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OPINION | BRADLEY GITZ: Trump and Trump only

by Bradley Gitz | June 5, 2023 at 3:35 a.m.

The most powerful factor in American politics is Donald Trump's fan club. Only they explain why someone like Joe Biden could end up president and might, despite his obvious debilities and disasters, remain so after January 2025.

While the "Trump or nothing" group is almost certainly smaller now than three or five years ago, evidence suggests that the level of commitment to him for those within it might have actually grown stronger as a result of sunken psychological cost and so much trial and tribulation.

Politicians aren't generally known for inspiring devotion, so the unerring devotion through thick and thin of so many for Trump is perhaps unique in the history of American politics, particularly when considering that he is detested with close to equal fervor by the rest of the public.

Precisely because no other political figure, certainly none of Trump's Republican rivals or Biden, has anywhere near the reservoir of bitter-end loyalists, no other politician has anywhere near the margin for error, defined as the ability to say and do outrageous thing after outrageous thing and suffer no repercussions.

It is, within this context, far easier to understand why Trump is so widely loathed than to understand why he is so unconditionally loved by those who still love him. Somewhat depressingly, I've had a number of conversations with Trump supporters who, when asked if they would still extend their support were Trump to suddenly reverse his position on all issues (to the extent those positions have ever been discernible), each said yes.

This isn't politics normally understood; it's a political expression of pagan idolatry.

For ordinary voters, support for a candidate is influenced by the candidate's position on the issues of the day, among other things, but for Trump supporters it works the other way around, as they take their cues on what is true or false and what to believe only from him.

That so much of it oscillates on a daily basis in accord with the object of their worship's needs, ego and insecurities renders the enterprise devoid of coherence on both ends.

In short, whatever its initial nature, Trump's appeal, for those to whom he still appeals, no longer has anything to do with ideology, public policy or particular issues; it is entirely personalized, and will thus go wherever Trump goes.

Those who haven't left him by now apparently never will, at least until he shuffles off the mortal coil or they do.

Because of this hard core of unconditional support, Trump can count on receiving at least a third of the vote in just about every Republican primary, enough for victory when the other two-thirds or so is once again dispersed among a gaggle of rivals.

It won't matter what issues he runs on or how he performs on the debate stage, or even if he chooses to skip the debates altogether. His percentage of the vote is about as close to fixed, in terms of both ceiling and floor, as for any primary candidate in distant memory.

There is therefore only one way for Trump to lose the GOP nomination, and that would be for the race to be quickly winnowed down to him and just one other candidate, presumably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, perhaps even before Iowa or New Hampshire.

But this would require that the other Republican candidates do what they were incapable of doing in 2016 (and Democrats so adroitly did in 2020): Put aside their personal ambitions for the sake of party and country, withdraw from the race, and throw their support to DeSantis (as Democrats did with respect to Biden after the 2020 South Carolina primary, in order to stop Bernie Sanders, who could not have stopped Trump).

(DROP CAP) Seven years ago, it took far too long for the other Republican candidates to take Trump seriously, and even after it became necessary to do so, they prioritized attacking each other in an effort to emerge as the alternative to him (memories of Ted Cruz running attack ads against Marco Rubio before the Florida primary, when both were about to be finished off at that late stage by Trump, come flooding back).

Ganging up on Trump would backfire in a crowded field, but directly taking him on would be unavoidable and invigorating in a one (DeSantis) versus one (Trump) matchup. That kind of contest would have an entirely different dynamic, and the spectacle of a Republican finally showing the courage to point out all the absurdities of Trump would quickly consolidate the two-thirds of Republican voters who either want to move on from or were never all that admiring of him in the first place.

Having suffered defeat under those circumstances, Trump, being Trump, would likely mount a third-party bid simply out of desire for revenge, accompanied by the inevitable charges of "betrayal" and a "stolen primary."

Given the dysfunctional nature of the relationship, most of his die-hard followers would on cue embrace such claims and go along for the ride, even if it meant four more years of Biden in the White House.

Because they are more loyal to Trump personally than they are to the Republican Party or conservatism more broadly, despite Trump being loyal to absolutely nothing but himself.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Print Headline: Trump and Trump only


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