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GOP Elites Can’t Simply Wish Donald Trump Away

Trumpism has cost the GOP in three consecutive elections, and yet it looks like the Republican base may continue to follow their basest ideological urges and stick with their guy in the next contest. A new CNN poll found that the majority of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) “care more about picking a 2024 GOP nominee who agrees with them on issues than one who can beat [Joe] Biden.” This polling runs contrary to the GOP-elites wishcasting described Wednesday in Politico: “Even die-hard supporters of former president Donald Trump, they’ve reasoned, are finally sick of losing.”

If this polling is right, the base is not “sick of losing.” There is no tangible evidence to support the GOP braintrust’s fantasy. If anything, the base seems stuck in 2016, as four polls last month showed Trump experiencing a February bump, expanding his lead over Ron DeSantis. It’s been clear for months—to me, at least—that Trump shouldn’t be counted out, whereas “several top Republicans,” Axios noted Tuesday, “keep saying there’s no way” he can win the nomination.  

But what’s the base saying? Thirty-eight percent of CNN respondents said they consider America’s “increasing racial, ethnic, and national diversity” to be a threat. More than half of the respondents want a candidate who would “support government action to oppose ‘woke’ values,” while a whopping “78% majority of Republican-aligned Americans” said that “society’s values on sexual orientation and gender identity are changing for the worse.” Oh, and 84% of those who identify as very conservative consider Biden’s indisputable 2020 victory to be illegitimate. Trump continues to very much have a hold over the hearts and minds of the GOP base.

The GOP didn’t bother coming up with a new policy platform in 2020, and given the base’s priorities—race, gender, and “woke” panic, mixed with election denial—it’s likely to be another campaign filled with empty slogans (“Build the wall!”) and the vague belief that Trump, or someone espousing Trumpism, can fix everything. With Trump and DeSantis (who is still not officially in the race) both trekking to Iowa within the past week, it’s clear the Republican primary season is upon us, with a mere 600 or so days until November 5, 2024. 

Republican contenders find themselves in an awkward position: How do they win Trump’s base without actually being the 76-year-old reality-television host, or how do they out-Trump Trump? DeSantis has worked hardest to out-Trump Trump by turning Florida into a mini authoritarian state—whether that’s entailed removing an elected prosecutor or radically injecting his right-wing ideology into education. The latter has been a clear priority for DeSantis, from his takeover of New College and signing of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to his targeting of AP African American Studies and fostering of a climate where supposedly dangerous authors like Jodi Picoult, Toni Morrison, and James Patterson are being banned

The problem with embracing a cult of personality is that eventually you are left with a cult. These non-Trump 2024 contenders are desperately scrambling to appeal to a base whose only desire is Trumpism. These candidates need to find something to offer the American people, and I just don’t think “Trump without the charisma” is the winning message the National Review crew thinks it is. The New York Times described how DeSantis’s penchant for putting “policy over personality can make him seem awkward and arrogant or otherwise astonishing in person, depending on the voter and the success or failure of his one-on-one exchanges.” Sounds like Jeb Bush! Without the clapping. 

Last Friday in Iowa, DeSantis workshopped an enemy he’s been toying with. A truly unstoppable and dangerous enemy: the “woke mind virus.” DeSantis superfan Elon Musk blamed the “woke mind virus” for “making Netflix unwatchable” in a tweet from April 2022. And in May 2022, Musk continued his crusade: “Unless it is stopped, the woke mind virus will destroy civilization and humanity will never [have] reached Mars.” DeSantis may be evoking the “woke mind virus” as an homage to Musk, a guy who, in addition to being astronomically rich, also owns one of the world’s most influential communications platforms. 

Or perhaps DeSantis is drawn to the phrase because it has almost no meaning and fits with the old Republican ideal of fighting against problems that don’t exist. Fighting against problems that don’t exist was one of the tenets of the Trump era, like when the former president instituted the Muslim travel ban shortly after taking office. Of course, Republicans will also freak out over just about anything they perceive as “cancel culture” run amok, like Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to stop publishing several books. 

DeSantis has been focused a lot on education, and perhaps that is because he thinks he “won” the pandemic by keeping schools open in fall 2020 and 2021 (after closing them in spring 2020). The problem with his using his previous pandemic “success” is that he wasn’t that successful. According to The New York Times, “at least 1 in 247 [Florida] residents have died from the coronavirus, a total of 86,850 deaths.” Per Axios, CDC data showed last March that “Florida ranks 16 out of the top 25 states in deaths per 100,000 residents.” The other problem with the “DeSantis-as-COVID hero” narrative is that schools are open across America. Most mask mandates are gone. You have to work pretty hard to find someone to fight with you about masking. I just don’t know how much hostility toward COVID restrictions will resonate with voters who aren’t currently affected by COVID restrictions and haven’t been for months, if not years. 

Another DeSantis talking point is “protecting children” from drag queens, books, and gay teachers. In March 2022, DeSantis signed House Bill (HB) 1557, Parental Rights in Education, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. DeSantis wants to protect children from “schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as five years old,” according to his website. While “protecting children” seems hard to argue with, the vague language of the bill can have a broad, chilling effect on speech. 

It’s pretty ironic that while DeSantis lectures audiences about protecting children, Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders just signed the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, which says that “children under 16 don’t have to get the Division of Labor’s permission to be employed. The state also no longer has to verify the age of those under 16 before they take a job.” How better to protect children from the dangers of books than putting them to work? Saving children is also one of the tropes of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, which posits that there is a ring of child predators in the Democratic Party.

How do you switch cult leader mid-cult? How do you appeal to a base that is completely ideological but lacking a coherent ideology? Republicans have had numerous opportunities to uncouple from Trump—right after his first impeachment, right after he lost in 2020, right after he encouraged a riot at the Capitol, right after his second impeachment. Each time Republicans didn’t want to take the pain of possibly alienating the base. The problem with fearing the base is that eventually it gets stronger. Now you have a Republican elite being held hostage by the party’s base, and I am reminded of the old Lindsey Graham tweet from 2016: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.”

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