Anti-Trump GOP Donors Stuck in the Past
“You know what’s funny? As old as we are, people like you and me, we’re the future.” – Gary Oldman as Carnegie, The Book of Eli
What remains of the Republican opposition to Donald Trump (such as it is), gathered in Nashville to tell itself a lie in several parts. Natalie Allison (Politico) has some of the deception’s details.
“Voters wanted to hear about what Republicans were doing to help them fight through 40-year high inflation,” said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, speaking to donors Saturday morning inside the luxury resort. “Not months and months of debate over whether the 2020 election was stolen.”
Without mentioning Trump’s name, Kemp pinned blame on the former president’s election loss grievances and warned that “not a single swing voter” will vote for a GOP nominee making such claims, calling 2020 “ancient history.”
Before I continue, I should be clear. I would be thrilled if the GOP could reject Donald Trump. That doesn’t change the fact that these people simply have no real clue how to do it. Yet they insist that they are smarter than they are, that they understand more than they do. This is the lie that will prevent them from defeating Trump’s bid for a third straight Republican nomination for President.
The Past Disguised As the Future
This is where the movie quote comes in.
Most Republican critics of Trump lament that it “feels like 2016.” Others, like Kemp, assume Trump is stuck in the “ancient history” of 2020. In point of fact, it is they, not he, who remain stuck in their pasts. In particular, they are locked into 2021, when Trump seemed (rightly) disgraced, Biden was on the political rocks, and a certain Virginian in fleece was supposedly showing the party a new way. That fellow, Glenn Youngkin, seems to recognize he has work to do (New York Times). However, the rest of the bunch still seems set on partying like its 2021.
Except that it’s 2023 now. The conversation has moved. Ironically, the only Republican who seems to get that these days is … well, Trump himself. Contrary to the assertions of Kemp et al, Trump has shifted his rhetoric to the events of the time. His endless and hyperbolic warnings of World War III have made him the voice and the leader of the anti-Ukraine wing of the Republican Party – a wing so large even Ron DeSantis had to bow to it. He has transformed the election of 2020 from a personal grievance into justification for national “retribution.” In short, to quote Dick Gephardt, he is, “the past disguised as the future.”
One of Trump’s more overlooked gifts is his ability to be flexible. He showed it in his first term by recasting conservatism in his big-government-for-white-people image. He is doing it again in adapting his language to the issues at hand. Contrary to the wishes of his intra-party rivals, they are no longer the matters that seemed to work so well in 2021. Indeed, most of those were already tried in 2022 – and found wanting.
Trump’s Republican critics see the Donald Trump of 1/7/2021 and lament that they can’t beat him. They’re right, because he is no longer that guy. He has remade himself once more. His pro-Kremlin views are being relabeled as “antiwar” (he did that himself, again, after his critics spoke in Nashville (Allison again). His tawdry behavior – which I would argue was never really unpopular with his voters – has become part of his persecution complex, updated for present and future indictments. In short, within the GOP, it is Donald Trump – and only Donald Trump – who is looking forward to 2024 while his critics are stuck in 2021.
Democrats Can’t Just Chortle on the Side
For the other major party, it’s tempting to simply watch this unfold, rubbing our hands with glee as the GOP does everything it can to ensure Joe Biden’s re-election. We must resist that temptation.
For starters, Trump still manages to turn out a segment of the vote that no one else can. Moreover, even if he also manages to increase turnout of anti-Trump conservatives and moderates, those are not voters likely to support Biden’s ticket-mates – absent a direct appeal to them. Finally, even Trump can win arguments on issues where no one challenges him. This was one lesson from 2016 and 2020 that still remains unlearned.
So when Trump is renominated next year (yes, when), Democrats have to do more than simply “roll their helmets on the field.” We need to challenge Trump’s worldview on every issue – especially those where he differs with anti-Trump conservatives and moderates. Those voters will be bitterly disappointed after the GOP primaries, but they will still be the key swing voters in a general election.