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The Biomechanics of Trumpism
You're finally starting to understand what this is about
I’ve long said that Trump would be the 2024 Republican nominee, and the conventional wisdom appears to finally be catching up. The mainstream understanding of Trumpism has now gone through three iterations. In 2016, his success was said to prove that Republican voters wanted something other than Paul Ryanism. Depending on the analyst and their political agenda, Trump voters were angry about the loss of manufacturing jobs, racists lashing out at a changing America, or patriots justifiably angry at a changing America.
In the face of political science data and real-world experience, people eventually dropped the “economic anxiety” talking point. Trump for the most part governed like a typical Republican on economic issues, yet his support stayed constant, and the cult of personality only deepened.
Somewhere near the end of the Trump presidency, we therefore moved towards a new conventional wisdom, at least among smarter analysts, that his movement was about political correctness and social issues, with economics having little to do with it. Anti-woke conservatives therefore came to believe that they knew what to do: give the people “Trumpism without Trump.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have a candidate who could take on Cultural Marxism directly, without all the distractions, legal troubles, and election denial? Surely the voters who saw Trump as the answer to their grievances would jump at the opportunity to vote for such a leader, if only given the chance.
This was the theory of the Ron DeSantis campaign. I say “was” rather than “is,” because even though he hasn’t announced yet, it sort of feels like it’s over. With overwhelming majorities in both state legislatures, the Florida governor went about checking every box on the list of conservative grievances: critical race theory, gender ideology, DEI, abortion, vaccines, election integrity, universal school choice, guns, immigration, taking on Disney as the purveyor of woke propaganda. According to the Florida Speaker of the House, DeSantis just in the last year has signed “four sessions’ worth of legislation.”
All of this should have mattered. But here’s what’s happened as DeSantis has been signing one conservative bill after another, just over the last two months alone.
Now that we’ve run the “Trumpism without Trump” experiment, I see us entering the third era of our understanding of Trumpism. Analysts are finally coming to the realization that this isn’t about trade, immigration, or gender ideology. It’s not about issues at all. There’s simply a deep and personal connection between Trump and the Republican voter. At most, how one talks about issues matters in an indirect way; Trump has to pay just enough lip service to things that Republican voters believe to reassure them that he is their leader. But unlike DeSantis, he has little to fear from contradicting them, like he’s done over the years on things like Planned Parenthood and vaccines.
Political science tries to figure out what people want or believe based on what they say. But in the realm of personal relationships, humans are pretty bad at explaining why they prefer some individuals over others.
There’s a cultural trope of the woman who can’t force herself to be attracted to the guy who “checks every box” and instead is drawn to men her friends say are bad for her. But guys who check every box tend to be overcompensating for lacking things that are much more fundamental, and give the impression of trying too hard. It’s striking the extent to which DeSantis follows the online right on every single issue. If I was advising him, I’d recommend picking a fight with the base on at least one thing, just to show that he can. Preferably, on something he truly believes in.
Take the war in Ukraine. When Tucker asked his opinion on the conflict, DeSantis responded by calling it a territorial dispute that wasn’t that important to the United States. This position works for Trump because he’s been saying NATO is stupid and we should try to get along with Russia for eight years. DeSantis moving towards a similar position at the most convenient time possible, in response to a question from Tucker no less, looks extremely weak.
It’s interesting to contrast how the two candidates have dealt with the rise of anti-vaxx sentiment within the Republican Party. DeSantis has taken the most anti-vaxx position of any national politician, successfully seeking a grand jury investigation of pharmaceutical companies. This goes beyond the normal positions of simply opposing mandates or questioning the safety of the vaccines, but involves potential legal consequences, although I’m pretty sure this will go nowhere. Trump, meanwhile, says he’s had a booster, and has attacked DeSantis for refusing to discuss his own vaccine status. When he gets booed for it, Trump backs down, granting something to his followers, but in a half-hearted way. The DeSantis conversation goes something like this:
Republican voters: We hate vaccines!
DeSantis: Oh my God, you hate vaccines? You won’t believe this, but I hate them even more!! Other guys talk about leaving you alone not to take them, oh, but we need to go much further. I’m calling a grand jury to investigate this, we’re going to lock Pfizer up! It’s about time us conservatives started pushing back against these tyrants…
On the other side:
Trump: You know, I was boosted. The vaccine was a great accomplishment of my administration.
Republican voters: Boo! We hate vaccines!
Trump: Fine, whatever, do what you want, let’s talk about something else. Hey, did you guys see that women’s weightlifting thing?
Republican voters: <cheers, laughter>
They both chase the voter. But there’s a difference between chasing a girl by trying to morph into what she wants, and making compromises in the process of drawing her to you.
I’ve also been fascinated by the contrast in the way each candidate has handled the liberal press. The DeSantis team has labeled journalists as the enemy and refused to talk to them. Trump, meanwhile, has scheduled a CNN townhall for next week, even as he kicks an NBC reporter off his plane.
DeSantis apparently thinks that because the Republican base hates the media, he wins voters over by ignoring journalists. But you can’t have a show that anyone wants to watch by cutting out the main antagonist! I think Vivek, or as Trump charmingly calls him, “Young Vivek,” has done a good job of attacking DeSantis for ignoring the mainstream press, and demonstrated how, if you’re confident enough in what you’re doing, you can use the media to your advantage.
At a gut level, people understand that part of the reason DeSantis won’t talk to the media is that he’s afraid of them, while pretending that he’s standing on some kind of principle. We all know that if DeSantis goes on CNN, he might be forced into a gaffe, or his voice might crack at the wrong time in response to a hostile question. Does the term “gaffe” even have any meaning in relation to things Trump says? Can you imagine his voice cracking under any circumstance? And it’s not just Trump’s voice. Observe how little his facial expression changes when a hostile reporter lands a blow, and compare it to other politicians. Some men worry about saying the wrong thing when talking to a woman, but the higher status male is the guy who can say whatever he wants. This is the difference between DeSantis and Trump.
I think we should also analyze the role that Trump’s claims about 2020 have played in this campaign. After losing reelection, Trump used his status within the party for one main cause, which was to make everyone afraid to say that Biden was legitimately elected. This was the key issue that determined who Trump endorsed in the midterms.
Many Republican politicians, including DeSantis, made the calculation that there was no harm in going along with the narrative about 2020. If people were angry about how the last presidential election was handled, DeSantis would simply show Republicans he understood their concerns by going ahead and cracking down on voter fraud. Trump was the guy who complained about Democratic shenanigans, while DeSantis would sell himself as the leader who went and did something about them.
The problem is that making voter fraud a main issue for the party just because Trump was mad about losing in 2020 simply worked to cement his psychological dominance over the conservative movement. It’s extremely difficult to spend years saying that Trump was the legitimate winner of the last presidential election, make loyalty to Trump a central commitment of the party, and then say we should move on from Trump.
As the CBS writeup of a recent poll puts it, “There's big demand for a candidate who says Trump won in 2020, who challenges woke ideas, who doesn't criticize Trump and, for good measure, makes liberals angry. Trump leads in all of these areas.”
The Trump show wouldn’t work on the left. I won’t go over the whole liberals read, conservative watch TV thing again. Another way of understanding this is as Democrats achieve status through prestige, while Republicans deal in the currency of dominance.
Conservative politics has been for decades shaped by larger-than-life alpha male personalities. Among talk radio and TV hosts, you have Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, Larry Elder, and Michael Savage. Further outside the mainstream, you’ve got Alex Jones. Except for perhaps Jones, and to a lesser extent Tucker, these figures are less known for representing different ideological currents than they are famous for simply being who they are. Mini-cults of personality also exist to a large extent among Evangelical Christians — think of the role of the televangelist in Red State culture.
The Republican voter is not attracted to ideas, but has a sense of alienation from elites and mainstream institutions, and simply wants someone loud and obnoxious enough to fight with them. And since he mostly just wants to grill and politics is a secondary concern in his life, he is not tuning in unless the show is particularly entertaining.
Trump’s cultural predecessors are not previous Republican politicians like Bush or John Boehner. They’re talk radio hosts and TV personalities, except he’s better at their jobs than they ever were. It would be a mistake to try to understand why Rush Limbaugh had a larger audience than National Review by talking about his ideological differences with the magazine. Rush connected with the Republican base in a different way. He had an equal relationship with his audience in the sense that he met them at their level of understanding and sophistication, and used their preferred communication medium, but was also in a superior position in the sense that he was simply louder, fatter, and richer than they were, without trying to hide any of it.
The DeSantis photo-op of him signing a bill banning Critical Race Theory is the political equivalent of a well-argued National Review essay on the expansion of the administrative state. Replace “National Review” in the previous sentence with “the Claremont Institute,” it doesn’t change anything. Republican voters are fine with nerds who they agree with, and they’ll go with them if they don’t have any other options. But give them a real entertainer who says that Rosie O’Donnell is fat and attacks the judge who is presiding over his criminal trial, and it’s an easy choice.
What can DeSantis do about this? Probably nothing. When elections are about issues, someone can adopt a new policy position. But people generally don’t have personality transformations in adulthood, and especially not while they’re busy campaigning.
When I note things that Trump has done right and DeSantis has done wrong, I don’t mean to imply that Trump has been consciously playing 4D chess every step of the way. Trump may not have an explicit model of what he’s doing at any point in time, any more than a spider weaving a web can visualize the end product that results from following its instincts. But at some level, he knew that getting everyone else to say that he was the actual winner in 2020 was important for maintaining his dominance over the party, and this was true even if it cost Republicans the Senate.
If what Trump does can be learned, and pick-up artists tell you it can, it takes years of concentrated effort. Other important differences, like the fact that Trump is simply taller than DeSantis, aren’t even fixable in theory — any advantage from gaining stature through height-affirmation surgery would have to be weighed against the costs of people knowing he underwent the procedure. The “Meatball Ron” slur lands because it hits at another immutable characteristic — that is, the ethnic issue, an underexplored topic in our race-obsessed culture.
The catch-22 of the DeSantis campaign is that he can’t credibly stand up to the bully, nor ignore him. One hesitates to ever say that a campaign is over this early, but if there were ever circumstances to do so, it would be in this race.
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