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The Price of Admission to the GOP
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The Price of Admission to the GOP

Donald Trump wants one thing: blind loyalty.

Former President Donald Trump speaks with Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and Sen. Tim Scott at a campaign rally at the the Margate Resort in Laconia, New Hampshire, on Monday, January 22, 2024. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)


A headline in the Wall Street Journal today reads: “Chipotle to Offer New Benefits to Draw Younger Workers for Burrito Season.”

What I found striking is that “Burrito Season” is a thing we’re supposed to know is a thing. In other words, while I didn’t know that burrito—or Chipotle burrito—sales spike in the spring, I’m not that surprised to learn it. But I do find it jarringly funny to throw around “burrito season” like “baseball season” or “Oscar season.” Do people ask, “Are you psyched for burrito season?” Do sewer workers say, “Next year, we’ve got to be better prepared for burrito season.” 

Anyway, speaking of seasons and increases in gross crap tonnage, this is technically the heart of primary season. But it really doesn’t feel like it. Barring some events that we normally don’t consider part of normal primary seasons—unprecedentedly old candidates dying, breaking a hip, yelling at clouds, speaking in tongues, or being put in jail—it’s already pretty clear who the nominees will be. And both presumptive nominees and their parties are ready to start the presidential campaign season—which traditionally doesn’t start until after Labor Day—right now. 

Also, primary season is the busy season for political pundits, and there’s no shortage of punditry—from excellent to excremental—out there. I have all sorts of points to make on this front that probably span that spectrum to one degree or another. But I’ll focus on what I think is the most important one. 

The basic dynamic right now is that Donald Trump has an insurmountable advantage among people who strongly identify as Republicans and a very significant advantage among people who are willing to identify as Republicans at all. Nikki Haley’s strengths are the inverse. She has a massive advantage among people willing to vote Republican, but not for Trump. Some of these people still describe themselves as Republican, but odds are good that they’re a little embarrassed to say so. A larger chunk of these voters are self-described independents who either were once Republicans but left the party in disgust, or who are authentic conservative-leaning swing voters who do not want to vote for Joe Biden but also don’t want to vote for Donald Trump. 

In other words, Haley leads with the voters who traditionally spell the difference between a winning majority coalition and losing, rump coalition.

“In a polarized country, any candidate has to win 90% or more of their party to win an election,” Whit Ayres, a widely respected veteran Republican pollster and strategist, told the Wall Street Journal. “You can’t be competitive if you’re not close to 90%.”  

As it stands right now, Trump cannot get 90 percent of Republicans. In New Hampshire, 21 percent of Republicans said they would not vote for him if he were the nominee. (In Iowa, 15 percent of Republicans said they wouldn’t vote for Trump in the general election.) A whopping 68 percent of independents who voted in the Republican primary said that they will not vote for him in the general. Admittedly, New Hampshire is top-heavy with independents, which is why Haley’s chances in future primaries are so slim. But if that number is remotely representative of independents nationally, Trump’s chances in a two-person race are dismal. As the Journal reports, Trump won independents by 4 points in 2016, but lost them by 13 points in 2020.

As I wrote last week, convincing former Trump voters who turned their back on him in 2020 that they were wrong to do so would be difficult under normal circumstances. But these are hardly normal circumstances. The former supporters who refused to vote for him last time have seen Trump try to steal an election, talk about goons and thugs convicted in court as “hostages,” demand the suspension of the Constitution, and promise to be a dictator on Day One of his administration. Just last night, they saw Trump vow revenge on Haley and humiliate Sen. Tim Scott.

They’ve also watched as the GOP has put in yeoman efforts to convince people that it is fine with all of this. There’s been virtually zero signaling from the Republican Party that its leaders would do their patriotic best to keep Trump’s worst tendencies in check, the way many did last time. Not everyone has said forthrightly, “He can do whatever he wants,” but in their deafening silences, obsequious endorsements, and embarrassing dismissals of criticisms, they’ve sent that message.

Meanwhile, the loudest voices of the right have worked assiduously to convince voters—their voters and all the other voters, too—that they are fine with being enablers of Trump’s worst instincts. And many have shouted that if you’re not willing to be a human footstool for Trump as he climbs his figurative white horse, you are unwelcome in the party. Marjorie Taylor Greene told MSNBC that “any Republican” who isn’t willing to do likewise will be eradicated from the party.

Apparently, Pauline Kael didn’t actually say, “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” The actual quote was, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where [Nixon voters] are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” Millions of Trump voters live in a similar “special world.” And that’s fine. The problem for Republican politicians, party officials, and the MAGA media industrial complex, is that they’re operating as if that special world is much larger than it is. They’re convinced that Trump—who never won the popular vote, and who, in 2016, got a lower share of it than Mitt Romney did in 2012—can win with just the votes of those who really love him. But more people have always disliked him than liked him. They may be distributed in ways that keep the Electoral College a viable path to the presidency, but “the people”—or even a majority of the people—have never actually rallied to him. 

Many Republican politicians and media personalities know this, but it is in their political or financial interest to pretend they don’t. But many rank-and-file MAGA Pauline Kaels don’t know this. One reason: They believe Trump when he says he beat Biden “by a lot.” They’re not all fools, but they have all been fooled. Regardless, the belief that the 2020 election was stolen is now a kind of litmus test issue that divides the party as starkly as any policy issue. In the Iowa Caucus entrance poll, Haley beat Trump 53-11 among those who believed Biden won. In New Hampshire, the number was 76 to 13. Ask yourself: Would Trump attack any Republican for wavering on abortion, guns, or Ukraine with a fraction of the rage he would dole out for forthrightly saying he didn’t win in 2020? I doubt it. 

The stolen election lie is, of course, a stand-in for blind loyalty to Trump, which is the fundamental litmus issue of the Trumpified GOP. Love me, love my lies. 

And this is where the punditry portion ends. If the Republicans don’t want you unless you agree to embrace Trump-in-Full, accept their terms. Every day, the drumbeat to unify the party and rally to Trump grows louder. It will become deafening soon enough. Many of the people who say now that they won’t vote for Trump will cave. Many of the critics—possibly even Haley, though I hope not—will “come home.” Don’t. Please.

The Trumpists are clear: They want you to bend, to negotiate away your concerns and objections, while they stick by theirs. They appeal to your loyalty, while offering none in return. They want the political equivalent of a forced conversion to their faith. The old, traditional, notion of party loyalty involved reciprocity, an implicit transaction. You get our support in exchange for your support. That’s not the bargain here. Trump gets your support and you get whatever he deigns to give you. Ronald Reagan used to say something like, “if you agree with me on 7 out of 10 issues, you’re my 70 percent friend, not my 30 percent enemy.” There are people who see Trump through a similar prism, and for understandable reasons. They like a lot of things done by the first Trump administration and want more. But what they don’t see is that for Trump, the only nonnegotiable issue is him. You can love him or fear him, but you can’t question him.   If he changes policies, that’s his prerogative, and you’re obliged to change yours too. 

I do not want Joe Biden to be president again. But that doesn’t obligate me, or anyone else, to vote for Donald Trump. Indeed, the people voting for Haley or who voted for Ron DeSantis do not want Joe Biden to be president again, either. But the party establishment—and yes, Trump is the establishment candidate—want you to sacrifice your integrity, your judgment, or your patriotism, under the theory that you can’t be a real Republican unless you’re all in for Trump. Not his policies, him.

Take them at their word when they tell you the price of admission. Don’t pay it. If they don’t want you, don’t give them your support for free. I’m not going to rehearse all the reasons I think Trump is unfit for office. I won’t wax lyrical on how dangerous it is to have a president who believes all constraints on his will and desire are illegitimate. Instead, I’ll just point out that the Republican Party can never, ever, be a majority party again unless and until the party realizes it needs more votes than those it can take for granted. The only way to break the fever is for the party to internalize the fact it needs more voters than those who fill the ranks of a cult of personality.

As I said earlier, I don’t think Trump can win a two-person race against Biden. But he can win because I don’t think it’ll be a two person race. That’s a topic for more punditry another time. But if I’m right, it’s worth contemplating that Trump will be far kinder to voters who vote for socialists and crackpots, and take away votes from Biden as a result, than he will be to principled conservatives who want the Republican Party to be more than a plaything for a narcissistic demagogue. Which is to say, he doesn’t care about any issues other than his own self-interest.

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.