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IT'S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN
Republicans are going to split the vote and hand the primary to Trump. Uh, spoiler.
Sometimes, when an election year is looming, people who are under the mistaken impression that political reporters have some sort of worthwhile knowledge will anxiously ask, “What is going to happen?” The wise answer to this question is almost always “I don’t know.” Occasionally, though, there is a small piece of insight that becomes so obvious that it seems rude not to make sure that everyone understands it. In that spirit, I want to point out something that is becoming harder to deny with each passing day: Republicans are absolutely going to split the anti-Trump vote in the presidential primary, and hand the nomination to Donald Trump. Does this sound familiar??
Remember 2016? A simpler time. Americans loved to listen to Twenty One Pilots and believe that the political alignment of the past 30 years would hold steady. Donald Trump—a fool, a joker, an amusing sideshow—entered the Republican primary. Haha, funny. A big joke. There were 17 candidates. Everyone knew Jeb Bush was the man to beat. Everyone knew that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would be strong contenders. Everyone knew that John Kasich and Ben Carson were a force to be reckoned with. Everyone knew that it would be a mistake for any of the “real” candidates to tarnish themselves by getting in a mud fight with Trump. So they all proceeded to spend the primaries knifing one another instead. Trump started winning, and they were so happy, because it meant that whichever “real” candidate emerged would just have the easy task of marching over this buffoon. The smart tactic was to nod and laugh and be friendly with Trump, who had no chance. The real race was for the non-Trump vote. This conventional wisdom, which everyone in the political establishment firmly believed, held solid right up until Trump took the nomination and all those “real” candidates got down on their hands and knees to endorse him.
Now it is later. Now we approach the 2024 primaries. The main difference between 2016 and 2024 is that the arrow of time—despite the speculative work of physicists—runs in only one direction, which means that 2016 is in the past, which gives us all the handy advantage of being able to access the events of that time in the form of memories. In theory people might even learn lessons from the events of the past and modify their present conduct accordingly. In practice, we are about to do the same motherfucking thing over again in an excruciating display of egos run wild. Watch.
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Yesterday, frequent Sunday talk show panelist and humiliation fetishist Chris Christie joined the race for the Republican nomination. He joins a group of ten(!) candidates who have already declared for the race. He also joins a group of five other mainstream politicians—Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, and Mike Pence—competing for the “Not Trump” vote. A few more candidates might still be coming. There are varying calculations that go into running for president, and everyone is motivated to some degree by the thought that the free media that goes with a campaign might be good for their careers even if they lose, but on the whole, each one of these candidates is making the implicit argument that they will be the one who will rally the party’s majority—the 60 or 70 percent of Republican voters who are not solid for Trump—to their side, and sweep to victory.
They won’t. Instead they will divide the vote and Trump will win the primaries. (Unless he drops dead.) Watch.
The single funniest political story I have read so far this year was this Politico story detailing the pitch that Ron DeSantis’s advisors were giving to top donors on the even of his campaign launch.
They conceded that the former president would likely not go below roughly 35 percent support in a primary but that such a floor allowed for DeSantis, his strongest rival, to take a larger share of the remaining 65 percent of the vote.
Uh, sure. That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is “you are starting out 35 points in the hole.” Another way to look at it is, “ten of us will fight like dogs over two-thirds of the electorate, each huddling in our corners with a small percentage in our mouths, while Donald Trump luxuriates in a series of 35/17/17/15/9/7 victories.” DeSantis’s straight-faced pitch to donors sounds like a losing football coach telling his team at halftime, “We may be down by four touchdowns but there are potentially dozens of touchdowns left to be scored, so we are actually ahead.” If you suspected that major Ron DeSantis donors are dumb, you are onto something.
If the Republican Party had any remaining grip on itself, it would have viciously intimidated and bribed as many people as necessary to clear the field for a single main opponent to Trump. But Trump broke it quite thoroughly. The Republican Party as a party today operates in the sort of bumbling, ineffectual way that Democrats have long imagined their own party. A single sick bastard with TV charisma was enough to steamroll all of the party’s power brokers. They are still afraid to attack him. Watching candidates flood into the Republican primary and do their little campaign simulacrums and strenuously pretend that they will be able to dislodge Trump from their party without ever saying a bad word about him—by outsourcing all Trump criticism to Chris fucking Christie, of all people, my god—is one of the most pathetic spectacles I ever hope to witness. Unlike in 2016, today they do not even have the excuse of saying that nobody saw this coming. We have seen this same movie, exactly, before.
I do not consider this analysis to be a demonstration of some profound wisdom. I just want to give you the option of saving yourself a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the next year. If ten or a dozen people are competing for 51% of a pie and one guy starts out with 35% of the pie it is not looking good for everyone else. If you had the opportunity to design a crusade to defeat the guy with the 35%, the very first conclusion you would draw would be “we better not have ten people running against him.” Republicans have already failed that test. We have all spent the past eight years inventing reasons why Trump is just about to collapse. I covered the 2015 cattle call primary event in Iowa where Trump got on stage and said about John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured.” As soon as he said that, all the full time campaign trail reporters leapt up and ran out to file stories about how Trump had just torpedoed his chances. That, like the many insane remarks and scandals that were still to come, was not the case. It seemed like a reasonable assumption at the time, sure. We can’t expect people to be psychic, but we can expect people to learn from the past.
Donald Trump’s base is a statistical minority of the Republican Party. Their inability to outmaneuver him is perhaps the first time in history that Republicans have failed to figure out a way to persecute a minority. The problem is that they are all cowards. With few exceptions, Republican politicians are barnacles who are happy to go down with the ship as long as they can continue clinging safely to its side. You will hear some of these candidates launch some attacks on Trump when they finally conclude that they have no choice. They may even say, as they have at certain opportune times before, that he is a bad, dangerous person. But when they lose to him, they will do the thing that is in their nature: They will fall in line.
I did not think Trump would win in 2016. That experience taught me that only fools make confident political predictions. (THIS IS MY DISCLAIMER. ALL HAS NOW BEEN DISCLAIMED.) Still, some of the observations we were making about Trump back then are still valid today.
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