cycle is already crowded with kooks like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Jill Stein, and Cornel West. Once Trump clinches the Republican nomination, guaranteeing a general election between two known quantities roughly as popular as scabies, one or more mainstream third-party options are likely to cannonball in.

It should be the opposite. Given a choice between a candidate who tried to overthrow the government and a candidate who didn’t, the highest priority for longshot upstarts should be to avoid dividing the anti-sedition coalition. It’s strange to think that for young Americans, “the Kennedy legacy” may come to refer to Bobby Kennedy’s son helping to pave the way back to power for a right-wing authoritarian.

Sacrificing personal ambition for the greater good isn’t the way political egos work. And so a figure like Joe Manchin might be sitting back for now, waiting to see if Nikki Haley can pull off a miracle in the primary. If she can, there won’t be much room for him to jump in and run up the middle in the general election. If she can’t, he’s apt to view a Trump-Biden race as an irresistible opportunity for a successful Third Way “can’t we all just get along?” independent campaign.

In theory, Liz Cheney would also have a reason to run. There’s no constituency for her in a Haley-Biden contest, but you might perceive one in a Trump-Biden match-up if you believe she can woo away Republican votes that would otherwise go to Trump. And I do mean “you,” not me: I’m convinced that any conservatives willing to cast a protest vote for Cheney have already resolved not to support Trump next fall. All she’d achieve by entering the race is diverting crossover votes that might otherwise have gone to Biden.

Which means, weirdly, that “the Kennedy legacy” and “the Cheney legacy” would be the same thing.

Even Vivek Ramswamy, if he can avoid sore-loser laws, might be tempted into ditching his hopeless Republican campaign and relaunching as a Libertarian. That seems unlikely—my theory all along has been that he’s a stalking horse for Trump, self-tasked with damaging the pretenders to the throne at the debates—but he speaks post-liberalism with the zealousness of a convert. He may have gotten high on his own ideological supply (and the endless media attention he’s been huffing) over the course of the campaign and now can’t bear to sober up by quitting before November.

Vivek is probably too smart to torch the goodwill he’s earned among post-liberals this year by launching a kamikaze candidacy destined to siphon off votes from Trump. But sometimes seemingly smart people aren’t as smart as you think.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.