As Donald Trump hit the stage at the Iowa Republican Party Lincoln Dinner Friday, as far and away the leading frontrunner in the Republican primary, the Brooks & Dunn song “Only in America” played in the background, in what seemed to be a bit more than a happy coincidence.
“One could end up going to prison. One just might be president.”
The lyrics, perfectly timed for his arrival, perhaps played as a result of Trump’s ongoing beef with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who’s supporting a badly limping Ron DeSantis campaign. The stunt apparently caused significant anger in the Trump campaign, which was not amused by the dig.
Nonetheless, the episode seemed to sum up what has become a truly surreal campaign season, as the leading Republican candidate for president simultaneously fights numerous state and federal criminal indictments, even while he runs his third presidential bid. Incredibly, Donald Trump, 77, appears poised to secure a third Republican nomination, in spite of the charges, in a political party that has been utterly broken, tamed, radicalized, and reshaped in his sordid image.
It’s inexplicable and yet entirely unsurprising.
At this point, the GOP is more of a cult of personality than a mainstream political party, as Republican primary voters seem ready to again embrace a man who has lost the last three national elections for the party, been impeached twice, led a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and is now being prosecuted for a slew of felonies committed both before, during, and after he was in office. It’s a political nightmare, and the party can’t seem to wake up or move on from it, to say nothing of the country itself.
Meanwhile, most of Trump’s purported opponents in the Republican Party are refusing to confront him or condemn his wrongdoing, continuing a well-established pattern of silently tolerating his endless moral and ethical lapses. Indeed, his rivals have barely mentioned the case against the former president, preferring to ignore the massive elephant in the room.
Instead, most Republican candidates are choosing to tiptoe around the former president, playing nice and placating his voters, even as brand new obstruction charges trickled out of the Special Counsel’s sweeping federal investigation last week. Likewise, additional criminal indictments are all but assured in Washington and Georgia related to January 6, and Trump’s efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss. It’s a landslide of legal accountability, but most Republicans would prefer to look away, per usual.
Still, not a single rival is threatening his grip on the party.
His closest adversary, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has yet to utter a word of real criticism of Trump, and has instead lamented what he claims is the “weaponization” of the Department of Justice, calling the prosecutions a political witch hunt in an echo of Trump’s own rhetoric. Clearly, DeSantis is hoping Trump’s legal ordeal takes him out of the race without any assistance from himself, at which point he can naturally assume the mantel, a tricky proposition that risks making him look like a coward, particularly as Trump gleefully attacks “DeSanctus,” or “DeSanctimonious,” as he calls him.
Indeed, Ron DeSantis’s much-hyped campaign has been in free fall essentially since it began, launched on a glitchy Twitter feed that crashed several times, in what’s proving to be a good metaphor for the campaign itself, which he’s apparently “rebooting.”
It’s certainly not looking optimistic.
There have recently been numerous embarrassing staff layoffs and budget crises, and the campaign appears to be imploding under the pressure of the national spotlight. The flow of bad media has been relentless, and DeSantis has performed poorly under the glare, flying around on private jets as his campaign hemorrhages big donor cash. More to the point, his frigid personality, facial tics, and increasingly extreme right-wing politics are no match for the former president’s dark charisma, and DeSantis appears to be flailing, and in serious trouble.
Recent national polling from FiveThirtyEight show Trump dominating the race. He’s currently climbing at about 52%, as DeSantis continues to plummet to about 15%, a difference of nearly 40 points, and the difference keeps expanding. Recent faux pas relating to Florida’s anti-woke school curriculum, which is teaching kids that Black slaves got valuable life skills from chattel slavery, have earned him more dire coverage.
In other words, Donald Trump looks like an easy favorite to win the Republican primary; Ron DeSantis’s light touch strategy is making him look weak and feckless, and in a political party tuned to the strongman vibe, this is problematic, to say the least.
Chris Christie is putting up a good fight, attacking Trump mercilessly, but his worse than anemic polling shows that it’s a message the Republican Party isn’t keen to hear. Mike Pence’s sagging campaign appears to have stalled out and died, and it looks like the former vice president might not even qualify for the debate stage. Long-shot candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has promised to pardon Trump if elected, and he’s polling nearly even with DeSantis.
Incredibly, Trump looks like a lock for the nomination, setting up a scenario where he’ll be running for president in a general election while being tried in criminal court, in what is a novel situation, to say the least.
Last Wednesday, Mitch McConnell appeared to suffer a small stroke, while holding a press conference at which the 81-year-old senate minority leader was unable to speak, before being escorted away from the mic. The moment seemed to capture a political party that has lost its voice, having been utterly overwhelmed by Donald Trump and his election denialism, conspiracy theories, and violent far-right politics, without a way back.
In any case, Donald Trump is the Republican Party.
Thus, the United States faces the grim prospect of yet another presidential election dominated by Donald Trump and his corrosive lies, even as the former president stands trial in both state and federal court for a long list of crimes. It’s an unprecedented moment in American history, with the Republican Party unable and unwilling to free itself from the grip of its authoritarian leader, as our democracy suffers the consequences.
And Donald Trump could win.
In that case, he’s promised to strengthen his own executive power, unsurprisingly, concentrating inordinate power in his own hands, presumably after ordering his attorney general to dispense with the investigations, indictments, and active prosecutions of himself.
He’s also sworn swift vengeance for his political enemies, promising “retribution” in the form of political purges of the federal bureaucracy, or what he calls the “deep state.” His campaign has said Trump would seek to enhance the president’s power over nearly every aspect of the federal government, bringing independent agencies under Oval Office control.
In other words, he’s going to make himself into a dictator, enabling him to dominate the entire country and government the same way he dominates the Republican Party now. It’s an extraordinarily dark vision that is completely at odds with America’s democratic ideals, and yet it seems increasingly possible, as Trump bulldozes over his adversaries in a broken and defeated Republican Party.