By Reed Galen and Rick Wilson
Donald Trump is back, and it’s useless to deny it. The Republican Party, the media, and America have seen everything and learned nothing about the protean force that has consumed our politics and culture for nearly a decade. Today, they’re repeating the same mistakes of 2015 and 2016.
Almost eight years ago, Trump rode a gilded escalator straight into American politics' heart, mind, and soul. His personal, political, and moral flaws were self-evident.
The media treated him as a joke. The pundits, the powerful, the parties, and donors believed Trump’s entrance into the 2016 presidential race was a desperately craved hit of the attention to which he’s addicted.
It was easy to write off Trump’s rambling, surly remarks that day as an ugly, racially inflammatory one-day campaign. It would all end soon, Washington muttered. After all, Jeb Bush, the Ron DeSantis of 2016, was the inevitable winner, right?
And yet it didn’t end, and it never got better. In those first few months, Trump committed what were once mortal sins in American politics and didn’t just survive; he thrived. The early catalog of his mistakes looks quaint after eight years of dystopian rhetoric, divisive policies, deadly incompetence, and violent coup attempts.
In the first six months of his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump insulted immigrants, POWs, war hero and Senate icon John McCain, women, and an entire religion.
His support within the GOP grew intense, then fanatic. As he secured the nomination, his opponents flailed, trying to imitate him for a few seconds on the debate stage, but all fell before him, unable to go the distance. Their carefully crafted one-liners and zingers fell flat. Some, like Chris Christie, got in line early. Others believed there was a way to derail his progress at the RNC Convention that year, but no one had the spine to go through it.
It was all okay, though, we laughed. There was no way he could beat Hillary Clinton that November.
Even after the low point of Trump’s four disastrous years in the White House, the conventional political wisdom in the Acela Corridor is that Trump’s time has passed. He’ll be indicted, or he’ll die, or he’ll be struck by a meteor. Some deus ex DeSantis will save us all, they opine.
No public survey shows him losing or even close to losing. His only announced opponent, and a raft of would-be entrants, are terrified to delineate a single policy difference they with him, instead lauding his time in office. Criticize him? Unthinkable.
What about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis? The favorite of what passes for conservative intelligentsia, the wealthy liberal Republicans of the New York and California ‘donor class,’ and other rump establishment types see DeSantis as the savior of the GOP.
A mediocre political athlete with the emotional warmth of a toaster oven and a pinched, whiny political affect, he prospers in the soft confines of a deep red state run by a hard-right legislature. (He did pick up Jeb! Bush’s endorsement, which for the MAGA base is like winning the endorsement of George Soros and Planned Parenthood).
Donald Trump didn’t change the Republican Party; he let its worst members out of the basement, and they’ve taken over. The “MAGA majority” of today’s GOP was politically inactive prior to Trump’s ascendance. They truly believe in the worst of what he says and does and forgive it all in the name of an ugly nationalism, racism, and statism that replaced free markets, the rule of law, individual liberty, and the Constitution as the GOP’s guideposts.
Washington, DC’s talking heads, power brokers, and lobbyists desperately want their old world back. They want to return to a transactional Washington where everyone knew their place, waited their turn, and the parties could hand power back and forth without fear of violence.
Those days are over and have been for years. We live in a new political epoch in which Trumpism has outstripped its progenitor and become a full-fledged authoritarian movement. It still carries the GOP’s branding, but the old party was consumed from the inside out.
Since 2016, the elite of the GOP’s money and messaging class, the consultants, and strategists have been desperate to defeat Trump. We know; we sat in dozens of meetings with wealthy mega-donors, brilliant operators, and well-meaning leaders of the old party.
They truly believed the GOP, at its core, was still the party of Ike and Reagan and Bush, not a radicalized, hyper-populist movement led by a roaring, raging con man with a feral brilliance for inflaming the worst human passions. Today, some believe the GOP field of 2024 will save them. Some think Trump will be bound by a loyalty oath. Some think the base will walk away from the conspiracy crack and outrage agitporn and return to Republican first principles.
They’re not just wrong; they’re cataclysmically wrong.
To beat Trump means tossing aside every cautious instinct and being strong enough to withstand the vile insults, constant death threats, and insane agitprop from his most fervent supporters.
The GOP wannabes can’t and won’t. They all operate under the strategic frame of “I can win the MAGA base when Trump implodes.” Just like he imploded in 2016, right?
At first, they’ll snipe at one another for insufficient purity and dedication to the MAGA base, weakening themselves as a body while Trump warms up his political flamethrower. Then, as he incinerates their campaigns, careers, and reputations, they’ll wonder why this is all happening again.
The donor class herd animals will squawk and then gravitate back to Trump. The media (yes, even Rupert and Fox; the turn is already underway) will show him as an inevitability. The GOP base will get back in line, and the mini-rebellions for Ron or Nikki or the Mikes will sputter out and disappear.
Everyone knows what happened in 2015 and 2016 as Trump devoured the GOP candidates and the party. They’re betting it can never happen again and are thus repeating every mistake of those two cursed years.
Donald Trump is betting on it, and it looks like he’ll bet right again.