What the Media Keeps Getting Wrong About Trump
The story in 2022 is the strength of Trumpism the movement not Trump the man
The primary season is in full swing and there is something bugging me about the media coverage of Donald Trump.
After faux populist and Big Tech-funded demagogue, J.D. Vance won the Ohio primary, there was a round of stories touting Vance’s win as a “Huge Win for Trump” and validation of his continuing hold over the Republican Party. And on Tuesday, Politico Playbook headlined their coverage of the Nebraska gubernatorial primary with “Another Primary Day Test for Trump.” Each and every twist and turn in the Republican Party — primaries, policy positions, and utterances — are viewed through the prism of Donald Trump. They are treated as tests of the strength of his hold over the Republican Party.
With Trump openly plotting another run for President barely a year after leading a violent, illegal insurrection, I get the impulse to continually measure his political strength. But the analysis is one-dimensional. In fact, much of the media is getting the story of Trump and the Republican Party backwards.
Do the Primaries Tell Us Anything About Trump’s Strength?
Not really. Absent a conviction for a federal crime, Trump is an overwhelming favorite to be the Republican nominee in 2024 if he so chooses. In a recent Morning Consult poll, Trump gets 50 percent of the vote in a hypothetical Republican primary. No one else gets 15 percent. While it is notable that half of Republican voters prefer someone other than the former President, Trump’s lead is overwhelming in a multi-candidate field. Unlike Democrats, most Republican primaries are winner-take-all, so it’s almost impossible to stop a frontrunner with 100 percent name ID and a strong base of support from amassing an insurmountable delegate lead. This makes intuitive sense. For all of the wishcasting of the last remnants of the Never Trump Movement, there is no appetite in the Party for someone to the Left of Trump (ideologically or attitudinally). And there is no room to the Right of Trump. For all of the ground that Ron DeSantis gained through his bigoted policy-making and divisive rhetoric, it’s hard to imagine him taking on — and beating — Trump. The odds of victory are long and the price of defeat is high.
Therefore, these GOP primaries are not a test for Trump nor are they a measurement of his strength. Trump’s hold on the next nomination is not impacted in any way by what happened in Ohio last month or in Pennsylvania this week. His candidates could all win or lose and the underlying political dynamic will remain the same.
Did Trump change the GOP?
The common narrative about the 2016 election is that the Republican Party was the party of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, and the Bush family; and then Donald Trump swooped in and turned it into the MAGA Party. In 2016 articles, the Republicans resisted him until they became reluctant MAGA extremists. That is backwards. Trump didn’t turn the Republicans into a party of ethno-nationalist, conspiracy theory-believing authoritarians. He just figured out the Republicans were a party of ethno-nationalist, conspiracy theory-believing authoritarians before anyone else. Trump’s political strategy is the modern version of the famous (likely apocryphal) adage from French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin:
There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.
Trump did not lead the Republican base to MAGA-Land. He followed them there. He did to the Republican Party what he has done to countless buildings and brands — slapped his name on an existing structure and then pretended he built it.
This may sound like a theoretical argument about some stuff that happened way too long ago but there is a midterm election with massive consequences for the Biden agenda and democracy looming just around the corner. Some ask, who cares if pundits are getting things wrong? It matters because putting Trump at the center of the Republican narrative, lets the rest of the Party do whatever it wants, and undersells the imminent internal threat to the country.
The Story is Trumpism, Not Trump.
Political media is dominated by English and History majors. There is nothing wrong with those disciplines. They are essential to understanding and explaining politics and events. However, they tend to tell and interpret politics in an oversimplified way. They lend themselves to a disproportionate focus on individuals as opposed to larger forces. Every narrative has protagonists and antagonists. There is often a hero’s journey and analysis relies on the outdated “Great Man Theory” of history. The question to ask is not how someone like Trump took over the GOP, but how someone like Trump could take over the GOP so quickly and with such ease. What changed in the Party? Why are Republican voters so open to explicit White nationalist appeals?
The Republican Party was headed in this direction long before Trump showed up. Republican candidates across the country are acting like MAGA sock puppets not because they are afraid of Trump or want his endorsement. They are doing it because it’s what the voters want. Yes, Trump’s candidate won in Ohio, but no matter who won that primary — the nominee would have been an enthusiastic unbridled MAGA extremist. Maybe Trump’s candidate will win in Pennsylvania. Maybe he won’t. But Trumpism already won regardless.
Whether Trump runs for President or is in prison, the 2024 Republican nominee will be a full-throated extremist spouting a MAGA message. When we obsess over Trump’s role in the Party, we are in danger of deluding ourselves into thinking that the threat of Trumpism will go away when he does.
The fight for the soul of our nation is bigger than one very bad man. This is a long fight and we must be ready for it.