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Conversion Or Exile
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Conversion Or Exile

The weirdly rational populist strategy of purging conservatives.

Former President Donald Trump delivers remarks alongside supporters, campaign staff, and family members during his primary night rally at the Sheraton in Nashua, New Hampshire, on January 23, 2024. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The first order of business for conventional politicians who win a primary is to reconcile with enemies within their party to build a winning coalition in the fall.

Donald Trump has never been a conventional politician.

Good news, sir. The Romneys have already been gotten rid of. Both of them.

One can understand why Trump is willing to antagonize admirers of his predecessor as the Republican nominee for president. Those admirers have already been alienated beyond repair, so there’s no political cost to doing so. Mitt Romney and Donald Trump are poles apart in measures of character, respect for the constitutional order, and foreign policy; at this point, I can’t imagine how anyone could like both of them. Romney himself said bluntly last week that he won’t vote for Trump in November, as one might expect of a senator who voted to convict him in two separate impeachment trials.

So, Trump gratuitously antagonizing Romney fans isn’t all that interesting. 

But Trump gratuitously antagonizing Ron DeSantis fans is quite interesting.

In fairness, it wasn’t Trump himself who recently picked a new fight with DeSantis. He offered a small olive branch to the governor of Florida by mentioning him as a potential running mate, in fact, although no one thinks he’s serious about it. But when DeSantis made some very mild criticisms of the VP shortlist in an interview, no fewer than three of Trump’s top advisers tore into him publicly on social media. “Chicken fingers and pudding cups is what you will be remembered for, you sad little man,” Chris LaCivita tweeted. Spokesmen Jason Miller and Steven Cheung openly threatened retribution if the governor kept it up.

DeSantis got more than 20 percent of the vote in Iowa. His base includes loads of traditional conservatives who are willing to compromise on populism but feel exasperated at the prospect of a third Trump nomination. Symbolically flipping them the bird by treating their favorite candidate as an enemy is not the obvious path to post-primary unity.

The most famous recent example of Trump needlessly insulting voters he should be courting came after the vote in New Hampshire, when he announced that anyone who donated to Nikki Haley would henceforth be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.” The Haley campaign immediately turned that into a badge of honor and a merchandising opportunity for the millions of traditional Republicans who keep voting for her in primaries despite the fact that she has zero chance of winning. A voter who’s embraced being “permanently barred” from Trump’s party is a voter who’s unlikely to come home in November.

Even by MAGA standards, this all seems insane. It’s one thing for populists to fantasize about “completely eradicating” Reaganites from the GOP, it’s another thing for them to act on it. They know how to count and they know how tight the coming election is apt to be. They can’t afford to leave these votes on the table. Right, Kari Lake?

It seems insane—but is it?

Trump can’t win if he keeps antagonizing traditional conservatives and shrinking the party. That’s the theory to which Never Trumpers like me routinely cling.

Where’s the evidence that it’s true?

The Republican Party under Trump has never been less hospitable to conservatives than it is at this moment—and his chances of winning the presidency have never been greater.

I wrote about Joe Biden’s dismal prospects for reelection a few days ago, but that piece already seems too optimistic. A New York Times poll released this weekend found Trump leading the president by 5 points nationally, in line with most of the other recent national polling. His 47.8 percent vote share in the RealClearPolitics general election average today is the highest that figure has been this cycle.

The details of the Times poll are one disaster after another. Across the demographic spectrum, voters are more likely to say Trump’s policies as president benefited them than they are Biden’s. No less than 73 percent of registered voters believe Biden is too old to be effective as president in a second term, including 61 percent of those who voted for him in 2020. Voters who view both candidates unfavorably break only narrowly for the incumbent this time; he won them overwhelmingly four years ago.

A man who attempted a coup, was impeached twice, and now stands accused of 91 crimes is 6 points more popular than Biden. The latest poll from CBS News has him at 52 percent head-to-head against the president, one of Trump’s best-ever numbers since first joining the Republican primary in 2015. By all appearances, an election that liberals expected would be a referendum on an insurrectionist Republican is proving to be a referendum on an enfeebled Democrat.

The polls are so grim that many leftists have been reduced to pitiful coping mechanisms to process the likelihood of defeat. Fringe progressives have begun to convince themselves that a second Trump term will be a good thing on balance, proving that neoliberalism is a dead end and paving the way for a glorious people’s revolution or peace in Gaza or whatever. Many mainstream liberals have simply embraced denial—including, alarmingly, some who work at the White House:

We Never Trump conservatives have a coping mechanism of our own. For all the hype in this newsletter and elsewhere about how Haley’s lost-cause campaign on behalf of Reaganism might weaken Trump in the general election, there’s no reason thus far to believe it’s true. His national polling average is a point higher right now than the share of the popular vote he received in 2020. Certainly, that has more to do with Biden’s political weakness than Trump’s own strength, but the idea that he can’t win if the GOP goes full metal MAGA and leaves conservative votes on the table is an assertion in search of proof.

But he’d be leading by even more if he didn’t chase conservatives out of the party. I’m not so sure that’s true, either.

Coalitions are dynamic. For instance, Trump’s position that entitlements are sacrosanct is a terrible, short-sighted policy but probably a vote-gainer for him on balance. For every diehard fiscal conservative who considers it a dealbreaker, there may be two working-class Americans who were leery of Paul Ryan’s libertarian economic vision but find themselves newly amenable to voting for a nationalist Republican Party.

Dig into the Times poll, in fact, and you’ll find that the most stunning shifts since 2020 have come among blue-collar nonwhite voters. That group broke for Biden by more than 50 points four years ago; today, it favors him by … 6. He leads among all nonwhite voters by a mere 10 points after winning that demographic by 48 in the last election. Among Hispanics specifically, a generally working-class group, Biden now trails Trump by 6 points. In 2020 he led by 21.

Some of that is pure economics. High inflation during Biden’s presidency has left voters, especially working-class voters, naturally nostalgic for the lower prices of the Trump era. But some of it, I think, is due to Trump’s strongman appeal in an era of disorder. If you worry about crime, Joe Biden holding photo ops with police chiefs might not soothe you the way Trump babbling about granting immunity to cops who kill the bad guys might. If you worry about unchecked immigration, Biden dithering over executive action to secure the border after three years won’t reassure you the way Trump wanting to build massive detention camps will.

Classical liberals who worry about creeping fascism in the GOP might find reason in either of those ideas to bolt the party once and for all in disgust. But for each one who does, two blue-collar workers who fear that Democratic rule means chaos might appreciate that Trump, at least, is willing to “get serious” about dealing with problems like crime and competition from cheap labor that they live with intimately every day.

All of which is a long way of saying: Just because populism was a net loser on votes in 2016 and 2020 doesn’t mean that will remain true in 2024. As realignment accelerates, with America’s professional class trending left and its working class trending right, Trump might actually benefit from trading high-minded conservative eggheads for blue-collar populists of all races. The working class is much bigger than the professional class, after all; at a certain point, this becomes a simple numbers game.

And don’t forget: Just because Trump and his minions are doing their damnedest to chase classical liberals out of the party doesn’t mean those classical liberals will let themselves be chased.

The story of the “Republican hostage crisis” of the past eight years is that the great majority of allegedly principled conservatives are partisan chumps who’ll support any Republican, no matter how loathsome and illiberal, over any Democrat. The reason Chris LaCivita and other Trump advisers felt safe insulting Ron DeSantis a few weeks ago is because they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that most traditional Republicans who backed the Florida governor in this year’s primary would vote for a Mr. Potato Head with an “R” after its name if it came to that.

Trump’s inner circle has contempt for DeSantis’ hacky partisan supporters because, well, hacky partisans are contemptible. Most of those partisans will come home to Trump in the end no matter how many “pudding fingers” taunts are thrown at their guy, and the Trump cronies know it.

Forget everything I just said, though.

To understand why it’s rational for Trump and MAGA to want to purge conservatives from the party even if it costs them votes in this election, ask yourself: What’s the worst possible consequence of losing for them?

In a normal party, the answer would be losing the opportunity to regain power, obviously. There are a lot of ambitious proto-fascists around Trump with big ideas about how to remake the federal government in their—sorry, I meant his—image. And Trump is probably(?) too old to run and win in 2028 if he fails this time; for the many slimy populist barnacles attached to his hull, this is their last best chance to enact their program.

The current GOP isn’t a normal party, though. It’s a party in the midst of an ideological revolution driven by a cult of personality.

As such, to Trump and his acolytes, the worst possible consequence of losing isn’t being denied the right to run the government for four years. The worst possible consequence would be seeing their populist revolution discredited by their own voters as nonviable electorally, as happened to Mitt Romney’s traditional Republicanism after 2012. And what some progressives are hoping will happen to Joe Biden’s neoliberalism in 2024.

Normally, a man who lost the national popular vote twice and who dropped the last presidential election to the same Democrat who’s running this year would be the last candidate his party would nominate. As it is, Trump’s “rigged election” nonsense in 2020 may have failed as a bid to retain power but succeeded wildly in shielding him from the usual political repercussions of defeat. He convinced the right that a populist party led by him is a winner nationally—no matter what the crooked voting machines might say. That lie bought him another four years of viability.

But even he might not be able to go conning Republican voters indefinitely.

If he loses again this fall, everyone from populists like Ron DeSantis to conservatives like Nikki Haley will hoot “I told you so.” Trump will respond with another round of “Stop the Steal,” of course, but it may ring hollow to some right-wingers who swallowed it once before in 2020 and suddenly feel a forbidden inkling that they’ve been had. MAGA true believers will fight doggedly to persuade them that Democratic “lawfare” tilted the outcome unfairly, but a hard suspicion will nag at the rest of the party: Even the most compromised candidate in the world should have been able to beat a figure as pitiful as Joe Biden this year.

And so, for Trump’s very abnormal populist movement, the top priority this fall isn’t winning. It’s entrenching the gains they’ve already made in controlling the Republican Party. 

The first step in making illiberalism viable as an electoral option for Americans long-term is ensuring that it’s perennially represented on the ballot in one of the two parties. As traditional conservatives are purged from the GOP—whether hounded into retirement, defeated in primaries, or simply made to feel unwanted at the grassroots level—populists are consolidating their power over the direction of the American right and guaranteeing that representation. An authoritarian faction naturally seeks total authority over its own side before turning its ambitions outward.

They’re playing the long game. Chasing conservatives out of the GOP might be shrinking the party right now, but eventually, Republicans will win another election—if only because of voter fatigue after an extended stretch of Democratic rule. Populists want to make sure they’re still in charge when, not if, that happens. And so Trump’s daughter-in-law is tapped to lead the party’s governing organization and an apparatchik who tried to stop the 2020 election from being certified is elected to lead the House Republican majority, which takes orders on policy from Trump.

Trumpist jabs at DeSantis, at Haley voters, and at Romney admirers are an attempt to root out whatever pockets of conservative resistance to the populist takeover remain, inviting them to either accept the GOP’s new post-liberal agenda and its leader or to leave. Conservatives may choose to convert or they may choose exile, but it must be one or the other. And if they choose exile and that ends up costing Trump the election, they certainly won’t be welcomed back later.

The great advantage populists have, and have always had, over traditional Republicans in the Trump era is their willingness to lose elections. Some observers might tell you that they prefer it. Being out of power is conducive to the type of politics they like: It means never having to compromise on policy, getting to scapegoat the reigning administration for political grievances great and small, and nurturing a sense of perpetual victimhood at the hands of—and heroic resistance against—a nefarious establishment that can never quite be dislodged.

I’ve even seen cases of a Republican candidate being faulted for electoral success. Before DeSantis dropped out of the race, it wasn’t hard to find Trump fanatics on social media who found the landslide margin of his reelection victory in Florida in 2022 suspicious. The dreaded establishment would never allow a true populist to win so convincingly; the governor must have been “controlled opposition.”

When MAGA diehards rant inanely about “the uniparty,” it’s because they don’t see the same downside in being governed by Democrats that traditional Republicans do. And they’re counting on the fact that conservatives do see that downside to ultimately lead them to choose conversion over self-exile from the party.

It’s all pretty rational on their end, at least in the long run. And it explains why Nikki Haley sometimes gets a deer-in-the-headlights look when she’s confronted with that dilemma squarely.

No one understands better than she does at this point the high stakes of a “conversion or exile” conundrum. She can either withhold her endorsement from Trump, gaining instant pariah status in a party she’s spent years hoping and expecting to lead someday. Or she can talk herself into believing that uncertainty about whether a would-be president would uphold his oath to the Constitution isn’t an insuperable obstacle to supporting him. 

Going forward, you can be a conservative in good standing or a Republican in good standing. But you can’t be both. And that’s the way populists want it.

I doubt Haley will make the right choice, although if you squint you can see glimmers of hope. But the time for choosing is coming, possibly as soon as tomorrow. For her, and for everyone else.

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.