Abcarian: The delusions that won the Iowa caucuses

El precandidato presidencial republicano, el expresidente Donald Trump, habla durante una fiesta tras los caucus republicanos, en Des Moines, Iowa, el lunes 15 de enero de 2024. (AP Foto/Andrew Harnik)
Former President Trump won the caucuses in Iowa, the first elections in the primary contest for Republican nomination for president. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
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Does anyone believe that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley truly stands a chance of becoming the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nominee? It’s a scenario that is increasingly hard to imagine.

That is because the Iowa caucuses went almost exactly as predicted: Former President Trump wiped the floor with his rivals, while the two of them battled for second place. DeSantis, despite pulling ahead in that battle, is staring down the end of his presidential ambitions.

As has become the case with today’s GOP, reality took a back seat to fantasy. Everyone declared themselves a winner.

“In spite of all that they threw at us, everyone against us,” said DeSantis, “we got our ticket punched out of Iowa.” (There’s a brick wall waiting for him in New Hampshire.)

“Tonight,” Haley told her supporters, “Iowa made this primary a two-person race.”

Did it, though?

Haley is expected to fare better next week in New Hampshire, where the conservative electorate is less rigidly ideological than in Iowa, and of course in South Carolina, where she is a native daughter. Even if Haley miraculously beats or comes close to Trump in New Hampshire, his iron grip on the party will be hard to shake. Every indictment, every court hearing seems to reinforce his perceived status as a persecuted victim of the Democratic Party in general and President Biden in particular.

Read more: Trump's victory in Iowa puts him on track for comeback bid, despite criminal charges

While Haley and DeSantis at least acknowledged they were still competing for a presidential nomination, Trump, in his typically grandiose style, behaved as if he’d already won the general.

Monday in his victory speech, he called for national unity in the same way he called for Jan. 6 protesters to remain peaceful — that is to say, completely disingenuously.

“This is time now for everybody, our country, to come together, we want to come together,” he said as he launched into rambling, off-the-cuff remarks. “Whether it’s Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative, it would be so nice if we could come together and straighten out the world.”

Read more: Four Californians walk into an Iowa caucus

But Trump’s gotta Trump. He simply could not sustain the unity theme: “I don’t want to be overly rough on the president,” he said, “but I have to say that he is the worst president that we’ve had in the history of our country. He is destroying our country.”

The Trump blowout in Iowa pretty much answered the question that Haley posed to her supporters late Monday evening: “Do you want more of the same? Or do you want a new generation of conservative leaders?”

Sorry, Governor, but it appears they want more of the same.

They want more of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, more of his immigrant-bashing, more of his fantasies about how, on his watch, Russia wouldn’t have dared invade Ukraine and Hamas wouldn’t have dared invade Israel. They want more of his apocalyptic rhetoric about the border, about how “mental institutions and insane asylums” are “being emptied out into our country.” They want to hear more about Jan. 6 “hostages” and about how, on Biden’s watch, the United States is being invaded by terrorists, “some of them really bad.”

Read more: Nikki Haley's best — and perhaps last — chance to beat Trump is next week in New Hampshire

Trump’s hold on the imaginations, not to mention the moral compasses, of his supporters shows little sign of weakening. Entrance polls conducted for the major television networks found that nearly two-thirds of Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers do not believe that Biden won the 2020 election. About the same proportion said they would vote for Trump even if he were a convicted criminal.

On Tuesday, as Haley appeared in New Hampshire and DeSantis touched down briefly in South Carolina before heading north, Trump showed up in a New York federal courtroom.

There, he once again faced the writer E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room years ago. She already won a civil case against him, and $5 million in damages for lies he told about her before he was president. This trial will determine how much he should pay for defaming her while he was president. (She is asking for $10 million.)

Read more: With her California dream broken, she found a political haven in Iowa

“The fact that Mr. Trump sexually abused — indeed, raped — Ms. Carroll has been conclusively established and is binding in this case,” said U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan.

The trial has an ouroboros quality about it. On Monday while Trump was in court, his Truth Social account blasted out claims that he’d never met Carroll. As long as Trump continues to deny raping Carroll, or even knowing her, she can theoretically just keep suing him for damages, ad infinitum.

Not that the base cares. As polls have shown, his legal woes are a big part of his political appeal. If Haley or DeSantis could just get themselves arrested for something, anything, they might stand a chance against him.

@robinkabcarian

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.