Trumpism is about destruction, about burning it all down, about a kind of partisanship in which Republicans are unwilling or unable to make any kind of bipartisan compromise. And yet, even in a party consumed for years by Trumpism, 149 Republicans voted last week with 165 Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and spare the American economy an unprecedented meltdown. Clearly, the burn it all down wing isn’t going away, with Matt Gaetz, Andy Biggs, and Ken Buck among the 71 Republicans who voted “no.” And it’s not like all members of the “yes” group, which includes Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene, are suddenly sane. But the vote signaled that a majority of Republicans could embrace bipartisan governing, or at least some version of what that looks like in 2023.
The 2024 Republican primary, however, is Trumpism run amok, with Donald Trump leading a pack of less charismatic mini-mes and little sign that the normal (a.k.a. pre-2016) GOP is coming back. Just head out to Iowa, where GOP candidates this past weekend were donning leather for Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride. The New York Times noted that presidential candidates “barely touched” the economy, a subject “many voters expressed concern about.” Instead, the GOP primary crew, which didn’t include the field’s front-runner, railed “against ‘deep state’ bureaucrats, ‘woke’ corporations, and liberals indoctrinating and confusing America’s children.” Ron DeSantis’s team is clearly banking that MAGA red meat is what GOP primary voters will eat up. “The fight for the soul of the party isn’t about tax cuts or trade deals,” Jeff Roe, a top adviser to pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, told Axios. “It is this cultural combat that we have as a country.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then to see even Republicans once considered more moderate diving headfirst into the culture wars. During a CNN town hall on Sunday, Nikki Haley blamed teenage girls’ suicides on trans kids playing sports, a completely preposterous lie and the kind of unusual cruelty that is associated with Trumpism. In Rye, New Hampshire, Haley squandered her time with voters at a “No BS Barbecue” by making fun of transgender influencer and right-wing target Dylan Mulvaney. “Make no mistake, that is a guy dressed up like a girl making fun of women,” she said. “Women don’t act like that. And you’ve got companies glorifying that.” As Semafor’s David Weigel wrote, “The repeated riff was meant to be the applause line for one of the top candidates running on their ability to win back moderates in the suburbs who have fled the Republican Party in the Donald Trump era” and the best response the riff got was “a mixture of groans and murmurs.”
It’s baffling to me why Haley would want to mimic Trump’s cruelty, but she’s not the only one. The GOP primary field is beating up on transgender people in ways that are both morally wrong and wildly unpopular. According to Pew, “Roughly eight-in-ten US adults say there is at least some discrimination against trans people in our society, and a majority favor laws that would protect transgender individuals from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public spaces.” Yet we find GOP candidates running as furious culture warriors targeting trans kids and bodily autonomy. Candidates Tim Scott, Haley, and Pence have expressed support for a federal abortion ban.
Few dare mention Trump’s name on the campaign trail. Instead, they make vague callouts to the man, speaking in code, saying things about “rejecting a culture of losing (DeSantis)” or “it’s time for a new generational leader (Haley).” Pence criticized his former boss for recently congratulating Kim Jong Un, but still refused to use Trump’s name. “Whether it’s my former running mate or anyone else, no one should be praising the dictator in North Korea—or praising the leader of Russia, who has launched an unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine.” Haley refused to criticize Trump for his Kim Jong Un bromance.
Some Republicans are talking loudly about the need to defeat Trump, like New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, who at the same time announced Monday he wouldn’t be entering the 2024 race. Then there’s Chris Christie, who has been arguably the most critical of Trump so far and formally kicked off his bid Tuesday. But Christie has gone back and forth on Trump so many times he’s going to need his own lane on the George Washington Bridge. He took aim at Trump in 2016—and then endorsed him. Meanwhile, The Washington Post points out how Christie “is viewed negatively by many Republicans” and notes that “many prominent figures in the party who have vocally criticized Trump from a more traditional GOP posture in recent years have been rejected in party primaries.”
Another Republican candidate who has directly criticized Trump is former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who, following a jury in the E. Jean Carroll case finding Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation, called the former president’s behavior “indefensible.” Hutchinson’s poll numbers are also low.
This year is starting to feel a lot like 2016, a primary field that contains Trump and all the other not-Trump candidates. The only difference between this contest and 2016 is that other candidates then ran (ostensibly, at least) as their own selves and not just lesser versions of the OG. Perhaps this is because the current crop of candidates have seen polling which shows the GOP base continues to struggle with a pronounced case of brain worms. They dismiss Trump’s critics out of hand and election denial runs deep, with 75% in one poll saying that Trump actually won the 2020 election. It’s possible that these 2024 candidates can’t figure out how to recon with a GOP base existing in a post-truth bubble, and are just trying to keep up with an electorate that’s completely lost its mind.