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Apres Trump, Le Deluge
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Apres Trump, Le Deluge

As Trump fades, populist infighting accelerates.

(Both photos by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.)

Jacobins always end up guillotining each other.

Unity prevails in the first phase of populist revolution against the common enemy, the regime. But once the regime falters and populists gain a measure of power, rivalries develop. The united front cracks under the weight of personal ambition and pressure of ideological purity. The blade that took the king’s head takes Robespierre’s too.

More than a decade into their own revolution, populist Republicans have managed to avoid the sort of major divisions that lead to rancorous infighting. Which, I think, is less a matter of personal restraint on their part than the vacuousness of the revolution itself. If your highest aspirations in governance are performatively spiting liberals, blocking Democrats from power, and railing against an ever-shifting concept of “elites,” there isn’t much to disagree upon. 

The personality cult around Donald Trump helped extend the period of revolutionary unity. Winning the presidency in 2016 made him a sort of populist Napoleon behind whom all right-wing factions could align in the interest of victory. He conquered the libs where John McCain and Mitt Romney had failed. However much right-wing populists may despise establishment Republican leaders and vice versa, all sides agreed that they enjoyed the power and glory that the emperor’s triumph brought. 

We may now be approaching the Waterloo phase of this story, where the analogy to France breaks down. The monarchy there was restored after Napoleon was banished to St. Helena but there’ll be no Reaganite restoration for the GOP. The stalwarts of pre-Trump Republicanism, from Romney to Mitch McConnell to Liz Cheney, are viewed more contemptuously by populists now than they were before Trump emerged. Base voters will remain broadly revolutionary if and when Trump is finally banished to Mar-a-Lago—although they may prefer nominees who more closely resemble the ancien regime as their candidates in the next election.

The analogy to France fails in another way. There’s never been a “reign of terror” phase of the right’s populist revolution in which the revolutionaries aggressively turn on each other. I suspect that too has less to do with the nature of the personnel involved than with the dynamics of America’s political system. By the time France’s Jacobins started chopping each other, the revolution’s success was assured. In America, it’s never assured. Trump remained an underdog against Hillary Clinton all the way to Election Day 2016, remember. The threat of Democratic victory kept right-wing populists united against the common enemy.

I wonder, though, if the “reign of terror” phase has merely been delayed, not averted, and whether populist infighting might not be a major Republican storyline in 2023.

In fact, I all but guarantee that it will be.

I started thinking about this last week when this clip began circulating on social media.

That’s not the first time one populist Republican has accused another of election fraud. Trump accused Ted Cruz of having cheated to win the Iowa caucus in 2016, naturally. But the attack on DeSantis by pillow-entrepreneur-turned-coup-plotter Mike Lindell feels more fratricidal than Trump’s attack on Cruz. For all his pretensions to populism, Cruz was a creature of the pre-Trump GOP—an avowed Reaganite, a staunch small-government Tea Party “constitutional conservative.” DeSantis is a post-Trump Republican, eager to use government power against the right’s cultural enemies. He’d rather investigate vaccine manufacturers than ruminate on federal spending.

Some pro-Trump Republicans resented Lindell for impugning one of the few MAGA populists on the ballot last month who overperformed at the polls.

“Everything down to the wording of this makes me think that Mike Lindell is a highly patriotic but extremely vulnerable man being used without his realizing it to discredit real election integrity efforts, which is evil and sad if correct,” conservative pundit and intellectual dark web thinker James Lindsay wrote.

“Lolol,” right-wing YouTuber Tim Pool added.

“Lindell needs to go away,” former Newsmax TV host John Cardillo responded. “He’s being interviewed by a guy he funds, on his own network, spewing lunatic conspiracy theories. DeSantis did well in FL because he did an amazing job for FL. Lindell’s BS is pathetic, and he should stop listening to grifters using him for $$$.”

Assuming Trump and DeSantis both run for president, there’s no way to avoid a populist bloodletting next year. Lindell’s smear is a small reminder that it’s already begun, in fact. Trump loyalist Roger Stone has taken to saying that DeSantis would be working in a Dairy Queen if not for his patron while Laura Loomer has criticized DeSantis for being too skeptical about Trump’s great big beautiful COVID vaccines. American Greatness recently ran a piece titled “DeSantis 2024 Is a Trap” mocking those who think the governor could win the presidency in an election system as allegedly riddled with Democratic fraud as ours is.

The 2024 primary will split MAGA Republicans into camps of “traitors,” who have turned on Trump to support DeSantis, and “losers,” who insist on sticking with Trump despite his dismal election record. One camp (or both) will lose. They will not easily get over it. And the winning camp won’t easily get over the losing camp not getting over it.

Even if Trump drops out, there’s likely to be a bloodletting. A charismatic outsider like Tucker Carlson entering the race could divide populists. So could a hardline take-no-prisoners bomb thrower like Marjorie Taylor Greene. Some MAGA voters, anxious about electability after the midterm’s great disappointment, might steer toward a more mainstream yet populist-friendly candidate like Glenn Youngkin.

As the base splinters among candidates with differing degrees of revolutionary fervor in battling the “elites,” bitter recriminations among “sellouts” and “dead-enders” will metastasize. Perhaps they’ll be forgotten in time for the party to unify before the general election, but perhaps not. If Trump loses, there’ll be no gracious appeal from him to his followers to align behind the nominee, needless to say. Some populists will presume to read their enemies out of the movement entirely, their betrayal in having backed the wrong horse deemed unforgivable.

And of course a galaxy of right-wing opportunists with no particular loyalty to anything other than their bank accounts will be watching closely for signs of who’s likely to prevail. They’ll align themselves accordingly, and they’ll participate cheerfully in the recriminations against their camp’s enemies to build goodwill among their new comrades.

A hotly contested primary guarantees that Jacobins of different stripes will start guillotining each other. But the primary isn’t the only influence encouraging infighting among them.

One way to be sure that Trump’s political stock has fallen is the fact that Mitch McConnell has been more brazen lately about criticizing him.

Before the midterms McConnell typically would decline to comment when asked about Trump’s insults of him or his wife. There was nothing to gain for the party before Election Day by the most prominent Republican officeholder in America engaging in a poo-flinging contest with the GOP’s 800-pound gorilla. But Election Day is now past and the 800-pound gorilla looks more like a 300-pound gorilla.

McConnell can’t resist pointing it out. “Here’s what I think has changed: I think the former president’s political clout has diminished,” he told NBC last week. “We lost support that we needed among independents and moderate Republicans, primarily related to the view they had of us as a party—largely made by the former president—that we were sort of nasty and tended toward chaos.”

He’s right that Trump’s clout has diminished. And because it has, new power centers in the party are opening up that will pit erstwhile allies against each other. Imagine the Republican Party as a solar system with Trump as the sun at its center. As his star begins to shrink, allowing more distant stars to exert greater relative gravitational pull, the planets in orbit around him will begin spinning off in different directions.

It’s happening already in the House among some of our least favorite Republicans.

For evidence of Trump’s new weakness, look no further than the fact that he’s reportedly lobbied the populist holdouts opposing Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker on McCarthy’s behalf and found them unwilling to budge. Among those holdouts is Lauren Boebert, who was asked recently why she can’t bring herself to support McCarthy when her populist Wonder Twin, Marjorie Taylor Greene, can. Boebert resented the comparison. “You know, I’ve been aligned with Marjorie and accused of believing a lot of the things that she believes in,” she said. “I don’t believe in this, just like I don’t believe in Russian space lasers—Jewish space lasers and all of this.”

Greene in turn resented Boebert’s remark.

Boebert’s swipe wasn’t the first time recently that Greene’s support for McCarthy has led to her being mocked by a populist ally. “At the first opportunity, he will zap her faster than you can say Jewish space laser,” Matt Gaetz said last month of McCarthy and Greene. Andy Biggs, who’s opposing McCarthy for speaker, said Greene had “crossed the Rubicon” when she accused the Never Kevin populists of lying by claiming that an alternative to McCarthy will emerge. Some fringier populist media types have taken to describing her as a “trailer park hoodrat” and a “two-bit whore.”

Boebert, undaunted by Greene’s shot at her, later doubled down by reminding The Daily Caller that her colleague had once attended white supremacist Nick Fuentes’ political conference.

Watching a populist as strident and obnoxious as Greene be marginalized so quickly by her fellow Jacobins does have a whiff about it of Robespierre being placed under arrest. If her radical credentials aren’t radical enough to spare her from the contemptuous sneers of her closest allies, no one’s credentials are. The fact that she’s a longtime favorite of Donald Trump’s seems to have earned her no benefit of the doubt.

For the moment, the measure of True Populism isn’t how devoutly you support Trump, it’s how devoutly you oppose McCarthy. As revolutions evolve, the measure of what constitutes proper revolutionary fervor can evolve too—so quickly and arbitrarily that even ardent revolutionaries may, to their surprise, suddenly find themselves wanting. 

Like Greene, the RNC and its chief are also learning that the hard way.

Ronna McDaniel, the committee’s chairwoman, has found herself of late the victim of the American right’s desperate need to blame someone other than Trump for its midterm losses. McDaniel isn’t a true populist, of course—she’s a member of the extended Romney family—but she’s dutifully mouthed the requisite populist talking points since taking over the RNC in 2017 to stay on Trump’s and the MAGA base’s good side. She even dropped “Romney” from her professional name because it offended the emperor.

Like many other Republicans, she did what she was asked to prove her loyalty to the revolution in the interest of acquiring personal power. Then she watched as Trump steered the GOP into an electoral ditch, losing the House in 2018 and the presidency in 2020 and recording one of the worst midterm performances by the out-party in modern American history in 2022.

Her reward for having stood by meekly while Trumpist populism took over the GOP and fumbled away winnable elections is being scapegoated for those defeats by populists. Two Trump loyalists, one of them Mike Lindell, are challenging her for the chairmanship of the RNC in the wake of the midterms. Never mind that the RNC’s role in elections is limited to providing infrastructure and financing, not candidate selection, or that the party was saddled with Trump’s endless daily election conspiracy theorizing as it went about trying to promote more appealing messages.

The revolution requires that someone be made to pay for its failures. McDaniel, a member of the old guard turned faux revolutionary, is an obvious candidate to be sacrificed to Madam Guillotine. It’s the same impulse that led Trump and his cronies, laughably, to try to blame Mitch McConnell for the party’s underperformance last month. McConnell has never pretended to be a populist, though; no one in the party is more ancien regime than he is. McDaniel tried to position herself as populist-friendly, believing that would protect her right flank. She was mistaken.

In 2023, McConnell will still hold his office. It’s unclear if McDaniel will hold hers. As the need for more scapegoats evolves along with events, other Republicans who thought they were on the right side of the revolution may find à la McDaniel and Greene that they’re enemies of the people after all.

Above all, populist infighting will increase next year because, sooner or later, this movement will develop something resembling a coherent ideology. And when it does, differences over policy that are familiar to any political movement will emerge.

There are right-wing ideologues standing by right now, polemics in hand, hoping to fill the vacuum. But the current options are either embarrassing pie-in-the-sky theocracy-lite, aka integralism, or traditional conservatism with a bit more authoritarianism aimed at drag queens, aka national conservatism. Notably, those subfactions have themselves begun feuding lately as they jockey for position as the true “vanguard” of proto-fascist populism.

The presidential primaries may provide some ideological clarity. An interesting debate could be had, for instance, on the proper limits of state power over public health springboarding off of vaccine mandates. Conservatives value personal freedom, but how much freedom do they want to give parents to say no to traditional vaccines as America backslides on herd immunity?

We could have that debate, were any of the candidates up to offering a thoughtful answer. What we’re likely to get instead is incessant grandstanding followed by much of the party treating the eventual nominee’s position as the proper and correct conservative position no matter what it ends up being. Populists crave an emperor. And so it’s likely that Republican populists will end up consolidating next year behind one of the two guys in the field known for wielding power imperiously.

There may be unity in the end in the interest of defeating the common enemy. But there will be blood beforehand. Lots of it.

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.