(This editorial is from the February 2024 print issue of Chronicles Magazine.)
As the Iowa Caucus approached, few anticipated the historic scope of what they were about to witness. Critics of the former president at least tried to be circumspect in their predictions. After announcing the imminent demise of Donald Trump for the better part of a decade, most knew better than to prepare themselves yet another word sandwich they would have to choke on later.
Nonetheless, Trump’s historic win in Iowa—he took 51 percent of the vote, more than any non-incumbent in the modern era and outpacing his closest rival, Ron DeSantis, by more than 30 points—sent shockwaves through the political establishment. Answering Trump’s call for unity, Vivek Ramaswamy, who secured just 7 percent of Iowa’s vote, immediately withdrew from the race, and threw his support to the man from Mar-a-Lago. Over the weekend, DeSantis did likewise.
To anyone paying attention as events unfolded on Election Night 2020 and then, more horrifyingly, on Jan. 6, 2021, the outcome of the 2024 Republican primary was never in doubt. It is, and was always going to be, Donald Trump. There was nothing more implausible than the notion that voters would abandon the horse that carried them into battle as they realized they were at war with the deep state. Voters are unlikely go wobbly on Trump no matter what unfolds. Why? Because it was never about Trump in the first place.
Trump as a politician is many things, but the most important thing he is to the men and women who elected him is an avatar for themselves. In its contempt for Trump, the Republican establishment has exhibited its contempt for the voters and, indeed, for republican government. No matter how often that establishment insists that their only object is the protection of “Our Democracy™,” it is now abundantly clear that their first object is the protection of their own hides. And from what, exactly, are they protecting them? The will of the people, of course.
They aren’t interested in the opinions of the hoi polloi about policy. The privilege of policymaking has been delegated to an expert class at the various alphabet agencies that willingly implements and advances an agenda best suited to our increasingly oligarchic and self-perpetuating institutions. They are particularly uninterested in our opinions about war and peace. That will be determined by the interests of a globalist regime working hard to support a military-industrial complex that consumes the wealth and treasure of the American people and feeds on the bodies of their sons and, barbarically, their daughters.
The Deep State bared its teeth between 2016 and 2020, hampering at every turn the ability of the duly elected representative of the American people in the executive branch to do the job he was elected to do. Policy differences with the bureaucracy were alternately labeled “fascism,” “racism,” or “collusion”—no weapon at hand was left untouched.
As the late Angelo Codevilla once put it, “The foremost thing to keep in mind about what is happening in Washington is that it is, above all, an attempt to subordinate the will of the people, expressed in elections, to the will of the ruling class, expressed through its control of social and political institutions.” Jan. 6 proved to these voters that the Deep State would not stop with Trump. As the Department of Justice unleashed its wrath on grandmas and hapless tourists who, the evidence now shows, were likely ushered into the Capitol by federal agents, patriotic Americans have hardened their hearts to this regime. Given all that, the unsurprising answer the people are now giving to the ongoing attempt to punish them for thinking differently than their betters is the one that Codevilla himself counseled: a one-finger salute.
Increasingly, Americans understand another point Codevilla was fond of making, that “[o]urs is now a socio-political system wholly different from that constitutional republic of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. It is mandating a way of life that few in America could have imagined.” It is beyond us now to grapple with our adversaries in the ways we had been accustomed to doing under that system. Primaries and debates all seem rather pointless as we come to grips with that. Our enemies are coming at us. This is no time for a flat-footed response hobbled by internal squabbles over the crumbs and phony honors of a dying order.
Nevertheless, the Republican Party establishment saw fit to do what it always does best: engage in self-sabotage.
How better to respond to an incoming attack on our people than to stab in the back Trump, the man who is taking all the incoming fire at the front? How better to take on an entrenched deep state than to advance DeSantis, an unprepared but promising soldier, to the front lines and demand he slay the general because the general won’t listen to fools ensconced safely back at headquarters? How better for the Republicans to prepare for a campaign against Biden than to squander their resources on a fight for second place in a pissing contest? How better to remain an ineffective and eternal minority party than to display to your base the same contempt for their clear and obvious choice, Trump, as the Democrats display? Republicans checked all those boxes and more.
The experts in Washington and the commentariat are naked in the public square. The would-be emperors on the left should be mocked. On the right, there is no time for recrimination, grudges, or even public mockery. I am willing to attribute to naivete whatever can’t obviously be attributed to ill will. But Republicans expended a lot of sweat, tears, good will, and money to no good purpose in this primary fight. It’s time everyone on the right learned how to avoid joining in on the war the establishment is waging on its own people. It’s fine to wish one’s people would form opinions more in sync with one’s own judgments. One can try to persuade them. But the heat of battle is no time for self-indulgence. If there’s one lesson that should be abundantly clear after the last eight years, it is that contempt for voters will get you nowhere.
The Trump saga will, and must, play out. Those who see themselves in his battle with the powerful, who see their troubles mirrored in his struggles, will not be denied. The right is composed of many factions, but indulging in these squabbles now will not help us if our common enemy, the deep state, is not leashed.
(Update: the resignation of Ron DeSantis from the 2024 presidential primary was added to the second paragraph of the original version of this article on Monday, Jan. 22.)