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What Are Parties For?
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What Are Parties For?

Further thoughts on this week’s newsletters.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy raps to Eminem's "Lose Yourself" at the conclusion of one of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds' "Fair-Side Chats" at the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s Friday, it’s August, it’s miserably hot. No one’s in the mood for a long 2,500-word march of doom through a depressing topic. Let’s do something different.

How does a 2,500-word march of doom through multiple depressing topics sound?

On Tuesday we raised a glass to the latest indictment in Georgia. On Wednesday we considered the prospect of a landslide Trump defeat next fall. It’s been a pretty upbeat run lately for this newsletter.

I’m strung out from it, frankly. The pessimistic itch demands to be scratched. 

More seriously, I want to follow up on several columns that were published this week. There’s more to say about each.

What are parties for?

On Thursday we considered “The End of Electability” in the GOP. “In a normal party, competence and electability would be just what persuadable voters are looking for,” I wrote. “I stress: in a normal party.”

On Friday the ringmaster of the circus you and I know as CPAC offered this thought demonstrating just how seriously the modern MAGA establishment takes winning elections.

Donald Trump agrees that it’s time for the Republican field to clear, unsurprisingly, but he at least feels obliged to frame his call for unity in terms of defeating Joe Biden and the Democrats. Schlapp won’t even pretend to care about that. If Trump were to lose by 20 points next year and he and his cronies end up beating the rap in court, Schlapp would presumably consider the GOP’s mission accomplished.

This is not how parties have traditionally thought about elections, our younger readers may be surprised to learn.

Another user on The App Formerly Known as Twitter translated Schlapp’s logic:

The fact that Trump’s lead is growing as his criminal jeopardy grows raises a question that in simpler times would be taken for granted. What is the Republican Party for?

What do its current members see as its purpose, if not to win elections and govern responsibly?

Take Kenneth Chesebro. In a previous life, Chesebro was a Harvard Law graduate and research assistant to constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe. At some point he gravitated toward the right, began donating to Republicans, became a legal adviser to Donald Trump, and got himself indicted in Georgia for his work on overturning the election. On Friday CNN reported that video of InfoWars nut Alex Jones marching toward the Capitol on January 6, 2021 reveals Chesebro in tow, decked out in a red MAGA hat and recording the whole fiasco.

Do we think Ken Chesebro joined the Trump-era GOP and ended up as Alex Jones’ wingman because he suddenly cares deeply about high taxes and wasteful spending? What does he see as the party’s purpose?

Last night I thought of something our friend David French often says about how evangelicals have changed. The word “evangelical” used to describe the way a person approached their Christian faith; it meant, at a minimum, attending services regularly to hear the Good News. Increasingly, though, Americans are calling themselves “evangelical” despite seldom going to church. When they do show up, some are reportedly moved to complain about “liberal talking points” in … the Sermon on the Mount.

Evangelicalism has become a cultural identity. If you’re right-wing, Christian, socially conservative, and devoutly pro-Trump, you might consider yourself “evangelical” even if you don’t take Christ’s teachings seriously or care to spend your Sunday mornings worshiping. To this sort of person, evangelicalism isn’t something you do to get closer to God. It’s something you are.

Isn’t that what’s happened to the GOP? If you’re right-wing, populist, fervently opposed to the left and devoutly pro-Trump, you’re a Republican. Winning elections is good, something to aspire to just as regular church attendance is something to aspire to, but you don’t join the party because there’s something you yearn for your government to do. There’s no longer a consensus on the right about that. You join because it’s who you are. It’s a cultural identity, not a vehicle for gaining political power and implementing policies.

What you get from cultural identity is a sense of community. That’s what the Republican Party is offering, and it can deliver that perfectly well out of power the same way that the “evangelical” label can deliver it without all of that “love thy neighbor” claptrap. In fact, insofar as losing elections keeps the GOP’s coalition small, homogeneous, and aggrieved, losing may nurture community more than winning would.

That may seem hard to reconcile with the “stolen election” fanaticism of 2020—a coup attempt does suggest a certain seriousness about winning—but I don’t think it is. If Republicans were serious, they wouldn’t be poised to renominate the same person who failed to stop “the steal” when he had the federal government at his disposal. They cling to Trump because they’ve built their cultural identity atop his persona, not because they care so much about taking power. What ultimately offends them about 2020, I think, is the idea that their culture might no longer be dominant in America.

Using the 14th Amendment to try to disqualify Trump is a bad idea.

On Tuesday we considered how the four indictments against Trump all resemble different types of children. There’s the problem child, the dependable child, the ambitious child, and the favorite child.

But there’s a fifth child I didn’t mention: the illegitimate child. The one we keep locked in the attic and don’t talk about.

Some people are talking about it lately.

The four legitimate children are all offspring of standard criminal procedures—grand juries, indictments, arraignments, trials. The fifth child is different. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment reads:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

It won’t surprise you to learn that the aforementioned Laurence Tribe, a strident and relentless Trump critic, thinks there’s good ground here to disqualify Trump from running. What might surprise you is that a number of conservatives agree. There’s former judge J. Michael Luttig, for example:

That’s to be expected from Luttig, you might reply, as he’s also been a strident critic of Trump, even testifying before the January 6 committee. But what about William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen, two conservative legal scholars who recently concluded a lengthy review of Section 3 from an originalist perspective? Their verdict: “Donald Trump cannot be president—cannot run for president, cannot become president, cannot hold office—unless two-thirds of Congress decides to grant him amnesty for his conduct on Jan. 6.”

The Section 3 argument for disqualification gained traction in the media after the New York Times hyped Baude and Paulsen’s forthcoming article, but the idea has been kicking around for a while. Last year in New Mexico, a state court used Section 3 to disqualify a local county commissioner who was at the Capitol on January 6, encouraged the mob, boasted about his role, and warned that it might happen again.

It’s a nice idea. But this illegitimate child was born far too late to make trouble for Trump.

Even most of the legitimate children were born too late, if we’re being honest. The Manhattan indictment stems from events that happened in 2016. The two election-related indictments involve conduct that occurred more than two years ago. I can understand why Trump voters find it suspicious that prosecutors didn’t bring charges until after he had announced his 2024 candidacy and built up a lead in the polls. The Justice Department has no excuse, really, for why Jack Smith’s latest indictment took so long.

To uncork a Section 3 argument now, nine months after he formally entered the race, would raise the question of why his critics didn’t press that argument in the two and a half years since January 6. What’s the answer? What’s the answer when Trumpers point out that the Senate could have disqualified Trump from office on those grounds at his impeachment trial, considered the possibility, and refused?

Maybe a lawsuit against Trump under Section 3 filed circa February 2021 would have gotten traction in the courts. Even then, I’m skeptical: Judges are sensitive about the so-called “countermajoritarian difficulty” (look it up!) and wouldn’t want to deprive Americans of their right to vote for a candidate with widespread support who might plausibly be elected president again. The chances of the Supreme Court using Section 3 to knock Trump off the ballot two years ago were slim; the chances of them doing so now that he’s up 40 points in the primary and seemingly unstoppable are nil.

Especially since the language of the 14th Amendment isn’t a slam dunk. Did Trump “engage” in insurrection when he asked his supporters at the rally on January 6 to proceed “peacefully and patriotically” toward the Capitol, and then declined to join them? By encouraging the rioters, did he give aid and comfort to “enemies” of the United States? If you think the politics of the insurrection are touchy now, wait until SCOTUS slaps that label on the insurrectionists.

They won’t do it. The Section 3 challenge will fail, and the closer to the election we are when it finally lands in court, the more cursorily it’ll be dismissed. All it will achieve at this point is convincing a few more Trump sympathizers that the “deep state” is throwing every legal argument it can think of at the wall in desperation to keep him out of power and hoping something sticks. That perception won’t hurt him in the Republican primary.

If Trump leaves the race, Vivek Ramaswamy is the favorite.

In my defense, there’s a lot to say about how badly he’s doing. Every hour seems to bring new material. But one thing that hasn’t been said, here or elsewhere that I’ve seen, is that DeSantis might not end up as the nominee even if his wish were granted and Trump headed off to prison or to the big golf course in the sky.

He’s been the second-place candidate for months. As recently as March, he was within 15 points of Trump in national polling. No Republican officeholder in the past three years worked harder to build populist credibility and no one succeeded as well. His margin of victory in Florida last November was truly epic. Until recently, if Trump couldn’t run again for whatever reason, it seemed a foregone conclusion that DeSantis would succeed him as nominee.

That conclusion is no longer foregone. Right now, in a Trumpless race, as pathetic as it is, I’d put Vivek Ramaswamy as the favorite.

Beside Trump and DeSantis, Ramaswamy is the only candidate since February to reach double digits in a national poll. He’s done it three times in the past month; in one, he led DeSantis by a point. The governor still leads him in the RealClearPolitics average but his margin has shrunk from 29 points in March to less than 8 today. Team Ron is hearing footsteps loudly enough that the debate memo published by his super PAC yesterday pleads with its candidate to “take a sledgehammer” to “Vivek the Fake” and makes a point of mentioning Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith.

The belief that DeSantis will be the nominee if Trump exits is based on the assumption that most of Trump’s 55 percent of the vote will migrate to the governor in his absence. That was a sound assumption at one point. It’s less sound now.

To begin with, Trump has ridiculed DeSantis day and night for months but has yet to utter an unkind syllable about Ramaswamy. Whenever the governor is asked about pardoning Trump, he mutters something about criminalizing politics and how it’d be bad for the country to jail an 80-year-old before gently observing that it’d be better to have a nominee who doesn’t provoke such questions.

But Vivek? He’s outside the courthouse on arraignment day waving around a pledge to pardon Trump and daring the rest of the field to sign it. Unlike DeSantis, MAGA voters have been given no reason to despise him. On the contrary.

Ramaswamy is also clever. The subject of his faith has come up on the trail; he’s not a natural fit for a party whose members are overwhelmingly Christian. He’s tried to bridge that gap on the stump as best he can, but it risks becoming a problem as he rises in the polls. So lately he’s chosen to present himself as … the candidate of the 10 commandments.

Not those Ten Commandments. These 10 commandments.

As noted earlier, many alleged “evangelical” Republicans might decide they prefer the new commandments to the old ones. And even if they don’t, Vivek’s rebrand as “the commandments candidate” is a shrewd way to get GOP voters to give him the benefit of the doubt on his religious priorities.

Ramaswamy is also … I want to say “also a more authentic populist than DeSantis,” but I’m not sure that’s true. They each seem as authentic as a three-dollar bill but in different ways. DeSantis comes off like a traditional conservative who calculated that Trumpism was his only path to advancement and has grown to like the authoritarian freedom that ethos grants him as governor. Ramaswamy comes off like a noob who hadn’t given populism a moment’s thought a few years ago, got sucked in somehow and embraced it with the zeal of a convert, and might just as zealously embrace some other political fad he gets sucked into in due course. Strong Sohrab Ahmari vibes, is what I’m saying.

We can safely say this much, though: Vivek sounds like a more authentic populist than DeSantis. For instance, he told reporters recently that he’d warn China to lay off Taiwan until 2028 because that’s how long it’ll take for the U.S. to meet its own needs in producing semiconductors. Once we reach that goal, “Our commitments to Taiwan, our commitments to be willing to go to military conflict, will change … because that’s rationally in our self-interest.” He also continues to fantasize about an anti-China alliance with Putin’s Russia, never mind that Russia is an untrustworthy regime with a second-rate military and a putrid economy that’s in no position to antagonize a superpower on its own border.

These are terrible ideas from a would-be commander-in-chief who plainly hasn’t considered what lessons American allies would draw from the policies he describes or how disengaging from the Far East might encourage Chinese expansionism. (No wonder Elon Musk likes him.) Ramaswamy makes no bones about his foreign policy ignorance or arrogance either, telling Hugh Hewitt that he “didn’t know much of this six months ago” before making his case for upending the global order.

Whom do you like in a head-to-head battle for the soul of MAGA, then? Ron DeSantis, yammering through a strategically vague take on Ukraine that aims to somehow satisfy pro-Russia populists and anti-Russia conservatives, or Vivek Ramaswamy bellowing “PARTNER WITH PUTIN TO CRUSH CHINA” over a hip-hop beat?

There’s one more advantage Ramaswamy has that the governor would kill for at this point, and I don’t mean charisma. (Although he has that advantage as well, in spades.) Vivek isn’t a politician. He’s an “outsider.”

I frankly wonder how long it’ll be before the Republican Party nominates another politician for president.

Granted, Ted Cruz is a politician by trade and he finished second to Trump in 2016, but Cruz never led Trump in the national polls. The only candidate who did, briefly, was Ben Carson, another newcomer to politics. The closest thing to a breakout star in the primary in 2024 is newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, who seems poised for true breakout status after next week’s debate. And I’m convinced that if newcomer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were running for president as a Republican, which he should be, he’d be in either second or third place right now and poised to gain from DeSantis’ misfortunes.

Perhaps the newcomer mystique in all of these cases is due to these candidates entering politics in the post-Trump era, making them more trustworthy to GOP voters. Or perhaps holding any political office irrespective at any point is now seen as somewhat discrediting by populist Republicans who don’t make fine distinctions about which officeholders are from “the swamp” and which aren’t. Either way, we’d expect Trump voters in a Trump-less race to find more to like in Ramaswamy than in DeSantis, a twice-elected governor and former congressman who made his political bones as a small government conservative in the Paul-Ryan-era GOP.

And so I’d bet on Vivek winning that contest. Maybe we’ll get to test my theory eventually.

And if we do, and Ramaswamy does prevail over DeSantis, I trust my mystery colleague at The Dispatch, who thinks the governor has been too focused on wokeness in his campaign, will admit error. After all, if there’s any candidate more obsessed with wokeness than DeSantis, it’s the man who published Woke Inc. in 2021. Ramaswamy is very much running on full metal culture war populism, not on “competence and electability” or good governance. Yet his star is rising while DeSantis’ is falling. Go figure.

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.