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Donald Trump Fights?
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Donald Trump Fights?

For what?

Former President Donald Trump attends the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 299 mixed martial arts event at the Kaseya Center in Miami, Florida, on March 9, 2024. (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

The sharpest criticism of Friday’s newsletter, in-house and among the wider readership, was that it was thick with emotional appeals for preferring Joe Biden to Donald Trump but thin on policy arguments for doing so.

It’s fine to say that conservatives should support Biden as revenge on MAGA for spoiling their party, one of our editors pointed out to me, but that’s not the way most Americans approach voting. And realistically, anyone who’s considering supporting Trump in the year of our Lord 2024 won’t be swayed by yet another tut-tutting about how disgraceful he is.

If you weren’t put off by one of his impeachments, indictments, or coup plots when they happened, you won’t be put off now. Assuming you’re even aware of them.

To get conservatives motivated to vote for Biden, there needs to be a conservative policy case for the Democrat. We’ve reached the stage of American decline in which smashing the constitutional order is just another issue in the upcoming election, something to be weighed alongside the candidates’ respective positions on taxes, say. “Nikki Haley Republicans” want to hear why a second Biden presidency would more closely resemble a Haley presidency than a second Trump presidency would.

And no, the fact that neither Biden nor Haley would attempt an autogolpe isn’t enough, I’m afraid.

Our friend David French took a stab at the conservative case for Biden in his latest column at the New York Times, which you should read in full. Some of his reasons are persuasive, even obvious. If you’ve followed the congressional debate over Ukraine, you know that Democrats are already more simpatico with the Reaganite view on containing Russia than Trump’s party is. And only a fool would view Trump’s GOP as clearly superior to the other party on federal spending after he ran gigantic deficits as president even before COVID arrived.

Other reasons are less compelling, like preferring Biden on crime, but those also have their merits. For instance, it’s not uncommon to find MAGA populists on social media citing the riots that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020 as why we need a law-and-order figure like Trump in charge, never mind who was president when those riots occurred.

None of this is to say that conservatives should become Democrats, David makes clear, merely that if they intend to let policy guide their choice in November, they should consider the two platforms carefully and not take for granted that the GOP is a better fit. “Reagan (and Haley) Republicans … have such profound differences with MAGA that it is genuinely debatable which party now better advances their preferred policies,” he concludes.

I agree, and would go a step further. It’s not clear anymore that Trump even has a firm position on most policy issues.

He fights! his fans insist. But what, at this point, is he fighting for?

Trump’s policy preferences can usually be explained straightforwardly by ignorance, selfishness, or, in rarer cases, ideological nationalism.

None of which is a strong draw for conservative voters, I hope you’ll agree.

In a CNBC interview Monday he was asked about America’s debt crisis, an issue his party took seriously during the Tea Party era and has all but completely abandoned under his leadership. Cowardice is the default mode for American politicians whenever they’re pressed about the main drivers of that debt crisis, Medicare and Social Security, but seldom do they sound so unserious about it that they come off like Billy Madison talking about The Puppy Who Lost His Way.

Babbling about waste, fraud, and abuse is a dodge so cliched, and so wildly unequal to the task of making entitlements sustainable, that it fails to clear the political Mendoza line of a Kamala Harris interview.

Trump couldn’t offer a more thoughtful answer because he can’t muster interest in the debt crisis even though it’s plainly the greatest domestic obstacle to making America great again in the long run. With few exceptions, his curiosity about policy challenges appears to begin and end with how addressing them might affect his personal electoral interests. And so, on the substance of entitlements, he’s ignorant. All he needs to know is not to touch the third rail.

Haley Republicans, who know better and crave conservative leadership on this issue, should accordingly note that they won’t be receiving any from their party. He fights!—but not for fiscal responsibility.

The greatest international obstacle to making America great again is China’s expanding global influence, of course, and is recognized as such by most U.S. political factions. Right-wing populists tend to lead the charge rhetorically on containing Beijing, as it’s an opportunity to contrast their “realism” about foreign threats with the antiquated Reaganite obsession with Russia. As such, one would think the populist-in-chief would be pounding the table about Congress’ delay in banning TikTok, especially since he moved to ban it himself as president with  an executive order.

One would be wrong. As of Friday, Donald Trump opposes the TikTok ban. And there’s not even a pretense that he’s doing so for principled reasons.

His reversal is a product of selfishness, although the particular strain of selfishness in this case is unclear. It might be a simple play for votes, recognizing that younger adults are disaffected with Biden because of Israel’s war in Gaza and might be receptive to an overture from the right that involves protecting their favorite Chinese spyware app.

Or it might be a play for revenge. “If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business,” Trump wrote on Truth Social recently. “I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, doing better. They are a true Enemy of the People!” He’s so naturally vindictive, and so incapable of distinguishing the public interest from his personal interest, that he really might oppose major federal legislation for no better reason than that passage of it would benefit “Zuckerschmuck.”

But one should never discount good ol’ venality as a possible motive. Many observers, including Steve Bannon, noticed that Trump’s view of TikTok brightened after he met recently with a mega-rich conservative who owns a stake in the platform’s parent company. Trump is facing a cash crunch at the moment too, as you may have heard, and the investor in question has been generous in the past to other Republicans willing to advocate on TikTok’s behalf.

Did money change hands, or will it? It wouldn’t be the first time Trump has suddenly taken sides against his own base on a supposedly important cultural priority once a rich donor began dangling a checkbook at him.

Haley Republicans who support the TikTok ban might understandably wonder which other Trump policy positions, foreign or domestic, are for sale to the highest bidder. He fights!—to let China propagandize to American citizens.

None of this is to imply, though, that all of Trump’s positions are influenced by selfishness. Certainly, there are some matters on which his nationalist worldview will drive his preferences. Case in point:

His absurd, abiding protectionist fondness for tariffs is another rare example, never mind that higher taxes on foreign goods would confound his efforts to bring down prices in a second term. 

Good news and bad news for Haley Republicans, then. The good news is that there really are some policies on which Trump’s view is firm and heartfelt and for which he fights! (Although fewer than you think.) The bad news is, er, that those policies tend to be ones that Reaganites like them despise.

With one important exception.

I’m tempted to say that the only reason for conservatives to still strongly prefer the Republican Party on policy grounds is immigration.

That would be an exaggeration, but it isn’t much of one. As David French notes in his column, even abortion isn’t as compelling a difference as it might seem given the numbers since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Sooner or later, America will settle on a legal regime in which most abortions remain lawful, possibly with Donald Trump paving the way.

Immigration is the key difference between the parties in 2024. If Biden loses in November because most Haley Republicans can’t bring themselves to cross over, that’ll be why. In hindsight, his years-long neglect of the crisis and too-frequent pandering to progressive open-borders lunatics may be seen as a fatal, insuperable mistake.

Take it from me: I’m a “Haley independent” and I cringed so hard I pulled a muscle while watching this clip over the weekend.

Prioritizing an apology to an illegal immigrant for unwoke terminology over an apology to the family of the American citizen who, authorities allege, was murdered by that illegal immigrant is the sort of thing you’d normally see in a heavy-handed satire of Democratic politics on a right-wing blog. And “they built the country” adds insult to injury: An observer who’s suspicious that Biden actually prefers uncontrolled immigration across the southern border would find nothing here to dissuade them.

But I’m stuck with the guy anyway. Because, with the exception of immigration, Trump’s Republican Party isn’t really “about” policy anymore. It’s about stuff like this:

And this:

And this:

A populism that valued policy gains would have nominated Ron DeSantis for president and not nominated a figure like Kari Lake for Senate who plainly hasn’t given a moment of serious thought to major policy questions. Lake, like Trump, has become a Republican star because the sort of “fighting” that Trump’s populist movement prioritizes is the political equivalent of professional wrestling. It prizes theatrical pugnacity toward cultural enemies and threats of retribution toward the political establishment, not ingenuity and resolve in advancing a policy program—again, except for immigration. It’s an uncomfortable fit for anyone, conservative or otherwise, who takes politics seriously.

The very idea of “making great America great again” obviates the need for a detailed agenda, in fact.

Democrats are forever prattling on about the future, partly because their voters skew younger and partly because progressives deride the past as one long unbroken atrocity. Even their nominee, despite having been born at the dawn of time, has taken lately to complaining about the “ancient ideas” of the other side. If, for demographic and historical reasons, you’re committed as a party to being forward-looking, you’ll understandably face pressure from your base to flesh out what that “forward” will look like. (Hint: Scandinavia, except way more diverse.)

But if your voters skew older and feel nostalgic for America’s post-war glory days, they already know what they want the country to look like. It’s enough to tell them that if you’re elected, you’ll bring it back. And naturally the first priority of the restoration is to bring back what it looks like demographically, which means halting a gigantic population transfer of migrants at the southern border.

The closest Trump gets to being meaningfully “forward-looking” is when he obsesses about the recent, rather than distant, past.

My sense of Haley Republicans is that while they do want order at the border, they don’t share the same fervent nostalgia for the past that populist Republicans do. Which makes sense: In several ways, Nikki Haley is the most “forward-looking” figure to emerge from the final years of the pre-Trump GOP. Her most memorable act as governor was removing a symbol of her state’s racist past from the statehouse grounds, and her most memorable act as an influencer was endorsing Marco Rubio in 2016 to signal her hope for the birth of a “new,” more diverse Republican Party.

She’s a nonwhite woman from South Carolina. Go figure that longing for the America of yore has never been a big part of her political message.

So here’s the ultimate policy question for her and her fellow forward-looking Republican voters as they go about making up their minds this fall: Realistically, would their votes do more good policy-wise going to Trump or to Biden?

In theory, a strong conservative vote for Trump could steer him toward Reaganite positions on matters like Ukraine and spending. But in practice, conservatives have voted solidly for him in two consecutive elections (85 percent went his way in 2020) and … the GOP is now less conservative on policy than it’s been in more than 40 years.

He’s learned to take their votes for granted, so much so that he and his cronies have gotten in the habit of telling unhappy conservatives to get lost if they don’t like the party’s direction.

If, on the other hand, Haley Republicans swing toward Biden, that would provide Democrats with a centrist counterweight to the progressive vote. So long as the White House is forced to depend on the feckless fringe left to make the difference in tipping-point states like Michigan, they’re stuck having to placate fringe-left positions on issues like Gaza and the border.

But if suddenly there are 10 million center-right votes moving out of Trump’s column and into Biden’s, the president can focus on keeping the middle happy on policy instead of the left. Progressives won’t go so far to spite him as to join forces with the populist right and support Trump in the aftermath. Uh, I think.

Biden would be reelected and he’d owe Haley voters. How he’d repay them would remain to be seen, but staunch support for further Ukraine aid, some long-overdue security measures at the border, and a de facto promise of no coup attempts during his second term would be a good start.

The alternative is a candidate who commands a party that now often moves at his beck and call on policy and whose administration will be staffed with figures loyal not to the Constitution or to a policy vision, conservative or populist, but to him. In 2024 a vote for Trump is a vote for just that—Trump and his daily ignorant, selfish, and/or nationalist political whims, nothing less and certainly nothing more. A conservative’s vote is worth more than that. And it will do more good elsewhere.

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.