Is it possible that America could again burden the rest of the world with a racist, faux-populist president with authoritarian impulses? It’s a close call, one that requires consideration of all factors that still make Trump and his brand of politics attractive to 40% of U.S. voters.
If Trump himself decides to play it safe and not risk another humiliating defeat – which is a good bet – he’ll stay in a kingmaker role and leave the playing field to other aspiring demagogues. Can any of the current contenders sweep assorted racists, misogynists, and angry white Christian nationalists into a voting block large enough to take advantage of America’s antiquated Electoral College?
The political horses lining up at the post
First up are the governors, currently working as hard as possible to outlaw masking and other common-sense COVID guidelines just as children are returning to school. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbot of Texas, and Kristi Noem of North Dakota are in contention. Definitely ones to watch with executive power to flex their conservative bona fides.
Next up are the senators: Josh Hawley from Missouri (gave a hearty fist pump to the January 6th rioters); Rick Scott from Florida (former governor who crippled the state unemployment compensation system just in time for the COVID recession); and Ted Cruz of Texas (solely responsible for holding up dozens of President Biden’s foreign policy appointments eight months after the inauguration).
The legacy candidate: Mike Pence, former Vice President and dutiful yes-man, may toss his hat in the ring despite his reputation as a political wet blanket.
And, finally, a dark horse: Tucker Carlson of Fox News, the most popular personality on American cable TV. He’s recently back from hobnobbing with his favorite authoritarian strongman, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and entirely on board with destroying the world’s oldest democracy to maintain white supremacy.
Other right-wingers may enter the fray, but this motley crew represents the sort who will be vying for the presidency. Can any of them pull it off? For the Republican party, it’s an existential question.
The demographic desperation of Republicans
As recently-released census figures illustrate, the Republican base continues to shrink, and the white population has declined for the first time in the country’s history. People continue to abandon rural areas for more liberal cities and suburbs to find opportunities. The non-religious continue to increase in number. And the number of voters under thirty has grown – a cohort that is decidedly anti-conservative.
2024 could be the last year Republicans have a shot at the presidency.
With no voters to spare, how does a candidate motivate every last white, rural, usually older, usually male, often fundamentalist Christian voter to turn up at the polls? We certainly know what’s not required.
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Conservative policies are no longer needed
The Republican party didn’t bother to update their 2016 policy platform for 2020, and it’s doubtful they will make an effort for 2024. After all, their voters care nothing about the government’s functioning beyond how it can be weaponized to “own the libs” and stick it to the people they hate.
A lack of policy positions dramatically simplifies campaigning, allowing one to focus solely on what truly matters to the Republican base.
Scripted performances of outrage
Like spectators at the Roman Colosseum, the conservative audience repeatedly craves one thing: the evisceration of opponents, even if it is only verbal.
There’s a step-by-step formula for a successful right-wing media appearance: statement of blatant falsehood; expression of indignation; apoplectic outrage; and finally, assurances that it – whatever is the topic of the day – is part of an insidious plot to take your guns/rip away your freedoms/replace you with non-white voters.
It’s melodrama that never grows stale for Republicans. Plus, it generates a never-ending stream of small-dollar donations.
Conjuring the appearance of success
To have the best shot at success, one must possess the star power to overawe credulous conservative voters and extract the critical supplies of money that national campaigns demand. Trump spent many years building his name recognition as a fake billionaire/business genius and TV opinion-maker.
So, our candidates will have to exaggerate all of their personal and political accomplishments to cast themselves as common-folk success stories. This can be challenging when one comes from a rich family and possesses Ivy League college and law degrees, as several of our presidential hopefuls do. Fortunately for them, conservative news sources make no effort whatsoever to fact-check backstories, and neither do their faithful viewers.
So, do any of them have a real shot at the ultimate prize?
And the winner is…
Honestly, any of them could pull off a near-maximum-turnout crowd of Republican voters, but the critical part of that phrase is “near.”
None of them are Trump, a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime anomaly that neatly packages so many critical elements: a long media presence of self-aggrandizement and venal commentary; loud and proud racism, misogyny, and sexism; a backstory of outrageous (fake) success; and the audacity to baldly lie about all of it constantly.
This toxic combination is what scraped the barrel for every last conservative voter in 2020, including, critically, those who had never participated in politics before. It wasn’t enough. Without Trump on the stage, people on the edges of politics may lose interest. The Republican party cannot afford to lose a single voter if they hope to prevail.
Conservatives maxed turnout in 2020 and still fell short because every action can cause an opposite reaction: tactics designed to juice turnout among the Republican base tend to do the same for disgusted and vengeful Democrats. As the Census demonstrates, there are increasingly more of the latter than the former.
Verdict: cautious optimism
Come November 6, 2024, I predict that your friends across the Atlantic won’t be insisting that you avoid judging Americans based solely on our choice of president. If Congress manages to pass voting reform, this outcome becomes even more certain.
But, to hedge my bet, let me be the first to go on record to preemptively say to the entire United Kingdom: “Despite the self-destructive voting choices of tens of millions of my fellow citizens, we’re not all like that!”