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Character Is Destiny, Personnel Is Policy
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Character Is Destiny, Personnel Is Policy

More on Trump’s second term.

Former President Donald Trump leaves the New York State Supreme Court during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization in New York on December 7, 2023. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

I sense a Dispatch family quarrel developing.

A minor one. All Dispatch family quarrels are minor, but they tend to be really minor when the subject is Donald Trump, as regular readers know.

In a normal family quarrel, one side might argue that Trump’s second term will be dystopian while the other argues that it’ll be restorative. He’ll make America great again (again?) at last—or end the American experiment altogether. But in a Dispatch family quarrel, the argument is over just how freakishly dystopian a second Trump term will be. Will he end the American experiment, or will he merely damage it irreparably without quite ending it? Are we looking at actual civic death—or just a severe maiming?

On a scale of alarm from 1 to 10, some of us have already gone full Cheney and maxed out. Others, more cool-headed, are clocking in at a nine.

Maybe even an eight after a few drinks.

After listening to their conversation on The Remnant last week, I’d place Jonah Goldberg and Sarah Isgur on the cool-headed side of the Dispatch spectrum. Jonah’s worried about Trump 2.0 but wonders whether dire warnings about a coming dictatorship are backfiring. We’ve seen countless examples since 2016 of Republican voters reacting to elites shaming them for supporting Trump by … doubling down on supporting Trump, most recently after his indictments this past spring and summer. Why would anyone expect this new experiment to end differently?

Sarah’s worried too, but reminded listeners that Trump’s most strident critics have been catastrophizing about him for eight years and have misfired numerous times. A devout MSNBC viewer circa 2018 would have told you that the Steele dossier is holy writ and that Trump is a bona fide no-foolin’ Russian agent. That same devout MSNBC viewer now wants you to believe Trump is a dictator in the making. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but credibility matters.

What’s more, Sarah pointed out, dictators tend to be ideologues, often to the point of fanaticism. They have a political vision and they’re willing to go to unimaginable lengths, often involving unimaginable body counts, to realize that vision. Trump isn’t an ideologue. He’s an authoritarian for sure, and there are issues like border security and protectionism about which he feels passionately. But the only thing he’s fanatical about is his narcissism. That’s why he got into politics in the first place—not because he had a “vision” he burned to achieve, but because being the most famous and powerful person in the world was rapturously intoxicating to a mind like his.

How achievable, really, is a red-in-tooth-and-claw dictatorship by a guy who covets the job mainly because it gets him on TV?

Today is an opportune moment to consider that question because the latest polling is, uh, not great.

There’s no Dispatch family quarrel over the significance of the new NBC News survey of Iowa.

Barring an act of God or Tanya Chutkan, the Republican presidential primary is effectively over.

Whether it ends with Trump’s last remaining challenger dropping out after Super Tuesday, or South Carolina, or maybe even New Hampshire remains to be seen. But the fact that it’ll end early with an overwhelming victory for the frontrunner is all but assured.

NBC News’ poll, conducted by the well-respected Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, has Trump winning a clear majority of caucus-goers at 51 percent. Despite gaining the endorsements of Gov. Kim Reynolds and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, Ron DeSantis wheezes into second at 19 percent. Nikki Haley, the alleged up-and-comer in the race, is a few points behind at 16 percent—exactly where she was when Selzer last entered the field in October. The biggest gainer of the three candidates since then is Trump, who’s added 8 points to his margin while DeSantis managed to add only 3.

The former president now has the highest favorability rating of anyone in the race. His supporters are much more likely to say their minds are made up and that they’re enthusiastic to vote for him than DeSantis’ or Haley’s supporters are. All of which means it’s more likely that Trump will overperform his already gaudy margins on caucus night than underperform—by wooing voters away from his opponents.

And if he does, the race might plausibly end in New Hampshire. The momentum he gains from a landslide victory in Iowa could extinguish whatever hope Haley had at a surprise in the northeast. If Trump romps in New Hampshire as well, she might prefer to drop out than continue on to South Carolina and suffer a drubbing in her home state.

All of this would be somewhat easier to take if the general election polls were improving for Joe Biden. They aren’t.

In scores of national polls taken over the course of more than a year during the 2020 campaign, Trump led only five times and only twice led by as much as 4 points. According to a new Wall Street Journal national survey, he leads Joe Biden today by—ta-da!—4 points, the first time he’s passed the incumbent in WSJ polling dating back to last year. When respondents to the poll were asked whom they trust more to handle key problems like the economy, inflation, crime, and border security, Trump led by at least 15 on each issue.

In only five of the last 25 national surveys taken has the current president led the former one, a total reversal of the 2020 dynamic. 

And before you say “the national polls don’t matter because we use state elections to choose a president,” let me point out that the state polling for Biden also stinks on ice. New CNN data finds Trump leading the president by 5 points in Georgia and by 10 points(!) in Michigan, two states that went Democratic three years ago. Voters in both places who didn’t cast a ballot in 2020 favor Trump by overwhelming margins.

Not only has Trump become the odds-on favorite to be the next president, if the election were held today, he would probably improve on his 2016 electoral vote haul. One could even argue that Trump has never been stronger politically than he is right now. Not in 2016, at the peak of Trumpmania; not in 2020, when he had the advantage of incumbency. Right now, with a coup attempt, multiple impeachments, and 91 felony counts to his name. And with a lot of anecdotal evidence mounting about the MAGA infrastructure’s autocratic ambitions.

That outcome should be impossible in a country that’s still committed to the Madisonian project. Which means, perhaps, that the American experiment already quietly ended at some point and Trump’s second term would simply be a matter of formalizing it.

But let’s assume that all hope isn’t lost yet and that it actually matters how he governs in his next four years. Who has the better of the Dispatch family quarrel? Those of us like me, who are breathing into paper bags and have already begun aggressively researching how to apply for Canadian citizenship? Or those like Jonah and Sarah, who have maybe done only a cursory Google search or two on the topic in their darkest moments?

Jonah is right that the “Trump wants a dictatorship” alarmism risks backfiring.

That’s not because Republican voters are aggressively ideologically authoritarian themselves (although some are!), it’s because they don’t care whether Trump is an authoritarian or not and will resent the effort from cultural enemies to try to shame them into caring. They like him, they trust him, they’re willing to give him the benefit of every doubt and to defend whatever he does in office, and they will not stand for being scolded about it.

It’s hard not to notice, in fact, that as the drumbeat of reporting on his second-term plans has picked up lately, his victory in the primary has looked increasingly certain. The singular fact of this race is that he began to run away with it only after the first criminal indictment was filed against him at the end of March. Populism is spiteful, and so Republican voters responded spitefully to the Democratic prosecutors who came after their hero. Why wouldn’t they also respond spitefully to media alarmism about that hero wanting to end democracy?

So I take Jonah’s point. But what’s the alternative?

Should the media not sound the alarm—accurately and justifiably—about his authoritarian ambitions lest doing so inspire Republican voters to sink further into spiteful nihilism?

Go back to the Selzer poll. Nikki Haley, a recognizably traditional conservative, scores 16 percent there; Chris Christie, the most vocal Trump critic in the field, scores 4. That’s one-fifth of the Republican electorate that’s sufficiently hostile to post-liberalism of the Trump-DeSantis variety that they’re backing candidates from the GOP’s pre-Trump era instead.

It may be true that Trump has the highest favorability rating of any candidate in the field at 72-28, but 28 percent is no small share of dissent within his own party for a politician who’s running as a de facto incumbent president. It may also be true that Chris Christie has the lowest favorable rating of the remaining top-tier candidates at 20-68, but there too we see roughly one-fifth of the party aligning themselves with an outspoken Trump enemy.

The presidency will likely be decided next fall by the ability of the anti-Trump coalition to persuade the ~25 percent of Republicans who disdain him to cross the aisle and support Democrats like Biden. They’re the target audience for the warnings about nascent autocracy, not rank-and-file Republicans who are too far gone by now to be persuadable by any sort of civic appeal. Downplaying the threat Trump poses for strategic reasons, because it risks backfiring among the pro-Trump Republican majority, means squandering an opportunity to educate the gettable 25 percent on what his second term would entail before the “cement” of their partisan tribal loyalty hardens during the general election campaign.

It also means missing an opportunity to remind fickle leftists of the stakes at a moment when the war in Gaza is testing their own tribal loyalties. It’s one thing to resent Biden because he favors Israel in the conflict, it’s another to resent him so much that you help reelect this guy:

He’ll say many things like that on the campaign trail between now and Election Day. Priming voters to pay attention to them—to take them seriously and literally, to borrow a phrase—by warning them about his autocratic ambitions can’t start soon enough.

Besides, if calling attention to a real and growing threat of authoritarianism ends up boosting support for the authoritarian among voters, then the Madisonian project really is over. Better that we find that out than pursue too-clever-by-half messaging strategies in which we downplay a candidate’s civic menace and risk swing voters somehow overlooking it.

Or, to put that differently: I’m glad The Dispatch exists and is doing what it does, even if its existence annoys some spiteful partisan Republicans into voting for Trump. Chumps like that are forever looking for excuses to vote for him and will inevitably find one. Forget them. Look to the other 25 percent, in whose hands the fate of the country actually lies.

Sarah’s points are also well taken. Committed anti-Trumpers do have a habit of falsely catastrophizing about him, and it’s certainly true that he’s not an ideologue in classic dictatorial form.

But so what?

His first term did in fact end in catastrophe, and not just any catastrophe but one that confirmed the core Never Trump insight into his character. We warned that he would cross the Rubicon if given power, and he did. No, he’s not a Russian spy. And there’s no “pee tape.” But if you feared that his twisted narcissism and admiration for foreign strongmen would lead him to subvert democracy once it threatened his own prestige, come collect your winnings.

Character is destiny. When his critics warn about “dictatorship” in his second term, they’re warning that he won’t be able to resist crossing the Rubicon again. How that’ll look exactly, we can only wonder—defying court orders? sending the military to confront American citizens?—but that he’ll do it isn’t in doubt. Because he already has.

Character is destiny.

And personnel is policy. That’s why the fact that Trump isn’t an ideologue doesn’t calm me. One could even argue that it makes the threat from his second term more dire.

The saving grace of his first term was that there was no post-liberal infrastructure within the GOP for him to utilize when it came time to craft policy and make appointments. He fell back on conservative apparatchiks, respected military officers, and trusted mainstream friends and family—Reince Priebus, James Mattis, Jared and Ivanka, Gary Cohn. (He recruited Mitt Romney for secretary of state, for cripes sake!) He got a tax cut passed, almost repealed Obamacare, and appointed judges from the Federalist Society wish list. His nationalist instincts flared from time to time, like with his insistence on tariffs and his browbeating of NATO partners, but the classically liberal personnel with which he surrounded himself kept him more or less on track until the very end.

Even at the very end, there was enough of it still intact to prevent a total calamity. Jeffrey Clark would have become acting attorney general if not for the adamant opposition of a bunch of civic-minded lawyers who were in the president’s ear.

Trump was, essentially, a student driver in the White House and had a conscientious instructor in the passenger’s seat in the form of his many liberal-ish aides. When he sped up and began veering off the road, they jerked the wheel and slammed the brakes. He wasn’t ideological enough in most circumstances to resist and demand that they do things his way.

All of that will be different in the second term. He’s not a student anymore. He knows, sort of, how to drive.

And there won’t be an instructor in the passenger’s seat this time whose goal it is to keep him on the road. The post-liberal infrastructure that didn’t exist in 2016 has since been built, is being built, or has been co-opted among existing “conservative” institutions. He doesn’t need Bill Barr or the Federalist Society anymore; his new advisers will “know what time it is.” This time the driving instructor will be some of the worst miscreants in American politics—and they’ll be stepping on the gas, pedal to the metal, hooting at him to go off-road.

Trump might resist them, I suppose. But consider that his “Stop the Steal” project in 2020 began, to all appearances, as a cynical propaganda operation to spin what he knew was a legitimate defeat before Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell got hold of him and seemingly convinced him that a mass vote-rigging conspiracy really was afoot. This is not a man given to skepticism when he’s being flattered and told what he wants to hear. When his cabinet of cronies tells him in 2025 that he was sent to save America and that saving America requires ignoring a Supreme Court ruling, can anyone imagine Donald J. Trump saying no? Even if he’s not hyper-motivated by ideological conviction himself to defy the ruling?

They’re going to jerk the wheel together.

If it’s true that Trump is a more or less empty ideological vessel, then everything depends on what that vessel is filled with, and what it’s filled with depends on who’s doing the filling. If it’s Don McGahn and Pat Cipollone doing the filling, you’ll get results that reflect their preferences. If it’s Stephen Miller or Kash Patel of any of the red-pilled cretins whom Trump is forever glad-handing, you’ll get results that reflect their preferences.

Character is destiny, personnel is policy. Both will be abysmal to an historic degree in a second Trump term. If he wins, there’s no avoiding catastrophe. The only mystery has to do with the magnitude.

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.