Resolute Square

The Rocket Sled

Too many still look at this 2024 race through a lens of history so gauzy that Kari Lake would be taken aback. This is not the old Republican Party.
Published:September 6, 2023

By Rick Wilson

I visited Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico’s high desert many years ago on an otherwise forgettable CODEL. (That’s Congressional Delegation, for those blessedly ignorant of Washington’s sea of self-important acronyms). We were there for reasons I can’t recall 30+ years later, but Holloman has a unique facility called the High-Speed Test Track. Like many of the artifacts of our sweeping military complex, it’s a one-off national security asset almost no one knows of or appreciates. 

Imagine a 10-mile-long stretch of absolutely flat, perfect railroad tracks across the desert. Now imagine putting a massive steel carriage on those tracks, strapping a set of massive rockets on it, and sending the whole damn thing careening across the desert at the speed of heat.

They test weapons systems and aircraft aerodynamics at actual speeds in natural conditions. Ejection seats in fighter jets? Tested there. Bomb and missile designs? Same. Once those rockets kick the sled into motion, it will roar down that 10-mile-long track with no deviation, no stopping, and no way to turn away. The machines racing down this track are the fastest things on land, anywhere, with speeds up to 6500 miles an hour.

I don’t remember what they were testing that day, but it was loud, fast, and rent the sky. We were perhaps a half-mile away, but the sound was deafening even through ear protection. The unit commander of the HSTT and a flock of public affairs types escorted the delegation, but as I was wont to do, I found the people who actually operated the thing more interesting than the pro forma “This is why we’re important” speech. I struck up a conversation with a wiry Chief Master Sargeant who wryly said, “It’s easy to go fast in one direction. That’s just the rockets. It’s what you learn while you’re going fast. And the stopping. The stopping is a son of a bitch.”

Here’s the bad news: America is on the sled, mounted to that long stretch of railroad tracks. The rocket motors are attached. We’re about to go very fast in one direction, and it’s not a direction millions of Americans want.

I hate playing this role, but as the Cassandra of American politics, I apparently must.
While I wish I could bring you happier news, I’m here to throw cold water on the idea of some miracle that removes Trump from the race and American political life. I’m sorry if this spoils the tail-end of Summer. It’s best to face it now than later.

The 2024 Wannabes

I’ve given the so-called debate time to percolate in my head and have come away singularly unimpressed. None of it changed my perspective on the Warholian nature of the 2024 GOP primary. 

Almost all of them will get a little moment in the spotlight, a series of inevitable articles outlining the bank-shot, trick-play path to the GOP nomination for Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott, or even the graceless, charmless clod Ron DeSantis. We’ll hear the background drumbeat of Chris Christie and Mike Pence stans (mostly immediate family members, obviously) and of wishcasters pushing for Glenn Youngkin or Brian Kemp or Jamie Dimon to leap into the race and change everything.

How can any rational person look at the GOP field and think, “Yeah, this is the one who will wean the base away from Trump. They’ve been crying out for more Diet Trump candidates.” 

One more reason to lose hope for this field: they’ll all bend the knee in the end. No matter what critique of Trump they bring to the table now, every single one of them -- and, by the way, all of their major donors -- will genuflect to Trump in the end.

They’ve variously promised to pardon him, to burn down the FBI and DOJ, release January 6th terrorists, and support him to the end.

Profiles in courage, they’re not. 

The 2024 Primary MAGA Base

Donors frequently ask me, “What will change the MAGA base?” and my answers are simple: utter destruction at the polls and the actuarial tables. Otherwise, the millions of Americans in the Trump matrix aren’t leaving and don’t want to. 

You can’t change them. Stop trying. 

The realities of the MAGA base have been listed and dissected more times than I can count, including many times in my writing and commentary. Still, the media and political observers continue to treat them as if the crapulous alchemy of Trumpism hasn’t utterly transformed them. 

Any observer of 2016 and beyond knows by now there’s no magical focus group phrase (though God knows, otherwise intelligent donors money on the bonfire of this vanity by the metric ton) or clever television ad (I would have made them) or (God forbid) policy that has ever broken the spell Trump holds over the base.

Not once. The base is held in place by their adoration of Trump, the MAGA media apparatus, and the replacement of conservative ideology with oppositional culture.

It’s not changing for 2024.

You cannot persuade the MAGA base voters with a new face, policy, or damaging information. You can barely persuade more mainstream Republicans that Joe Biden isn’t the head of a global crime ring.

While there are a few more persuadable Republicans than existed in 2016 or 2020, the number still falls far short of even 15% of the GOP’s likely primary voter pool. (In the coming general election matchup, they will make a meaningful difference and are the critical audience, but they’re an afterthought in the primary.)

The Perils of the Horserace

Credit where credit is due; very few people in the media are still caught in the trap of not wanting to call Trump a congenital liar or who treat his campaign as more than a vast machine to stroke his ego, satisfy his venality, and pay his army of lawyers.

The 2024 campaign has already had some robust reporting that treats Trump with less delicacy and caution than in the past, and that’s a good thing. It’s necessary but not necessarily sufficient.

Too many still look at this race through a lens of history so gauzy that Kari Lake would be taken aback. This is not the old Republican Party. The election won’t be about spending, foreign policy, marginal tax rates, or parts per billion of carbon in the atmosphere. 

It will be a choice between America or Trump.

Trump is already promising to lock up political opponents. His team is already planning a sweeping government transformation, killing the civil service and replacing it with claques of hand-picked MAGA lackeys driven by a Trumpian Führerprinzip. 

It is a choice between a Democratic President doing a creditable job at unwinding the disasters of the Trump era and a man who hides nothing of his intentions in breaking this nation to his will. Many of my journalist friends may see this as too harsh, too critical, and too dramatic. 

I argue it hardly scratches the surface. As my colleague and friend Stuart Stevens says, “The greatest danger is not realizing what the greatest danger really is.”

Hoping that horserace will be put in context and the power of bothsideism will be put in abeyance for the 2024 election is a bad bet.

Legal Miracles

I understand the professional, personal, and financial incentives for covering the endless Trump legal crises. This is the business we’ve chosen, and so forth. What bothers me is how few reporters and commentators are looking at the chance Trump’s luck breaks the other way. 

“Trump is in legal trouble” may seem like a reason to celebrate, but “Trump is in X trouble” has been the baseline state of his life forever and his campaigns since 2016. The people persuaded by Trump’s legal overhang aren’t GOP primary voters. 

I worry daily that too many Democrats are placing too many of their hopes in the hands of Jack Smith, Fani Wills, Alvin Bragg, et al. These trials are richly deserved and a sign that at least some remnant of the rule of law still obtains, but none of them are slam-dunk, home-run, go-directly-to-jail miracles. 

Not. One.

The airwaves are filled with legal analysis of the fell portents of every filing for Trump, but surprisingly little recognition that it only takes one sleeper MAGA person on one of these juries to result in a hung jury or an acquittal or for one mistake in court for the tide to turn away from justice and towards Trump. 

There seems to be little recognition that the legal system can get slowed down, thrown off track, and just not turn out the way Trump richly deserves. Too many people believe Trump will be in jail in 2024, and too few think he might walk from any of these cases and underestimate the cascade effect, both legally and politically, of what will happen to the other cases when he does. 

Finally, as Trump evolves from the likely nominee to the presumptive nominee, expect the Republican Party to ditch the convention rules and name him the official GOP nominee as early as March of next year. It’s one more layer of legal armor. At that point, my confidence in the Department of Justice to hold the line diminishes rapidly. 

The Grownups In the Party

Some people still hope for an intervention by the greybeards and brahmins of the Republican Before Times.

There was a time when most of the elected GOP members in Washington weren’t members of the Trump Cult. In the House, about 50 made noise, threw their political feces like rabid zoo animals and went on Fox to bleat and squeal. In the Senate, it was a dozen or so.

Now? The lunatics are utterly in control of the House Asylum. Kevin McCarthy gamely clings to power by auctioning off another slice of his soul every day to feed the endless maw of the grifters, madmen, criminals, degenerates, and authoritarians who allow him to hold the title of Speaker but none of its power. 

Whether you love or hate him for it, Mitch McConnell’s long run as one of the most effective Senate leaders, in or out of the majority, is over. McConnell’s increasingly evident health problems have stirred up the restive post-conservative, pro-Trump Senate GOP caucus into a frenzy, as Mike Lee, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Rick Scott begin an obvious push for a secret caucus vote to replace him. The Logan Roy of the Senate isn’t done yet, but his replacements will not; as he famously said, “Be serious people.” 

The money people once upon a time had a role in moderating the GOP. After 2016, they lost that power absolutely and finally. They’re not coming to save America from Trump, either. They’ll join the political and elected class and open their bank accounts to Trump until he bleeds them into desiccated husks. 

The less said about Ronna McDaniel and the moribund Republican apparatus, the better. The headquarters on C Street might as well have “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” on the lintel.

No one is coming to derail the rocket sled America is trapped on. The only destination at the end of these tracks is a fight between Joe Biden and Donald Trump to the bloody political end. 

And yes, it is the stopping that’s the son of a bitch. 

Let’s hope we learn something before the end of the tracks.