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The Year in Suck #1: From Never Trump to Forever Trump
Tie yourself to me/No one else/No, you're not rid of me
[This is the last in the series. Monday we had #5, in which rightwingers and prestige media cheered for a “red wave” that never arrived; Tuesday we had #4, about how the “People’s Convoy” showed the limits of bullshit populism; Wednesday’s #3 was about conservatives getting back into homophobia; and Thursday’s #2 explained why conservatives can’t be satisfied with an internet where people talk back to them.]
The previous Year in Suck posts — and a healthy percentage of my political posts throughout the year — have largely been about how freakishly weird conservatives/Republicans have gotten. I think it’s an angle that doesn’t get enough attention.
Sure, writers will tell you about how vicious their policies are (Adam Serwer has aphorized this for good and all) and how inadequate those policies are at addressing any of the nation’s actual problems — which is not a surprise since the GOP has pretty much stopped articulating policies at all, leaving it to culture war gibberish and overt expressions of bigotry like their War on Drag Queens to keep their rubes riled. Some analysts like Seth Cotlar, A.J. Bauer, and David Neiwert track conservatism’s historical through-line, elucidating its post-WWII roots and charting its neo-fascist trajectory.
But the thing that strikes me about modern conservatism is that it doesn’t seem to have any appeal for most Americans — not even the traditional appeal that has allowed it over the years to occasionally win national victories decisively. True, in some southern and midwestern redoubts, due to electoral sabotage or endemic racism, they have reliable majorities, but on a national level — and, crucially, among independent voters who tend to graze rather than embrace political positions — they are no longer making the sale.
The failure of the predicted “red wave” I talked about in Monday’s installment is the most recent proof point for this, but it’s useful to look at the change from six years ago. In 2016, along with Trump’s win (with a minority of votes nationally), the Republicans lost seats but still had a 47-seat lead in the House, and they lost two Senate seats but still held a six-seat majority — mostly seats that had been won on the usual political basis, with very little of the “look at me, I’m crazy” character of the Trump candidacy.
That candidacy was unusual in a lot of ways, but we should remember that this was more a matter of affect than anything else; Trump embraced a typical GOP platform — low taxes, strong military, limited government, etc. — and while racism and xenophobia were a big part of his appeal he actually professed a relatively moderate (for a Republican) social agenda; he got the 2016 GOP convention delegates to applaud gay rights (“No other Republican Presidential nominee in history has embraced the LGBT community in such a loud and proud way,” wrote Richard Grenell in the Washington Times) and, while supporting the longstanding anti-abortion party plank, withdrew his own statement that post-Roe abortion law should “punish” women who had them — the only position I believe he reversed in the campaign.
He was lying, of course, but the fact that he felt the need to do so suggests that even when he was allegedly tearing up the political rulebook, Trump (or rather Bannon and his other strategists) were calculating that it wouldn’t do to get too crazy. If he pledged to get tough on crime in a cruder, more malevolent, and less grammatical way than Mitt Romney or John McCain had, it was still a pledge to get tough on crime, which is GOP SOP.
Once rewarded with victory, though, Trump had to govern, and that shitshow had two important and lasting political effects. First, he alienated all but his most devoted voters, and quickly — the Democrats significantly outperformed the historical record in the midterms (a 41-seat gain is an actual wave), and Trump lost his reelection and the GOP’s Senate. But second, and in the long run more damaging: His lunatic behavior, especially after the election, made that problem worse by making Republicans more Trumplike — that is, crazier.
And it didn’t have to happen. The GOP could have simply retrenched. It looked like its leaders wanted to. How many editorials did you read after the January 6 insurrection attempt about how Trump and Trumpism absolutely had to be purged from the party? To this day, we get “End of Trump” essays across the spectrum — from UnHerd and Ross Douthat on the right to the New Yorker and the Brookings Institute on the less-right. Establishment conservatives trumpet Ron DeSantis’ fat lead over Trump among likely 2024 GOP voters as proof that the fever has broken. (Reminder: at this stage in the 2008 election cycle, the front-runner was Rudy Giuliani.)
But Trumpism, as I’ve said many times, is not just a cult of personality — it’s the next and possibly/hopefully final stage of American conservatism. It’s what happened when an electoral accident showed a small but solid rump of GOP voters that they didn’t have to settle anymore for veiled threats and pulled punches — now they could have candidates who were proudly racist, openly contemptuous of their political opponents, and uninterested in such fancy-schmancy concepts as truth and statesmanship.
And it may not even be possible to snap them out of it. Look at the candidates who lost in November — hell, look at the ones who won! The House Republicans are so bughouse they’re challenging Kevin McCarthy with Jim Jordan for Speaker.
And take Kari Lake’s road company version of Trump’s litigation of the 2020 election. After January 6, why would anyone do that? (And no, “she really thinks she won” is not an acceptable answer.) I’ll tell you: Like a lot of Republican candidates’ and office-holders’ behavior in the past few years, it was done to show loyalty to the Boss and all he stands for (i.e., grievance, insurrection, and paranoia). To Trump people, the fact that the judge chucked Lake’s case proves nothing except that the Deep State will stop at nothing etc., and that Kari is true and can be counted on.
Or look at George Santos. We normies see him as a buffoon, a pathological liar caught fatally overextending himself. But among MAGA people, he’s a guy who learned one of the big lessons of Donald Trump: That you not only don’t owe your enemies the truth — you don’t even owe them believability.
Santos has got the very serious people who still believe that the Trump curse can be lifted harrumphing and tsk-tsking to beat the band. In the Wall Street Journal today Peggy Noonan applauds Tulsi Gabbard — a fraud herself, but one who apparently decided the maverick play would be a winner here — for her tough questioning of Santos on the Tucker Carlson show. (Pause here to consider why Carlson didn’t do it himself.) Noonan quotes bits of Santos’ responses:
Then his self-pity kicked in: “I’m having to admit this on national television for the whole country to see.” Then pride: “I have the courage to do so because I believe that in order to… be an effective member of Congress, I have to face my mistakes.” Then the self-pity returned: “I worked damn hard to work where I got my entire life. Life wasn’t easy… I come from abject poverty.”
Noonan seems to think self-pity is a liability with Republicans. It’s like she missed the entire Trump presidency.
There’s a slim chance something in Santos’ past — like the provenance of all the unexplained funding — will force the New York GOP to shiv the guy, perhaps literally. But what’s more likely is that he’ll continue to bullshit his way through — what are they gonna do, arrest him? — and on January 4 calmly take his seat. In a few weeks he’ll be making winking references to his lies the way Kyle Rittenhouse makes winking references to his murders.
This may appall normal people (including many who voted for Santos but never will again); Noonan and Kevin McCarthy and all the very serious people may sprain their tongues with clucking at it. But in the current Republican Party, overtaken and strangled by Trumpism as a tree is strangled by English Ivy, whatever the voters think or say, this makes George Santos a winner, a hero, and a role model.
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