Skip to content
Long Weekend
Go to my account

Long Weekend

Two rough days for traditional conservatives.

Donald Trump applauds after speaking at the Turning Point Action USA conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, on July 15, 2023. (Photo by Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images)

Conspiratorial thinking travels many paths but always arrives at the same destination. Last week Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s long journey into madness reached its inevitable conclusion.

There’s something poignant about watching a man finally achieve his full potential. 

The news of RFK’s pensées about whether Ashkenazi Jews might have been “deliberately” spared the worst effects of COVID broke shortly before 8 a.m. ET on Saturday morning. In hindsight it was an omen that Dispatch writers and readers should unplug the ol’ laptop for the weekend and “embrace mindfulness” instead.

Kennedy’s comments are formally a Democratic scandal but substantively a populist one. Interest in him is bipartisan, after all, as readers of this newsletter know. Right-wing media is promoting him, right-wing donors are sending him money, and right-wing voters seem to like him more each time they’re exposed to him. (The opposite is true among left-wingers.) Donald Trump is a fan. If you had to guess which political faction a strident skeptic of the COVID vaccines and passionate critic of U.S. support for Ukraine belongs to, you’d guess the Tucker-fied right.

For traditional conservatives who disdain that faction, RFK’s comments about the Ashkenazim were cause to wonder how much longer it’ll be until the GOP’s conspiratorial nationalist wing arrives at the usual destination. They’re on their way.

Some of our commenters are restless with the degree of doomsaying on this site lately. I sympathize, really; even a pessimist can take only so much. But if our task here is to see politics as it is, what option is there but despair?

Consider three developments over the past 48 hours. It wasn’t a “long weekend” as that term is colloquially understood, but it was a long weekend.

Traditionally conservative candidates are in deep trouble in the primary.

The two most prominent “traditionally conservative” figures in the Republican race are Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis. Scare quotes are needed because DeSantis is no longer traditionally conservative, to the extent he ever was. He’s postliberal.

But he is the favored candidate of many traditionally conservative voters, who see in him a politician capable of defeating Trump and bridging the divide between old-school Republicans and MAGA populists. You’re not getting Reagan 2.0 if you nominate him, but he’ll get you closer to Reagan 2.0 as president than Trump will, God knows. The staffs of National Review and American Greatness agree on that much even if they disagree on whether that’s an argument for or against the governor.

Pence, on the other hand, really is running as a traditional Reagan conservative, uncompromising on the third-rail issues that much of the party dares not touch. Entitlement reform? He’s for it. Strict abortion bans even for nonviable pregnancies? You betcha. Unstinting support for Ukraine? All day long.

This weekend word came that he raised a meager $1.2 million in the second quarter and is at risk of failing to qualify for the first Republican debate next month, an unthinkable disappointment for the best-known candidate in the race save one.

“He’s only been in the race three weeks,” Team Pence would reply. But Chris Christie raised $1.65 million over the same period and did meet the RNC threshold for the debates—and he entered the race just one day before Pence did, with far less name recognition.

Currently Pence sits at 6 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, good for a very distant third at the moment but probably not for long. In the last four national polls taken, he’s trailed or been tied with Vivek Ramaswamy in three of them. In evangelical-heavy Iowa, the devoutly evangelical Pence is stuck in the low single digits, trailing not just Trump and DeSantis but Nikki Haley and Tim Scott.

His is a death of a thousand cuts—January 6, lack of retail charisma, a proudly Christian sensibility in a party that’s increasingly post-Christian. But the fact that his traditionally conservative program is no longer a match for much of the base matters too, as he was reminded during his Q&A on Friday with Tucker Carlson in Iowa.

If you’re using Pence’s viability in the primary to gauge how viable traditional conservatism remains in the modern GOP, your despair should be so thick that you can cut it.

DeSantis’ fundraising in the second quarter was much brighter than Pence’s, enough so that he led all Republican candidates over the span with $20.1 million received. The fine print is less encouraging:

But more than two-thirds of DeSantis’ money—nearly $14 million—came from donors who gave the legal maximum and cannot donate again, NBC’s analysis shows. Some of those donors gave the $3,300 limit for both the primary and general election, boosting DeSantis’ totals with cash that can’t be used to try to defeat Trump.

DeSantis finished June with more than $12.2 million in the bank, but his filing indicates that $3 million of that can only be used in the general election. Trump’s campaign ended the quarter with $22.5 million on hand.

DeSantis spent roughly 40 percent of what he raised, a high “burn rate” driven by an unusual degree of bloat in campaign personnel. As of last week Team Ron had 92 people employed, almost as many as Trump’s and Tim Scott’s campaigns combined. He has belatedly laid off about a dozen staffers, but campaigns rarely get back on track after an early shake-up. When Scott Walker infamously crashed out of the 2016 race months before Iowa, it was—ta da—a high burn rate and bloated organization that did him in.

One might think the DeSantis campaign would have learned from those mistakes. As it is, Politico describes his financial troubles as “a body blow to one of the central arguments for his campaign: that he’d be a competent, disciplined version of Trump. Trump without the chaos. Trump, but with a more professional operation.” Between that and the fact that the governor’s alleged electability advantage over Trump isn’t evident in head-to-head polling against Biden, the strongest arguments for nominating him are fading.

Oh, he also had this dropped on him on Friday.

It’s early, it’s a long race, yadda yadda. But if DeSantis slips to third place in state or national polling over the next month and fails to impress at the first debate, the bottom might fall out. And the end of DeSantis almost certainly means the end of any chance for a non-Trump nominee.

The next generation of right-wing activists is terrible.

This weekend was the occasion of the annual Turning Point USA Conference, the most august event on the populist vaudeville circuit.

That distinction used to belong to CPAC, but CPAC has been diminished by scandal and, frankly, a dearth of showmanship. A party led by a TV celebrity and populated by voters who treat politics like wrestling demands a certain amount of pyrotechnics in its pageants. TPUSA understands that.

Even the nomenclature feels significant. The Conservative Political Action Coalition is an awkward fit for a movement that isn’t very conservative anymore except insofar as “conservative” is an antonym for “left-wing.” An outfit that sheds distinct ideological beliefs for gassy apocalypticism—America is at a turning point—better suits the feral nihilism of the “Flight 93 Election” right.

Drawing broad conclusions about a political movement from its gooniest events risks nutpicking, but I dunno: CPAC was pretty prescient in hindsight at capturing the zeitgeist of the Republican base, present, and future. The conference turned more gonzo-populist in the Tea Party years before Trump, once featuring Glenn Beck as its keynote speaker at the height of his Fox News-conspiracy-chalkboard powers. It was a sign of things to come.

If TPUSA is now performing that function, the zeitgeist of the Republican base—or at least its youngest activists—is emphatically not traditionally conservative. Especially on foreign policy.

At the end of this weekend’s conference Charlie Kirk announced the results of the event’s straw poll, reserving special glee for the response to the question, “Do you support U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine?” Independent polling shows that a majority of American voters answer that question in the affirmative and that Republicans are no worse than evenly split. Things are different at TPUSA, though: Fully 95.8 percent of attendees answered “no,” a margin Kim Jong Un would find gauche in its gaudiness.

How you account for it depends on how cynical you want to be in surmising the motives of the participants. Not all are dedicated tankies and Putin simps, of course; some must simply be impressionable kids who soaked up the vibes emanating from the influential populists who addressed them at the conference. Like Tucker Carlson, who pushed the usual Russian propaganda amid unnerving fits of manic laughter. And J.D. Vance, who preoccupied himself with the small and shrinking “Mike Pence” niche of the party:

Most of the people I know on social media with Ukrainian flags in their bios are Democrats. They’re not gung-ho to cut entitlements, J.D.

We might be charitable to the TPUSA crowd and attribute their Ukraine aversion to harmless knee-jerk contrarianism, a byproduct of populist young-turk rebellion against the Democratic-run Washington consensus. A form of trolling, in other words, not unlike the sticky note that was reportedly affixed to a cut-out of Nikki Haley at the conference that read, “Woman in Politics? Cringe.” (I hope that was trolling.) Or we might reflect on the fact that, as Jonathan Last noted today, no right-winger younger than 58 years old has voted for a Republican president whom the modern GOP base still holds in high regard. If you’re a twentysomething “conservative,” Trump is your only political role model. Go figure that you might reflexively adopt his antipathy to European allies and fondness for authoritarians.

You don’t have to hate the Charlie Kirk crowd and you don’t need to treat them as representative of the entire right, which, as noted already, they aren’t. But you should face the fact that the future of the right, directionally, appears pointed away from traditional conservatism. A movement in which Fox News is treated as some sort of sellout despite having pushed “rigged election” agitprop fervently enough to earn itself a $787 million defamation settlement is a movement in which nothing that might appeal to center-right normies can survive.

Trump seems more untouchable than ever.

When he announced the results of the straw poll question on Ukraine, Kirk added this bon mot. “Almost every single Republican running for the presidency is an enthusiastic cheerleader to send cluster bombs, munitions, and potentially American troops to eastern Ukraine to go fight Russia,” he said. “When will politicians learn that you can’t tell voters what to believe? You should listen to your voters if you want to win a nomination process.”

Laying aside the fact that most Republican primary voters are much more enthusiastic about arming Ukraine than the TPUSA crowd is, he has a point. A populist candidate who’s badly out of sync with the populist base on a litmus-test issue like the war should expect to see his core support drop. And most populist candidates would see that, I think.

Most. But not all.

Less than 24 hours after Kirk served notice to the Republican field that the anti-anti-Putin position was non-negotiable, the man who had just won the TPUSA presidential straw poll with 85.7 percent of the vote complimented the “honorable” Volodymyr Zelensky and suggested he might boost weapons shipments to Kyiv as president under certain circumstances.

There are obvious problems with Trump’s “double bluff” strategy. If agreed to, wouldn’t it inevitably result in freezing the battlefield and locking in Russia’s territorial gains? If Russia refused Trump’s terms, how could the “end endless wars” president justify arming Ukraine to a greater degree than Joe Biden did? Would Ukraine get security guarantees from the U.S. or NATO if it acquiesced to Trump’s pressure tactics or would Russia be free to invade again in a few years? How many more weapons are left on the shelf at the Pentagon for Trump to give Ukraine that Biden hasn’t already pledged?

What if both countries rejected Trump’s terms? Would he arm Ukraine or not arm them? (Rhetorical question, I know.)

Most importantly in the near term: Wouldn’t Trump supporters have crucified Ron DeSantis if he sounded this amenable to beefing up Ukrainian firepower?

After the clip of Trump began circulating on social media, fans of the governor demanded to know where the outrage was among allegedly “anti-war” MAGA fans. “Had DeSantis said what Trump said this morning, putting on the table sending Ukraine over $100B more in weapons, every MAGA influencer on this site would be posting about it and calling him a neocon,” said one. “Now we know why [Trump is] campaigning with Lindsey Graham,” quipped another. DeSantis’ own super PAC clipped the soundbite and tweeted it out, taking care to note Trump’s description of Zelensky as “honorable.” For any other candidate wooing a nationalist audience, praising Ukraine’s “ratlike” president in those terms would be disqualifying.

It will not be disqualifying for Trump. It won’t leave even a minor dent in his polling. 

At National Review, a frustrated Jim Geraghty ran through a non-exhaustive list of things the frontrunner has said and done since the midterms that would have damaged any other candidate. Dining with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, calling for terminating the Constitution, attacking popular Republicans from the governor of Iowa to his own former press secretary: All this and more would be used energetically against DeSantis by the same MAGA droogs who can’t be bothered to care when Trump is the culprit.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way in the primary.

It’s one thing for the “Fifth Avenue” mentality to apply to Trump in normal times, when winning the eternal war with the left supposedly requires dutiful right-wingers to overlook every form of personal and political corruption that their leader might practice. In a primary, the combat is between Republicans; the right is momentarily free to choose a new leader. Trump’s sins can be held against him, especially sins against populism like potentially increasing arms supplies to Ukraine.

The fact that it is that way in the primary, that even the criminal indictments against him have strengthened rather than weakened Trump’s support, is so discouraging as to leave one feeling hopeless that he can be overtaken in the polls. And it makes mincemeat of DeSantis’ strategy, as a friend shrewdly noted. Because the governor is hellbent on trying to out-populist Trump, the total futility of the endeavor ends up costing him votes on balance. He can’t successfully exploit Trump’s mistakes because MAGA voters refuse to hold anything against their candidate and meanwhile his descent into ever more febrile strains of populism ends up alienating normie Republicans.

If nothing can turn a candidate’s voters against him and he’s already north of 50 percent in primary polling, that candidate will win—by definition. That’s where we seem to be. What’s left for traditional conservatives in this party after this weekend?

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.