early and often

The Republican Primary Is Worth Covering Even If Trump Is Crushing It

Are the other candidates just extras in a Trump horror movie? Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Day in, day out, Republican candidates not named Donald Trump criss-cross the early caucus and primary states, press the flesh in a bewildering variety of retail settings, rattle the cup for donations, huddle with their pollsters and “strategists,” and in general take themselves very seriously as potential 46th presidents of the United States. They are also engaging in a series of candidate debates such as tonight’s – scratching and clawing and even buying donors for a spot on the stage – solemnly framed as auditions for the White House.

Meanwhile, as if operating in a different dimension, Trump breaks the rules, skips the debates, does countless things the punditocracy considers damaging or even disqualifying, and slowly strengthens his grip on the Republican-primary electorate to which his puny rivals are so frantically appealing. He’s been over 50 percent in the RealClearPolitics averages of national primary polls since April. In those same averages, he now leads his closest competitor by over 40 points. He treats his fellow candidates much like a tiger toying with his food. So why not just declare him the 2024 nominee and save everyone a lot of time and trouble?

That’s essentially what Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wants to know in an exasperated column suggesting that debates without Trump, and indeed a nomination contest thoroughly dominated by Trump, are fake, in the sense of presenting choices the party has already made. Beauchamp argues that the pretend contest hides an “ugly truth” we ought to be talking about instead of wondering if Nikki Haley might move soon into second place in Iowa polls:

We are all pretending that this is something like what we’ve seen in the past, a normal event held by a normal party, when it’s actually a pageant masking the true nature of the Trump-enthralled GOP: a political vehicle of a strongman whose second term would represent an existential threat to American democracy.

I sympathize with Beauchamp’s cri de coeur. It’s been frustrating to listen to many months of wishful thinking by the MSM punditocracy aimed at elevating somebody — anybody — into a serious threat to Trump’s third consecutive presidential nomination. For a while there, the chattering classes just couldn’t get enough of Ron DeSantis, the Man, the Legend, the Sunshine State Steamroller who was going to dispatch the erratic former president and put the GOP on track toward a less terrifying agenda of old-school conservatism spiced up with some bullying of gay kids and teachers and diversity consultants. For a hot minute, Beltway insiders espied a senator-donor cabal to make Tim Scott the next big thing. Some Never Trumpers happily imagined Chris Christie eviscerating the front-runner in a debate. And now the ever-opportunistic Nikki Haley is having a mini-boom.

Let’s be clear: It is very unlikely that any of this is going to amount to a hill of beans. The biggest threat to Trump’s primary campaign is the likelihood he will be tied up in a trial before he has mathematically clinched the nomination. But then again, most of his rivals, the pols working night and day, we are told, to save their party and their country from a Trump comeback, say they would back him as the nominee even if he were a convicted felon. Beauchamp is right: There is nothing “normal” about this blasé acceptance of criminality at the top of the GOP in the form of a man who has interminably and redundantly expressed his contempt for the rule of law and his determination to use the power of the presidency to punish his many enemies. It’s pathological and right out of the authoritarian playbook written by some of the worst people in global history.

So should we stop covering the 2024 Republican nominating contest and denounce it as a farce? Well, there is a basic problem for us defenders of democracy in doing that: Not a single Republican voter has cast a ballot. Perhaps Beauchamp is correct in mocking the idea that the debates (or shoe-leather campaigning in Iowa) will produce a “one true challenger” to the front-runner with a snowball’s chance in hell of overtaking him. But we don’t infallibly know that yet. It’s easy to laugh while DeSantis swallows his bile and trudges through all those rural Iowa Pizza Ranches in what must be pure agony to him. But the formula worked for Rick Santorum in 2012, and at this point 12 years ago nobody thought that was going to happen.

So let’s give voters a chance to weigh in at least minimally before dismissing them and the other candidates as extras in the horror movie of Trump’s return from what should have been a political grave. He may be an “existential threat to American democracy,” but American democracy deserves an opportunity to defend itself.

The GOP Race Is Worth Covering Even If Trump Is Crushing It