Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer
the national interest

Are Democrats Tricking Republicans Into Nominating Trump?

Conservative elites driven to madness by DeSantis’s collapse.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer

A fact that has somehow become even more obvious over the last few months is that Republican voters truly adore Donald Trump. At the beginning of the year, there appeared to be a strong chance the party’s voting base could be weaned off its cult-worship relationship with the 45th president and reattached to a more reliable, coherent, and less criminally implicated presidential nominee like Ron DeSantis. As that prospect has waned, despair has set in especially deep for a specific cohort: the anti-anti-Trumpers — conservative Republicans who desperately wish Trump were not their party’s leader, but if he is, will ultimately devote most of their energy to attacking his critics.

The anti-anti-Trumpers dreamed that their yearslong humiliation of having to run interference for a man they loathed was about to end. Now they must face up to the likelihood of devoting at least the next 15 months, and possibly more than five years, to insisting Trump’s multitudinous crimes are no worse than things done by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and so on.

Who would force them once again into such a mortifying position? Many of the anti-anti-Trumpers have identified the culprit for Trump’s hammerlock on the primary. It is the Democrats.

Here are half a dozen examples of anti-anti-Trumpers arguing, with varying degrees of explicitness, that the Trump nomination is being foisted onto the Republicans by the party’s enemies.

Rich Lowry’s July 23 column, headlined, “Trump’s enemies pursue more and more indictments — to ensure his 2024 nomination,” argues that the multiple prosecutions of Trump have not only the effect, but also the intent, of making him the party’s nominee:

“Donald Trump and his adversaries … are seeking the same thing — Trump as the Republican nominee, either so he can sweep to victory (Trump’s view) or be beaten again and pay the price for his crimes (the Democrats’ view). …

Consider this thought experiment: If the Justice Department and the other prosecutors knew that the indictments guaranteed a Ron DeSantis or Tim Scott nomination, would they still go through with them?

If they thought they made Trump a stronger general-election candidate and the favorite to beat Joe Biden, would they still pull the trigger?”

A week later, Lowry identified President Biden (not the various prosecutors charging Trump) as the main reason Trump is winning the Republican primary:

“Biden is an asset to Trump’s primary campaign and could, through his weakness and ineptitude, end up electing him in 2024.

Biden is indicting Trump; he’s making Republicans pine for the days when he was president; and he’s lackluster in prospective head-to-head polling matchups.”

The same day, National Review’s Dan McLaughlin complained Republican voters supporting Trump were “being played for marks,” without saying directly who was tricking them or why:

“Trump’s commanding lead over DeSantis in October 2022 was cut significantly after the election, as people evaluated the great success of DeSantis and the across-the-board failure of so many Trump-backed candidates. DeSantis remained around 30 percent in the polls, and Trump below 50 percent — until Alvin Bragg indicted Trump near the end of March, which was swiftly followed by Trump pulling away and continuing to do so through this writing, four months and two indictments later. Occam’s razor suggests that Democrats getting exactly what they want, following actions by Democratic prosecutors, is a sign that Trump’s voters are the ones being played for the marks here.”

Note the passive-voice construction of the Republican voters, who are reduced to pawns.

The next day, The Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Democrats want Mr. Trump to be the Republican nominee, and Mr. Smith (whether he intends it or not) is making that outcome more likely.”

And National Review’s Andrew McCarthy explicated this theory in more specific lunatic detail:

“The Democrats are trying to get Trump nominated because they know they would beat him decisively in November 2024. The indictments (and there will probably be two more — one from Biden DOJ special counsel Jack Smith, perhaps as early as today, and one from Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis (in the next two weeks or so), coupled with the civil cases teeing up for trial (New York attorney general Letitia James’s fraud case on October 3, and a second E. Jean Carroll sexual-assault/defamation case in mid January), are both firing up the Trump base and preventing other GOP candidates from getting any traction. That is the intention …

The Democrats’ plan has been, at this point (with 2024 voting a little over a year away), to give Republicans the impression that Trump can win. And it’s working. We’ve all seen with our own eyes how Trump has destroyed the GOP’s grip on Pennsylvania over six years, and yet people are somehow going up in a balloon about his chances to beat Biden in the state because a poll shows him in a statistical dead heat there. That is what Democrats and the media want us to think. Then we nominate him and he loses in a landslide in November, taking the Senate and House down with him.”

Today, the Journal — which previously only hinted at the notion that Jack Smith might be deliberately trying to help Trump beat DeSantis — goes all in:

“The political point to keep in mind is that this is exactly where Democrats want voters to focus: On Mr. Trump all day, every day …

Mr. Trump on trial also means his competitors for the GOP presidential nomination can barely get media attention …

All of this has Democrats elated because they want Mr. Trump to be the Republican nominee. They hope GOP voters will respond to the indictments by nominating Mr. Trump as a form of political retribution. No matter that this essentially means Republicans would be letting Democrats choose their nominee.”

That this theory is totally deranged hardly requires saying. There is no evidence any, let alone all, of the prosecutors investigating Trump have coordinated with the Biden administration or have any interest in affecting the Republican nomination. Trump’s legal woes are easily and parsimoniously explained by the fact he has habitually flouted the law throughout his career, beginning at least 50 years ago, when he and his father refused to allow Black people to rent apartments, and continuing through decades of assorted schemes and swindles.

More to the point, the Republican electorate’s attachment to Trump is explained even more easily. The party’s voters thrill to his bullying style; they believe his stream of lies and exist in an information ecosystem in which every fresh piece of evidence of Trump’s misconduct merely affirms the scope of the conspiracy against him. The fact that they wish to renominate a man whom they consider one of the greatest presidents in history, and who most of them believe legitimately won the 2020 election, follows naturally from their own beliefs. The choice was not imposed on them by the Democrats, the liberal media, or Jack Smith.

So why do the anti-anti-Trumpers insist on seeing Trump’s nomination as an externally imposed plot? One reason is a desperate attempt to convince Republicans to support DeSantis, by grabbing them by the lapels and insisting they are being duped by Democrats unless they vote for Ron.

But I think this conviction also reflects a deeper psychological need, one I’ve observed frequently since Trump appeared on the political scene. Trump initially commanded almost no support at all from the conservative movement’s intelligentsia.

Over time, his unstoppable rise produced three divergent reactions. Some conservative elites learned to embrace Trump. Others (“Never Trumpers”) recoiled from Trump and developed criticisms of the party that supported him. Between these two factions, the third, anti-anti-Trumpers, remained more or less openly disgusted with Trump but remained loyal to the party and the conservative movement even as they persisted in adoring him.

Their loyalty to the GOP and their contempt for Trump created a cognitive dissonance. Depicting Trump as a liberal creation resolves that cognitive dissonance. They could remain loyal to the party and disdainful of its cult leader because the Trump cult was the sinister result of a Democratic plot.

I gained some personal insight into this when I wrote in early 2016 that I wanted Trump to win the nomination. A few weeks later, I publicly retracted that stance, which was the product mostly of having ignored Trump in the mistaken assumption that the party elites would successfully shove him aside. But the initial column endorsing a Trump nomination has been screenshot and recirculated thousands and thousands of times by anti-anti-Trumpers. They ascribe an importance to it that at first mystified me: What possible influence could one column — by a liberal, no less — have had on the course of the Republican nomination?

The answer, I think, is that their obsession with that quickly retracted hot take grew out of a deep need to find an external locus of blame for Trump’s rise. The mortifying Trump cult did not reveal any corruption in the Republican Party. It showed how liberals had manipulated them.

Versions of this impulse have continued to pop up on the right throughout the Trump era. The Republican voters may be misguided in their adoration of Trump, the anti-anti-Trumpers would concede, but they had been driven to that point by any number of Democratic crimes: the smearing of Mitt Romney, the Russia investigation, Bill Clinton’s sexcapades, or any of an endless list of grievances.

The anti-anti-Trump right’s need to explain Trump as a Democratic plot serves one additional psychological function: It excuses their own apologias on his behalf. After all, if the Democrats are to blame for Trump’s hold on the Republican Party, then the anti-anti-Trumpers are justified in refusing to defect from a Trump-controlled party. By focusing their opposition on Trump’s left-wing opponents, they are directing their main energies against the very people who are responsible for Trump’s rise in the first place.

It is almost certainly not a coincidence that the anti-anti-Trump right had returned to its belief that the Democrats are secretly boosting Trump now, at the moment when the DeSantis campaign is collapsing. Now that they are realizing they will have no respite from the ugly work of justifying a figure they loathe, they must make their inner peace with the role they have chosen.

Are Democrats Tricking Republicans Into Nominating Trump?