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The Caver in Chief

Donald Trump is much better at talking hardball than at playing it.

Former President Donald Trump exits the stage after delivering remarks at a campaign event in Concord, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024. (Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (a warm welcome to both Muay Thai and mai tai enthusiasts), 

Our own David Drucker had a fun, old-fashioned scoop yesterday. He got his hands on a draft resolution to declare Donald Trump the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. The goal—while mostly symbolic given Republican National Committee rules—would have been to send a signal that, as far as the party is concerned, the primaries are over. A good-sized hullabaloo followed, and a few hours later Donald Trump issued a statement thanking the RNC for its attempt at groveling sycophancy but adding that he thinks he should do it the “‘Old Fashioned’ way.”

While I greatly appreciate the Republican National Committee (RNC) wanting to make me their PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE, and while they have far more votes than necessary to do it, I feel, for the sake of PARTY UNITY, that they should NOT go forward with this plan, but that I should do it the “Old Fashioned” way, and finish the process off AT THE BALLOT BOX. Thank you to the RNC for the Respect and Devotion you have shown me! TRUMP2024

Now, I have so many mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I love having a good scoop for The Dispatch, no matter how insufferable it will make Drucker. On the other hand, I’m appalled by the RNC’s effort, but not for the reasons you might think. We’ll come back to that. On the other hand, I’m kinda disappointed Trump caved to the popular backlash against this effort to rig the system. But, again, not for the reasons you might think. On another hand … oh forget it. I’ve got more hands on this than a game of flinch between Vishnu and Shiva. 

Let me just start over. Since 2015, perhaps the foremost argument for Trump has been of the “but he fights!” variety. By my rough estimate, 100 books, 10,000 op-eds, and a trillion tweets have been dedicated to the proposition that he’s the fighter we need. He’s King David! Red Caesar! Cyrus! He’s a counterpuncher! He takes the gloves off. He’ll go there! He’ll say what others won’t say! When the rules are defined as the stuff of a corrupt establishment, the refrain is “he’s not going to play by your rules.” When the rules are defined by a paranoid conviction that the left and the deep state will do anything to hold onto power, the refrain switches to “he’ll beat them at their own game!” In short, the argument is that Trump is a juggernaut, an unstoppable force who will do anything until he wins.

Trump even managed to take the fact—and it is a fact, even according to him— that he is an incessant whiner into a strength. “I do whine because I want to win, and I’m not happy about not winning, and I am a whiner, and I keep whining and whining until I win.” And, amazingly, his biggest fans—you know the people who talk about the glories of manliness and strength and who think that “Cry more, lib” is a mic-drop response to any argument they don’t like—processed this confession of deliberate crybabiness as something to celebrate.   

But here’s the thing: It’s all B.S.

By their own standards, Trump is a staggering weakling and coward. 

This doesn’t mean he’s not a bully. Indeed, the two go together. People may disagree on who is or isn’t a bully, but I think everyone agrees that bullying comes from a place of weakness and insecurity. (This is one reason groups that feel oppressed often become the most vicious and brutal oppressors when given the opportunity.) This probably explains why Trump loves to associate with and praise strongmen and dictators. He wants some of that “toughness” to rub off by association. Like Chester, the little dog from Looney Tunes who hangs out with Spike, the big dog, he hopes people won’t be able to tell the difference. 

Bullies try to make others small so they can feel big. By that standard, I honestly think it’s impossible to persuasively dispute that Trump is the most transparent bully in modern American history. What it says about people who love his bullying and confuse it with masculinity is something worth pondering, but not today. 

Anyway, back to Trump the fighter. When he was campaigning in 2016, he led chants of “lock her up,” but Hillary Clinton remains free. He vowed over and over again that he would build the wall, make Mexico pay for it, and that it would be easy with a Man of Strength like him at the helm. He failed. He’d repeal Obamacare, replace it with something better, and do it fast. Failed, failed, and failed. In 2020, he insisted that the election was stolen—and still does—but when the people he asked to fight for him failed to deliver, he sulked and skulked away, a consummate sore loser.  

Now, you can argue, with some merit, that he failed at these, and so many other things, because others failed him. The system stopped him. But these are always the excuses of blowhards. I could have kicked his ass, but I had a doctor’s appointment and I didn’t want his blood on my new sneakers. Whatever. 

You could also argue, also with ample merit, that he failed because he wasn’t smart enough or knowledgeable enough to pull off what he wanted. But this isn’t an argument his biggest fans are willing to make for various reasons. One of those reasons—on full display in the GOP House caucus–is the deep-seated belief that angry, performative failure is preferable to sober, restrained success. Whining about complete failure plays better on TV than explaining the benefits of partial success. 

But neither of these explanations get him off the hook. 

National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty had a great piece the other day on two instances where Trump had the power to do exactly what his biggest fans wanted most from him, and Trump simply chickened-out. In “When Donald Was Absent,” Dougherty lays out how Trump caved during the pandemic and on urban riots. When it became apparent—especially to his people—that the shutdowns were counterproductive:

Trump let Dr. Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, and other health officials set the terms of American life, in an election year. … Trump never found a way to put public health back in its box and appropriately limit the purview of a set of experts whose opinions were obviously myopically focused on the disease and ignored other priorities of American life that couldn’t be put on ice for months at a time. 

And so Trump receded. Suddenly the “Trump! Trump! Trump!” of cable news gave way to Andrew Cuomo and his brother Chris; to health experts pillorying Governors Brian Kemp, Greg Abbott, and Ron DeSantis for trying to do precisely what Trump would not do — act like statesmen and reconcile the diverse interests of their people in the midst of a crisis.

And then again, during the “Summer of George Floyd” Trump tweeted a lot about “Law and Order” but did very little to restore it. Like the bully who threatens but never follows through, he opted to talk tough but do next to nothing. “In June,” Dougherty writes, “he had law-enforcement officers use riot-control tactics not to end the riots in D.C. but to stage a photo op of himself holding a Bible outside of St. John’s Church.” The guy who praised the toughness of the butchers of Beijing settled for a picture of him awkwardly holding a Bible like an inexperienced understudy for Vanna White flipping a vowel. 

Again, you can say he was intimidated by the often hysterical response from the media and Democrats—and you’d be largely right. That is not an argument about his strength and courage, but rather his lack of both. Indeed, the anti-Trump media played a crucial role in all of this. Trump liked to pretend he was a strongman and so did his enemies, and that was good enough for him. He wanted the credit for seeming tough on TV, not the responsibility that comes with actually acting tough. Like all bullies, he cares more about the rep than the results. It was all there to be seen from the beginning. His character on The Apprentice relished firing people face-to-face. In real life, Trump fears interpersonal confrontation and has others wield the pink slips for him. 

The RNC power cosplay.

This is the backdrop of my mixed response to the RNC brouhaha. In 2016, the argument for Trump was that he was the fighter we needed to take on “the establishment.” And anything that smacked of the establishment resisting Trump’s hostile takeover of the party was seen as tautological proof that we needed Trump to destroy it. The resistance to Trump was the argument for Trump. And, if elected, he wouldn’t pussyfoot with “norms” or “rules”: He’d get things done. (Never mind that once he was in power, the people who actually got things done—the McConnells, Ryans, et al.—were the people who believed in norms and knew how to actually get things done.)

Now it’s 2024 and all the people who “know what time it is” are preparing to fill the government with acolytes of the Trump cult who will use power without remorse to get things done. These Heritage Foundation Sardaukar and Bannonite Leninists won’t be intimidated by the deep state; they will replace it with a right-wing version of it. Like high school nerds working up their liquid courage and beer muscles, they talk giddily  of willpower, regime change, Red Caesarism, and tearing down the system to build something better on rubble of their own making. They’ll fire bureaucrats by tens of thousands and erect a wall on Day 1 of Trump’s dictatorship. They’ll grease the skids of their remorseless wielding of ultimate power with the tears of the libs and cucks who protest in vain. 

The proposed RNC resolution seemed like the meekest of trial runs for this kind of thing. The thinking appears to have been something like this: We control the RNC, Trump will win anyway, so why should we even indulge this farce of a primary election? We’re the establishment now, bitches, let’s act like it. It was a harmless trial run for the historic enabling acts of 2025 they’re banking on. 

And five hours later, in the face of entirely predictable ridicule, Trump says thanks, but I’ll obey the norms. 

I think it was the right decision, but that’s hardly the point, now is it? Doing what people like me think is right is almost the definition of the wrong thing to do for this crowd. 

But my conflicted feelings don’t end there. I think “the establishment” of 2015-2016 should have used power to stop Trump—if it actually had the power to do so. But it didn’t. I want a strong establishment, run by honorable and capable people, that takes its responsibilities seriously and has the power necessary for the task. It’s because we didn’t have such an establishment that Trump couldn’t be stopped in 2016. The weakness of the parties, the strength of media-fueled virtual mobs, and the myth that the establishment was powerful in the first place made it possible for Trump to seize the nomination. The hype was that he was a battering ram; the reality was that he was pushing on open doors and pretending that they were great feats of strength. 

Now Trump is the establishment. Forget all of the endorsements and fawning coverage from his helper-media. This RNC debacle alone demonstrated that he controls the GOP establishment as much as any incumbent president would. The RNC had the votes to do what it wanted—and what it wanted was to use the levers of power at its disposal to vault Trump to even more power. It was go-time for Trump to assert his dominance of the party, launch his general election campaign, and then it sputtered-out on the launch pad. All because of some mild mockery and criticism about playing by the rules, mostly from liberals, and from Trump-resistant Republicans, that the party itself increasingly says it doesn’t want or need anyway. It was like watching the entourage of a prize fighter stand there as their meal ticket cowered from a fight with the spit-bucket guy at the gym. 

Or so it seemed. But now we learn today that Trump was in on the idea from the get-go. So once again, his willing troops are voluntold to get ‘er done. Then he caves, and the subordinates are left holding the bag. 

None of this is to say that just because Trump is a coward and a bully he’d be harmless in power if elected again. Giving power to bullies with highly cultivated grievances is as dumb as giving an army to a coward happy to have others fight for him. But it does give you the sense that this crowd, as ever, is much better at talking hardball than it is at playing it. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Generally, the beasts are all good. Though Zoë is occasionally low energy. We don’t know why. There were several amusing developments this week. The other morning, Pippa, as is her wont, refused to get out of bed without first receiving her quota of belly rubs. Zoë was furious, but she subscribes to the view that the fish rots from the head down, and blamed me for not running a tighter ship. Also, neither is entirely pleased with the suddenly warm weather, though they appreciated that the meteorological shift turned their favorite spot into Brigadoon. What they’re really pissed at is the disappearance of the snow, which always brings out the best in them (though they had a good time this morning regardless). When I got back from Ohio on Wednesday, I surprised them with a reverse welcoming committee. I agree with critics that I dropped the ball when I didn’t aroo or waggle at them. Finally, the most exciting news of the day—or the millennium if you ask them—was that the Fair Jessica gave them bonus ice cream. Already, I’ve been cc’d on dozens of complaints to Amnesty International, the International Criminal Court, and the ASPCA that Gracie was not included. It was an oversight. If it helps, she did get salmon last night. And she does get her treats first most mornings now, which doesn’t keep her from yelling at me. Have a great weekend. Also, Pippa loves you

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.