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The Elephant in the Room
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The Elephant in the Room

What was the Republican primary campaign about?

Supporters of Donald Trump attend a rally at the Fort Dodge Senior High School on November 18, 2023, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

It’s never good when you get a text from your editor in the middle of the night. Typically it means you’re being reprimanded for something. Possibly fired.

The one I got last night was worse than that.

“Because I will forget in the morning,” he wrote, “tomorrow’s newsletter could be expanding on the idea you touched on today, how this primary has been almost entirely devoid of policy. But it’s also been devoid of direct attacks on Trump’s fitness. So what has it been about?”

What has it been about?

He meant the question earnestly, but it sounded like a riddle—something a hermit would spend 10 years in a cave meditating on. There’s no “answer” in the conventional sense; it’s either a diabolical puzzle contrived to drive someone mad or a koan to lead them to a higher state of consciousness.

I couldn’t sleep afterward. Despite following the campaign daily for more than a year, trying to find meaning in it felt like entering a hall of mirrors. What has the Republican primary campaign been about?

Scrolling through political news on Friday morning deepened the mystery. The frontrunner in the race is ranting about a defamation suit. The second-place candidate is being attacked on all sides over something as picayune as a gas tax. The third-place candidate proposed a flat tax at a town hall on Thursday evening, stunning the media—until they remembered that he proposed the same thing months ago.

No one cares about any of this. It’s all forgettable, literally. Yet somehow it’s what the top three in the field are chattering about with Iowa preparing to vote in 10 days.

What has this campaign been about?

One possible answer is that right-wing politics isn’t “about” anything anymore, really. When the House majority is being accused of having achieved nothing by its own members, you know we’re not in a golden age of Republican dynamism.

But that answer, that the GOP is a show about nothing, is hard to square with the consensus that next year’s election is of momentous importance.

So let’s consider a second possibility, that a presidential primary being “about” nothing is more the rule historically than the exception.

What was the 2008 Republican primary “about”?

John McCain ended up winning it. Which big idea supposedly put him over the top?

“He was pro-war,” you might say. Right, but everyone in the field that year was pro-war save Ron Paul. And while it’s true that McCain was very hawkish, even relative to other hawks, it’s also true that being hawkish about Iraq was, er, not ideal for the general election.

Republican voters nominated him anyway. Why? Because, I suspect, he was a known quantity and seemed electable. There’s not much more to it than that.

That’s how it tends to go in presidential primaries, in both parties. It’s why, after spending two years bathing in outrage over Obamacare, the GOP turned around in 2012 and nominated the guy who pioneered Obamacare-style universal health coverage in Massachusetts. Mitt Romney was an absurd choice on the policy merits, but he was well-known from his 2008 campaign and appeared eminently electable. And that’s what matters.

The same goes for the Democratic primaries of 2016 and 2020. Bernie Sanders had an enthusiastic base of young progressives behind him and an agenda overflowing with bold ideas. More than that, he had the good fortune to face two neoliberals in Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden whom even a friendly political observer might delicately describe as “underwhelming.”

He lost both races. And each time, there was barely a pretense that his opponent won for reasons other than that they were electable and unusually well known. The core argument for nominating Biden was that he was an inoffensive, generic Democrat who’d served as vice president and therefore could defeat Trump. The core argument for nominating Clinton was that it was, ahem, “her turn.”

Rarely will you go wrong running as the boring centrist whom everyone has heard of. But it does happen.

The two great exceptions in recent years were the 2008 Democratic primary and the 2016 Republican primary. Even then, though, it’s hard to say how much the upstart candidate owed his victory to policy differences with the rest of the field and how much he owed to pure charisma and a broad desire for capital-C Change.

Barack Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start; Hillary Clinton voted for it as a member of the Senate before turning against it. That difference surely helped him overtake her. But was that primary chiefly “about” Iraq? Or was it about the left feeling so exasperated by the Bush years that they craved the boldest possible break with politics as usual, which in this case meant electing the first black president in American history?

Trump had multiple meaningful policy differences with his opponents in 2016, splitting from the traditional Republican consensus on foreign policy and protectionism. He also changed the culture of his party more profoundly, and more rapidly, than any politician in my lifetime. Evangelical voters who had loathed Bill Clinton for his peccadilloes decided almost overnight that peccadilloes didn’t matter to political leadership. “Constitutional conservatives” who made their bones during the Tea Party era became accomplices to a coup attempt in 2020.

But even that campaign wasn’t ultimately “about” policy, I think. It was about persona. Trump was the incarnation of the grassroots right’s contempt for its enemies outside—and especially inside—the party. Charismatic, uncouth, unconcerned with legal niceties, it was because he was a loose cannon—the craziest SOB in the race, to borrow a phrase—rather than in spite of it that he became the nominee. He’s the guy you nominate when your fondest political desire is to extend a middle finger to establishmentarians who look down on you, not because you have a keen interest in tariff policy.

Admittedly, he wouldn’t have been the same candidate without his policy heresies. How different can an “outsider” be, after all, if he agrees with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell about everything? But I think, like Obama, Trump ultimately succeeded because he represented radical change in a way that transcended legislative preferences.

The DeSantis 2024 campaign sometimes feels like a lab experiment designed to prove that point, in fact. On policy after policy, the governor of Florida has staked out positions that are at least as populist as Trump’s are, and often more so. His reward for his diligence is a deficit of 52 points in the latest national polling, leaving him in third place, a hair behind “uniparty” figurehead Nikki Haley. If Trumpmania is “about” policy, it sure is curious that an executive as accomplished as Ron DeSantis has performed so dismally, no?

So maybe the answer to the question of what the current primary is “about” is as simple as this: It’s mainly about “vibes,” like presidential primaries always are.

And yet, that doesn’t sit right in this cycle.

If ever there were a presidential primary that should have been “about” ideas, this is it.

To an extent greater than in 2008, 2012, 2016, or 2020, this year’s GOP primary involves two distinct, de facto parties competing under one partisan banner. Last year’s unprecedented leadership fiasco among House Republicans made that clearer than it’s ever been. There’s a populist party and a conservative party, they often want different things, and those differences are destined to come to the fore as they jockey for control.

One could argue, in fact, that there are three discrete parties at odds in the Republican race: the populists, represented by DeSantis; the conservatives, represented by Haley; and the Trumpists, represented by you-know-who.

There are a lot of points of ideological friction among those three entities that might plausibly cause a spark and then a fire. This isn’t Obama and Clinton quibbling over whether universal health care should or shouldn’t include an individual mandate. It’s big stuff. How much of a priority is entitlement reform? Should there be federal restrictions on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy? Has aid to Ukraine grown too expensive or would cutting them off cost America too much global credibility?

Answering the question “What was this campaign about?” should have been unusually easy this time, not unusually hard.

In fairness to Nikki Haley and especially Ron DeSantis, they tried to make it easy.

Haley has attacked Trump for gladhanding dictators and running up unfathomable amounts of sovereign debt. She’s warned voters about unsustainable entitlements and pledged her support for Ukraine at every opportunity. DeSantis has criticized Trump on everything from COVID restrictions to the unbuilt border wall to abortion. During Thursday’s televised town hall on CNN, he went as far as to accuse the frontrunner of not being pro-life. He’s even dinged him for wanting to build a new FBI headquarters in Washington instead of somewhere outside the Beltway.

The irony of complaining that the Republican primary hasn’t been “about” anything substantive is that both of Trump’s top challengers desperately wanted it to be, to the absolute exclusion of awkward conversations about certain candidates’ manifest unfitness for office. And they did their best to make it so.

Their problem, with the benefit of hindsight, is that if ever there were a presidential primary that couldn’t possibly have been “about” ideas, this was it. It was destined to become a pure referendum on Trump. And so it has.

Start with the fact that he’s a former president, the first time in generations that someone with that credential has sought to return to office. He isn’t technically an incumbent, but he’s sort of an incumbent, and presidential incumbents always, always manage to fend off their primary challengers—usually with ease.

Viewed that way, Haley and DeSantis haven’t done terribly badly by holding Trump to around 60 percent of the Republican vote. That’s a ghastly landslide by the standards of normal competitive primaries, but no great shakes for an incumbent president seeking renomination. If eight years of your leadership has led 2 of every 5 voters in your party to prefer a different nominee, you have a problem. Potentially a serious one.

Trump isn’t any ol’ former president either, of course. The share of Republicans who believe Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 was legitimate is down to 31 percent and still shrinking, relieving him of the “loser” baggage that presidents ousted from office usually carry. His perceived political martyrdom was compounded when he was indicted (and indicted and indicted and indicted) last year, and has probably been compounded further by Democratic efforts to remove him from the ballot under the 14th Amendment.

It sounded like buck-passing when DeSantis complained recently that the indictments had “sucked out a lot of oxygen” from the race, but he was inescapably right. The sudden sharp shift in national polling immediately following Trump’s first indictment proves it. If there were any chance of the campaign becoming something more than a referendum on whether to triple down on him, it was extinguished by his legal troubles.

But that’s one big “if.” Had Trump never been indicted, I think it’s more likely than not that he would have won the primary anyway. It’s a grim fact of this race that the architect of January 6 has polled higher than the combined share of DeSantis’ and Haley’s vote on every day of the campaign, even before the first criminal charges were filed in Manhattan.

And so, if asked to summarize what the 2024 primary was “about,” I would say it turns out to be surprisingly simple: It’s about retribution, just like the man said. Retribution for grievances real and imaginary—but mostly imaginary, like the “unfair” election of 2020. The modern right is built on spite for its political enemies, not on a policy vision. What did we think would happen once those enemies, electoral and institutional, decided that Trump is unfit to be president?

DeSantis and Haley seem to understand that, and they did the only thing they could think to do—doggedly make the case for preferring them on policy, scrupulously avoid aligning themselves with liberals who are challenging his fitness, and hope for a deus ex machina that will make Republican voters think better of this insanity before it’s too late. Here we are, just in case you decide you want to turn the page, they seem to be saying. In case you want something different.

One day shy of the third anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, it’s clear that those voters don’t want something different.

And precisely because they don’t, Joe Biden’s plan to use January 6 as a core theme of the general election seems pretty savvy to me.

He’s speaking about it in Valley Forge as I write this.

However the average Republican voter may conceive of what the primary is “about,” the hard reality is that they’re about to embrace a coup-plotter as their champion. There’ll be no avoiding that in the campaign to come, and thus no escaping the contempt many otherwise persuadable voters are destined to feel for the party writ large. DeSantis and Haley have each tried to warn primary voters about it in roundabout ways, to no avail.

As grotesque a political figure as Trump was in 2016 and 2020, in neither race were Republican voters ratifying the behavior of an insurrectionist. Some of us discerned from the beginning what he was capable of, but right-wingers have never gone to the polls knowing definitively that they were voting for someone who might compromise American democracy for the sake of his own power.

That will change 10 days from now in Iowa. Everyone knows who he is this time. He’s going to win the primary—and win handily—anyway.

There’s no policy dispute between the two sides that matters more than that to the future of the country, or should matter more to swing voters. Democrats will spend the next 10 months making sure it’s what the general election is “about.” They should.

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.