For those who were still unclear about Donald Trump’s vise grip around the Republican Party’s neck, or who perhaps refuse to believe the terrifying reality that he might actually end up back in the White House, voters at the Iowa caucuses this week have likely dispelled some of their confusion. It’s quite clear, after months of ominous polling and these decisive results in Iowa, that Donald Trump is a lock for his third Republican nomination, absent a dramatic political shift or an act of god, force majeure.
Indeed, Trump owns the Republican Party, body and soul.
Any inkling that that might not be the case is rapidly vanishing into a cold hard reality: Trump is going to be at the top of the GOP’s ticket in 2024. The U.S. will almost certainly face a dreaded rematch between him and President Joe Biden, and a historic clash between the ideals of our battered democracy and the growing cancer of nascent dictatorship, on the verge of achieving absolute power.
Trump will be campaigning from inside a courtroom, as voters decide whether to smother or resuscitate America’s ailing democracy, a stark choice that once made, cannot be undone. This election will determine whether America’s democratic experiment dies out, or survives, flawed and imperfect but alive. The stakes simply could not be higher.
Trump dominates Iowa
The former president trounced his Republican rivals in Iowa, garnering a resounding 51% of the vote, compared to Ron DeSantis’s paltry 21% and Nikki Haley’s 19%. Vivek Ramaswamy came in at 7.7%, and immediately dropped out of the race, offering his fawning endorsement to Trump.
That leaves DeSantis and Haley to battle for a distant second place, merely underscoring Trump’s absolute dominance in the GOP, and the fading hopes of those last few Republicans still eager to move past Trump. At this point, Haley’s banking on an upset win in New Hampshire to change the narrative, where independents are allowed to vote in GOP primaries, while the DeSantis campaign is essentially conceding that state entirely to focus on South Carolina, Haley’s home state, in what looks like a political Hail Mary.
Notably, Haley has conspicuously refused to rule out running as Trump’s VP, despite the obvious perils of the job (see: Mike Pence), and her silence speaks volumes.
In any case, it’s going to be an uphill slog for both of them, in a Republican Party that seems utterly unable and unwilling to move on or past Trump and Trumpism, despite a long string of bitter electoral defeats, mounting damage to American democracy at home and prestige abroad, and a host of legal entanglements for the former president, who’s likely to face trial prior to this election for trying to steal the last one.
Despite his mounting legal jeopardy, Trump is poised to reclaim the Republican nomination in overwhelming style, running as if he’s an incumbent president rather than a defeated and disgraced insurrectionist and criminal defendant, currently charged with 91 felonies in four jurisdictions. Ordinarily, even a hint of criminal liability would be, if not legally disqualifying, certainly enough to turn voters off a presidential candidate. But not in this case, which is anything but ordinary.
Instead, Trump’s making excellent use of his preternatural ability to channel his own (and his voters’) victimhood into effective and ever more extreme grievance politics, enabling him to present himself as a persecuted savior, Christlike in his own innocence and virtue. His legions of devoted followers are clearly anxious to join him on his millenarian mission, despite or perhaps in spite of the fact that he’s declaring war on American democracy and the rule of law, while openly celebrating his own instinctive authoritarianism. And while he may be posing as a Christ figure, he’s promising an Old Testament style of “retribution,” promising sweeping political purges and brutal vengeance against his many enemies.
More to the point, he’s promised to be a “dictator on day one.” It’s hard to overstate how incredibly unprecedented such rhetoric is from the presumptive nominee of a major political party in America. It’s unreal.
Astonishingly, a large percentage of the country seems eager to vote for a man who is loudly declaring his intention to subvert and sabotage American democracy to achieve unfettered political power, to say nothing of his failed coup d’etat on January 6. By word, deed, and inclination, Trump is a tyrant, and he’s not hiding this. But scores of American voters seem to crave a dictator, a leader utterly unbound by the U.S. Constitution, political norms and institutions, the courts, or the rule of law.
This is perhaps Trump’s singular achievement: the radicalization of the Republican Party into something that is fundamentally at odds with America’s democratic traditions and system of government, its very soul.
At this point, the GOP’s core belief can be reduced to a single thing: its dogged fealty to Donald Trump, and an unwavering belief in his lies. He’s created a durable cult of personality that is utterly inimical to any notion of American democracy, and fed it a poisonous worldview that mimics his own disordered personality and broken psyche.
In under a decade, he’s managed to turn the GOP into a version of himself: narcissistic, pathologically incapable of honesty, violently destructive, unethical, and without the slightest scruple about wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, elected Republicans continue to display the same abject spinelessness and pitiful amorality that allowed Trump to take over their party in the first place. Beyond a few notable exceptions, like Chris Christie and Liz Cheney, by and large Republicans have yet again fallen in line, like so many blind lemmings stumbling off a steep cliff. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both recently endorsed Trump, in a picture of the kind of craven opportunism that has doomed the Republican Party and the United States.
In fact, Trump’s endorsements now include nine governors, 24 senators and 116 U.S. representatives, and there’s every indication there will be more to come, as he sweeps through the primaries like a scythe through grass. His political momentum now feels all but unstoppable, at least within the Republican Party, even as his legal jeopardy deepens with every passing day.
At the same time, Trump was in court this week, and was almost removed from the courtroom by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who’s overseeing E. Jean Carrol’s second defamation case in Manhattan, following her victory in the first case, in which she was awarded damages of about $5 million. She has accused Trump of raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the 1990s, and when Trump publicly called her a liar, she sued, winning her case last May.
She’s now seeking further damages, as Trump continues to claim that she’s a lying “con job,” and that he doesn’t know her. Wednesday, during her testimony, Trump repeatedly shook his head and muttered, apparently loudly enough that members of the jury may have heard him. The judge admonished him and warned him to stop, and threatened to remove him from court if he didn’t.
A defiant Trump replied, “I would love it.” Judge Kaplan responded by saying, “I understand you’re probably very eager for me to do that because you just can’t control yourself in these circumstances.”
Beyond the spectacle of a former American president sitting in court, after having been found liable for raping a woman in a civil trial, Trump’s outburst in court demonstrated something about his larger political strategy, regarding his many legal problems, almost all of which are far more serious than this defamation case, and which could land him in prison for a very long time. When Trump said he “would love it” if he was kicked out of court, he meant it.
It’s good optics, politically, as he runs a campaign suffused with his own endless victimhood, and delusions of persecution.
Trump’s legal strategy is clear: retake the presidency, and use the power afforded the executive to wipe his legal slate clean. And he’s found that most Republican voters are fully on board with his tale of political persecution at the hands of a malevolent Biden administration, despite this being utterly baseless. Indeed, Trump’s likely to be running the heart of his campaign from the dock, as a criminal defendant, and he’s learning how to exert pressure on judges and the legal system more generally in order to build his narrative of persecution, while soaking in the sympathy and adulation of his followers on the campaign trail.
The scary thing is that it’s working in the only way that matters: politically. As the campaign enters into high gear, and Trump clinches the nomination, it’s likely he’ll be tried in federal court in Washington simultaneously. His antics in court now are likely something of a preview of how he’ll operate in the thick of the campaign/criminal trial, as he turns his own dire legal jeopardy into crass political theater, both to undermine the gravity of the charges, but also to propel his narrative of victimhood and political persecution to American voters more broadly.
There was an interesting article in the New York Times Tuesday written by White House correspondent Peter Baker, essentially claiming that some in the Biden White House believe that Trump, despite being an “existential threat” to democracy, would also be far easier to beat in a general election than, say, Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis.
While that may or may not be true, Trump has shown remarkable staying power, and an alchemist’s ability to turn terrible circumstances into political gold. He should not be underestimated, politically or otherwise. Democrats should have learned that lesson by now, and would do well not to forget it. The idea that he’ll be easy to beat in a general election is absurd. He could absolutely win, particularly given the electoral college, and the razor-sharp polarization of the country.
At this late stage, we’ve learned that nothing is going to save us from Trump: not the Republican Party’s own internal reckoning (it never happened), not the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court, or the American justice system, which Trump is turning into a Barnum and Bailey’s circus cum political advert. He’s our problem to solve.
Today, Trump’s attorneys submitted a brief to the Supreme Court that said that banning him from the ballot, as Colorado has tried to do and which the U.S. Constitution demands, would “unleash chaos and bedlam,” and the court is now weighing that argument, along with claims that Trump is protected by presidential immunity. While the country waits for a ruling, time is ticking down for a criminal trial.
What seems clear is this: Trump isn’t going away without yet another bitter electoral fight. Frankly, this Supreme Court is highly unlikely to toss him off the ballot, despite the Constitution’s clear prohibition in Section 3 of the 14th Amendmentbarring insurrectionists from holding office. And if and when he loses, he’ll simply say he won, unleashing another wave of political terror on America, and perhaps even igniting a civil war.
If he wins, our democracy is dead, immediately and irrevocably.
So, all hyperbole aside, 2024 will be a momentous, truly pivotal election, and a uniquely perilous moment for the United States and the world. American voters will have to decide whether to flush their precious democracy down the toilet in exchange for a Putinist kleptocracy, or reaffirm their commitment to freedom. It’s actually quite a simple binary equation: personalist dictatorship or constitutional democracy?
The choice is ours.
There’s no middle ground on that question. The American people will either see through Donald Trump and his lies, or we will all drown in them together.