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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch
Welcome back from a long holiday weekend in which you paid no attention to politics, hopefully.
Good thing, if so. You might have lost your appetite.
A few days ago, for the first time, Donald Trump crossed 60 percent in the Republican primary national polling average. He’s topped 62 percent in each of the last four national polls taken while his two most credible challengers continue to hover at around 25—combined.
He reached another milestone earlier this month when he touched 46 percent in the average of head-to-head polling against Joe Biden. Last week he inched up further to 47 percent; the president, meanwhile, is treading water at 45 and may be on his way down. Of the last 18 surveys taken, Trump has led in 16.
As I write this, he stands at 47.2 percent head-to-head. That’s higher than the share of the popular vote he received in either of his two previous runs for president.
Many Democrats are in denial about this, insisting that Biden can’t be polling as weakly among younger voters as he seems to be despite solid evidence to the contrary. Others will assure you—and by “you,” I mean themselves—that Trump’s strength is a mirage that’ll evaporate on contact with actual voters. He’s polling well at the moment only because Americans haven’t paid him much attention lately. Once that changes, the numbers will change too.
If all else fails, the Republican Party happens to contain a sizable minority of traditional conservatives who are plainly Trump-skeptical and at least theoretically open to withholding their votes from him in the general election. The 40 percent or so of GOP primary voters who currently prefer a different nominee aren’t enough to deny Trump the nomination, but they’re certainly enough to deny him a second term.
Why, here’s one such primary voter chatting about the election in an interview this past weekend.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney says he’d vote for any Republican nominee for president except for Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy. pic.twitter.com/jpIqYcjVxi
— Republicans against Trump (@RpsAgainstTrump) November 25, 2023
Fourteen percent of self-identified conservatives voted for Joe Biden over Trump in 2020—before the attack on the Capitol, before 91 felony charges, before fascistic babbling about “retribution” against leftist “vermin.” After all that, shouldn’t we expect a higher percentage of them to cross the aisle this time? Considerably, maybe even decisively, higher?
I’m skeptical. One of the shining lessons of the past eight years is that however low your expectations might be for Republican voters, they’re not low enough. Most of those on the right who should know better but have stuck it out this far will get to “yes” on Trump 2.0, I suspect. Some might do so after determined efforts at self-persuasion, but most will back Trump without much strain.
There are various rationalizations to which they’ll turn to resolve the tension between their nagging fear that Trump is a poisonous threat to America’s civic heritage and their partisan duty to believe that government by the far right is preferable to government by the far left—and that every Democrat is supposedly a member, or a puppet, of the far left. Those rationalizations are a strange brew of magical thinking and hard-nosed “binary choice” partisan logic.
Let’s talk about Peter Meijer.
Meijer is the former congressman from Michigan who, on his 10th day on the job in 2021, voted to impeach Trump. Of the 10 Republicans who did so, he was the only freshman.
He was successfully primaried a year later thanks in part to the cynicism of Democratic operatives who chose to run ads promoting his MAGA challenger. They believed that challenger would be easier to beat in the general election, and they were right. Meijer risked his political career to do the right thing, and the opposing party went for his throat anyway. He bears them a grudge, understandably. A big one.
Frankly, a little too big.
Meijer recently announced that he would run in the Republican primary for the Michigan Senate seat being vacated by Debbie Stabenow. How does someone who tried and failed to depose a cult leader win a popularity contest among that cult?
He doesn’t, almost certainly. But to stand a remote chance, he’s had to resort to some very creative rationalizations.
Politico interviewed him last week and noted how Meijer’s position had changed on having Trump back as the Republican nominee. Previously he said he had “no idea” how he could support such a thing, but now—just in time for his Senate candidacy—he insists he’ll support his party’s candidate no matter who it might be. His argument:
My overarching goal is to make Joe Biden a one-term president. I think that economic damage that he has wrought and will continue to bring will have far more wide-reaching negative consequences on the country than a second non-consecutive Trump administration.
And frankly, if Donald Trump is returned to the Oval Office, there would probably be few better motivators to rein in executive power. I’ve been railing against the risks of the office of the presidency which I think is the most dangerous institution in the country today.
That’s an, er, interesting answer, and a warning to Democrats that Republicans who turned against Trump after January 6 are by no means “gimmes” for Joe Biden in 2024. If Peter Meijer is capable of “magical thinking” nonsense like this, rank-and-file conservatives are surely capable of it too.
Meijer would have us believe that Trump’s authoritarian ambitions are a reason to prefer him to Biden—and not on “New Right” grounds, where the post-liberal vision requires having someone in charge who “knows what time it is.” Meijer seems to think a second Trump term would be good for democracy and classical liberalism insofar as it would scare the country straight about the alternatives. Don’t you want American voters and their representatives to finally get serious about reining in presidential authority? Well, nothing would teach them the virtues of that as memorably as electing a fascist.
In practice, a Republican-controlled Congress would either tolerate or actively enable Trump’s power grabs in a second term, the same way that congressional Republicans tolerated or actively enabled his aggressive deficit spending during his first term. We are very late in the game for anyone to still pretend that the GOP cares about restraining the federal government whenever they’re in charge of it, but that’s the sort of silliness in which one must indulge to imagine reelecting Trump as some sort of civic good.
One wonders why Meijer’s “the worse, the better” argument doesn’t apply equally to Biden. If the electorate is capable of learning hard lessons about inferior forms of government only through painful experience, why shouldn’t we have another term of Democrats in charge to drive home the perils of “Bidenomics”? There would be few better motivators to finally get serious about federal spending than living through another four years of high inflation and climbing interest rates, no?
Magical thinking among conservatives about Trump’s second term is all about convincing themselves that the good will outweigh the bad even if things get very, very dark.
Trump will end inflation and lower interest rates. How will he do that? Unclear, as it’s the Fed that sets monetary policy and the market that sets prices. (Unless Trump 2.0 is foolish enough to try price controls, of course.) But he’ll change the “vibes” in Washington, at least, and maybe that’ll calm things somehow. Or he’ll fire Jerome Powell and that’ll scare companies into lowering their prices. Or something.
Trump will prevent the sort of major foreign conflicts that have broken out on Joe Biden’s watch. How will he do that? Unclear, as his skepticism of NATO and the liberal order writ large seems more likely to entice malefactors into testing Western unity than to deter them from doing so. But the fact that he’s plainly unstable and unhealthily obsessed with “strength” will keep America’s enemies off balance, hopefully. Plus, he has a secret plan to broker peace in Ukraine in 24 hours, which he’ll be revealing just as soon as he’s elected.
Trump will successfully prosecute the culture war. How will he do that? Unclear, as he’s staked out the most moderate position on abortion of any Republican presidential candidate. If anyone on the right is likely to veto new federal restrictions, it’s the guy who called Florida’s six-week ban a “terrible mistake”—especially since he’s term-limited and no longer need worry about conservatives being disappointed in him. But there are bound to be many presidential mean tweets aimed at the left on an array of cultural subjects, and performative contempt toward the other side is the culture war for many Republican voters.
Trump will shrink big government. How will he do that? Unclear. He’s made some noise recently about harpooning the great white whale that got away from him last time, but that’s surely less a matter of him harboring a specific ideological objection to Obamacare than nurturing a revanchist impulse to undo his Democratic predecessor’s signature achievement. A Trump second term would plainly be less interested in shrinking government than making sure it’s stacked with cronies who’ll abuse federal power to do the president’s bidding. (Someone tell Mike Lee.) To many modern conservatives, that’ll be close enough.
“The good will outweigh the bad” is one-half of the conservative argument for Trump 2.0.
The other half is “the bad of a second Biden term will be worse than the bad of a second Trump term.” This is the bottom-line “binary choice” part of the equation. Yes, Trump might have committed impeachable offenses after the 2020 election; granted, he might be a convicted felon before Election Day; sure, the “retribution” and “vermin” stuff makes him sound a bit fascist.
But is that truly worse than America’s humiliating shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan under Joe Biden?
Is it worse than Biden’s unconstitutional attempt to bribe his base of younger voters with a student debt forgiveness plan that Congress never approved?
Is it worse than having a bloated, unaccountable administrative state, something the left views as a positive good?
Is it worse than the highest inflation in 40 years, which has produced interest rates that have made home-buying prohibitively expensive for Americans for the foreseeable future?
Is it worse than codifying Roe v. Wade in a federal statute, which is plausible in a Biden second term if Democrats regain control of Congress?
Is it worse than handing immigration policy to a party that views aggressive border enforcement as a form of racism?
Is it worse than being governed by an administration whose base demands that it equivocate between Israel and Hamas?
It’s trivially easy for conservatives to rationalize preferring Trump to Biden. All they need to do is treat first-order civic concerns—democracy vs. autocracy, moral fitness for office, intimidation as a political tactic, the stuff we’ve all traditionally taken for granted—as just another issue set to be weighed against other issue sets like the economy or foreign policy. I quote Peter Meijer again: “I think that economic damage that [Biden] has wrought and will continue to bring will have far more wide-reaching negative consequences on the country than a second non-consecutive Trump administration.”
Malevolence and incompetence may differ in kind, but the latter can do more damage than the former. So if Trump can get the price of meat down 10 percent, who cares if the entire executive branch, including the military, is being run by nationalist fanatics in “acting director” roles who have pledged their loyalty to him personally? If Biden can’t make the trains run on time, what choice do hard-working people have but to elect someone who can?
“Lesser of two evils” rationalizations dominate modern elections because the parties are so polarized but, for conservatives, they’ll figure especially heavily in next year’s race. That’s because no one, including Meijer, is claiming that the warnings about Trump’s growing authoritarianism are unwarranted. No one is doing the “take him seriously, not literally” thing this time when he talks about eradicating leftist “vermin.” No one thinks the authoritarian danger is overblown or that, in the infamous words of Susan Collins, he might have “learned his lesson” at some point.
He’s gotten worse, not better. His personnel choices reflect that. The next term will be hair-raising. There’s no way around it.
Magical thinking about how a second Trump term might beat expectations will get you only so far given that, unlike any other modern challenger, we’ve gotten to see what he’s capable of as president. It was easier in 2016, when skeptics could nervously side-eye each other and wonder if he might not, ahem, “grow into the office.” He was a newbie then, seemingly impressionable, and was surrounded by dogmatic conservatives and accomplished military officers. Imagining that he might surprise us all by governing responsibly was … sort of plausible? A little? If you squinted?
No one has an imagination that rich about his next term. Even if he keeps the peace internationally and slashes another raft of regulations, it’s clear as day that he intends to push the envelope on expanding presidential power, possibly with a military component. There will be endless domestic upheaval as the left (and hopefully not just the left) moves to stop him. He’ll attempt legally dubious things to aggrandize his own position and will view his reelection as a mandate to do them.
For a conscientious conservative to get to “yes” on Trump now, he must believe that the Republican frontrunner isn’t just the lesser of two evils in terms of his competence at governing but in his basic fitness for office. Against any garden-variety Democrat, even an incompetent one, it would be hard to make that argument.
But against a Democrat who’s widely perceived as losing his marbles? And who runs a “crime family” of his own, the lack of indictments notwithstanding, according to the partisan media you likely consume?
Don’t compare Trump to the almighty, conservatives will tell themselves, compare him to the alternative. Choosing him as the lesser of two evils might mean electing a president who’s actually evil, but electing a senescent Joe Biden would mean not having a president at all.
In an era in which politics seems to function as an ersatz religion, no one should underestimate a partisan’s ability to convince himself that the bad guys are necessarily on the other side. If Peter Meijer, who cast one of the most admirable votes in congressional history, can retcon his view of Trump to serve his party’s interests, anyone can.