The Coming Storm
What it means that Trump is firmly on track to win the GOP nomination next year
I have to admit, I’ve been a little down lately.
No, I’m not clinically depressed. I’m grateful that I’ve never suffered from that terrible affliction. Rather, I’m prone to bouts of ordinary melancholy—brief periods of sadness, usually lasting just a few days. Sometimes it happens for no discernable reason. At other times, it’s caused by something going on in my private life. And at still others, the country’s political circumstances, which I write about for a living, leave me feeling bleak.
This happened a lot during the Trump presidency, but less so since Joe Biden took over. This isn’t because of some partisan-based endorphin rush; I wasn’t high on life for the eight years of the Obama administration. It was because Donald Trump was a uniquely deranged—and deranging—president. By “deranging,” I mean that his constant lies, corruptions, insults, and all-around maliciousness drove his opponents around the bend. That very much includes the mainstream media, which became much less trustworthy from 2017 through the beginning of 2021. In addition to the executive branch returning to pre-Trump norms of governance when Biden took over, the media has settled down as well, making the last two years feel much less than the previous four like a five-alarm fire taking place during a bad acid trip.
But now there’s a storm coming—or returning. And that has me worried, and feeling pretty dark about the country’s future.
Notes from the Middleground is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Thinking Like a Member of the Elite
A big part of my self-appointed job at Substack is to read, listen to, and engage critically with right-wing ideas and intellectuals—acknowledging what they get right while pointing out where they go badly wrong. One thing quite popular on the antiliberal right these days is the conceit that conservatives should (and do) speak for “the people” against “the elites.” The elites, of course, are those who stand for globalism, gender fluidity, multiculturalism, and other so-called “woke” trends that aid in increasing the wealth of those already situated near the top of the country’s economic hierarchy, while also shredding the traditions, family structures, and economic arrangements (including manufacturing jobs) that once anchored communities across the American heartland.
But of course, reading and writing books and op-eds about perfidious progressive elites and the dangers of deindustrialization is something … elites do. I frequently pondered this paradox when I was a conservative intellectual myself, back during an era (the first term of George W. Bush) when the policy goals, rhetoric, and broad assumptions about the country among Republicans was quite different from what they are now. Did we writers, editors, and intellectuals really understand the ordinary conservative Americans for whom we professed to speak? Did we know what they really thought? And what kind of country they wanted to live in? I came to doubt that we did, and to doubt it was a good idea to flatter and pander to them—and this had an important influence on my eventual decision to break from the right (which I did around 2004).
It’s become conventional wisdom among conservative writers since 2016 that the intellectuals had misunderstood the Republican base—and that they need to adjust their views to bring them into better alignment with it: We got the voters wrong. We thought they wanted what we did—the lowest possible income and investment taxes on the wealthy; liberal immigration policies; free trade; a muscular foreign policy aimed at defending the postwar liberal international order; and at least a rhetorical defense of traditional moral values and religious faith. But since Trump’s successful bid for the presidency, we see that the voters wanted something very different—tax, immigration, trade, and foreign policies geared toward putting “America first,” combined with a ferocious doubling down on the culture war against the elite-globalist left.
That’s what intellectuals on the right have convinced themselves “the people” want. The list of policy priorities obviously makes Trump a good fit for the party, since the 45th president was the one who shifted the agenda in the first place. But that same list makes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis an even better choice—because he’ll be just like Trump, only new, improved, and more competent, which means vastly better at achieving the modified, post-2016 list of conservative goals. He can’t possibly lose!
But do Republican voters primarily want to achieve a set of defined policy goals? Or is that, instead, merely an expression of how conservative intellectuals invariably think and therefore a projection onto “the people” of an incorrigibly “elite” way of thinking about politics?
Thinking Like a Republican Voter
At this late date, I think the answer is as clear as day. As Sarah Longwell noted in an excellent recent essay for The Bulwark, DeSantis is doing … fine so far. He’s the only announced or nearly announced candidate giving Trump anything close to a run for his money. That’s because he at least understands that the post-2016 policy mix has irrevocably shifted. That makes him much better positioned than former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, for example, who remains stuck in a pre-2016 sensibility and praying for a return to the status quo ante. As a result, she’s currently languishing in the low single digits in the polls and struggling to raise money for her already-announced campaign.
Yet DeSantis also … isn’t doing great. In recent polls, he’s stuck in the low 20s, while Trump is in the high 50s. And Trump’s lead has apparently grown and solidified since his indictment in New York City earlier this month. (A new CBS News/YouGov poll reports that 76 percent of Republicans consider loyalty to Trump very or somewhat important. That’s up 11 points since January.1)
How could it be that Republican voters remain enthusiastic about voting for a man who thwarted the peaceful transfer of power after losing the 2020 election, whose preferred candidates did poorly in the 2022 midterm elections, whose policy accomplishments after four years in office were modest at best, and who is currently under criminal indictment in one jurisdiction and could soon face similar legal jeopardy elsewhere as well?
I think there are two possible explanations, both of which could be (and probably are) at play.
First of all, Republican voters are so deeply immersed in an alternative information ecosystem that most of the seemingly obvious objections to Trump don’t even penetrate. The 45th president didn’t attempt a self-coup; he was robbed of his rightful victory and encouraged perfectly legitimate popular protests that were vastly more peaceful than the Democrat-inspired riots during the late spring and summer of 2020. His preferred candidates didn’t do poorly in the 2022 midterms; the Republican establishment blew it as they always do. Trump wasn’t a policy failure in office; he did as much as he could given the total opposition of the “deep state” to his priorities, which just goes to show we need him back in the White House and acting much more aggressively to thwart the anti-democratic impulses of the establishment’s entrenched power. And as for his indictment, only a total sucker could believe it’s about anything other than elite revenge on a man who dared threaten its hold on power.
It's disturbing to think that millions of Americans view the world in this way. But far more disturbing is the possibility that, for some voters, even such lines of thought are too rooted in reason. For others, I fear, Trump is the rightful leader of the Republican Party for no other reason than that he gives them permission to give in to their basest impulses, bigotries, and resentments. One heard this line of argument from time to time throughout the Trump years, and someone made the point again the other night in response to something I posted on Substack Notes: “I always sensed that the real appeal of Trump was his invitation to Americans to be their worst, most despicable selves, without shame or apology.”