Opinion | Is It All About ‘Fealty to Trump’s Delusions’? Three Writers Talk About Where the G.O.P. Is Headed
Ross Douthat, a Times Opinion columnist, hosted an online conversation with Rachel Bovard, the policy director at the Conservative Partnership Institute, and Tim Miller, the author of “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell,” about the recent primaries in Arizona, Michigan and beyond, and the strength of Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party.
Ross Douthat: Rachel, Tim, thanks so much for joining me. I’m going to start where we always tend to start in these discussions — with the former president of the United States and his influence over the Republican Party. Donald Trump has had some bad primary nights this year, most notably in May in Georgia.
But overall Tuesday seems like it was a good one for him: In Michigan, his favored candidate narrowly beat Peter Meijer, one of the House Republican votes for impeachment. In the Arizona Republican primary for governor, Kari Lake is narrowly ahead, which would give Trump a big victory in his battle of endorsements against Mike Pence, who endorsed Lake’s main rival.
Do you agree, or is Trump’s influence just the wrong lens through which to be assessing some of these races?
Rachel Bovard: It was a good night for Trump’s endorsements, which remain critical and decisive, particularly when he’s picking candidates who can change the ideological direction of the party. No other major figure in the G.O.P. has shown they can do the same.
Tim Miller: An early agreement! The Republicans put up a slate of “Big Lie” candidates at the top of the ticket in an important swing state last night, which seems pretty important.
Bovard: I would dispute the notion that Arizona represented “a slate of ‘Big Lie’ candidates.”
Miller: Well, Lake has long brought up fraud claims about the 2020 election. Rare potential evidence of the party bucking Trump could come from the Third Congressional District in Washington, benefited by a “jungle” primary — candidates for an office, regardless of party, run on the same ballot, and the top two candidates square off in the general election. If the Trump-endorsed candidate loses, it seems a good endorsement for that set up.
Bovard: But the Blake Masters campaign in particular represented a depth of issues that appealed to Arizona voters and could represent a new generation of Republicans.
Douthat: Let’s get into that question a little bit. One of the questions hanging over the phenomenon of Trumper populism is whether it represents any kind of substantial issue-based change in what the G.O.P. stands for, or whether it’s just all about fealty to Trump.
The Masters campaign and the Lake campaign seem to represent different answers to that question — Masters leveraging Trump’s support to try to push the party in a more nationalist or populist direction on trade, foreign policy, family policy, other issues, and Lake just promising to stop the next (alleged) steal. Or do we think that it’s all the same phenomenon underneath?
Bovard: A very significant part of Trump’s appeal, what he perhaps taught the G.O.P., was that he spoke for voters who stood outside of party orthodoxy on a number of issues. And that’s where Masters tried to distinguish himself. He had a provocative campaign message early in his campaign: American families should be able to survive on a single income. That presents all kinds of challenges to standard Republican economic policy, how we think about family policy and how the two fit together. He also seems to be fearless in the culture wars, something else that Republicans are anxious to see.
So this constant distilling into the “Big Lie” overlooks something key: A sea change is slowly happening on the right as it relates to policy expectations.
Miller: But you know who distilled the Masters campaign into the “Big Lie”? Blake Masters. One of his ads begins, “I think Trump won in 2020.” This is an insane view, and I assume none of us think Masters really believes it. So fealty to Trump’s delusions is the opening ante here. Had Masters run a campaign about his niche, Peter Thiel-influenced issue obsessions but said Trump lost and he was harming Republican voters by continuing to delude them about our democracy, he would’ve lost like Rusty Bowers did.
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
I do think Masters has some differentiated policy ideas that are probably, not certainly, reflective of where the G.O.P. is headed, but that wasn’t the main thing here.
Douthat: So Tim, speaking for the “it’s Trump fealty all the way down” camp, what separates the Arizona results from the very different recent results in Georgia, where Trump fealty was insufficient to defeat either Brian Kemp or even Brad Raffensperger?
Miller: Two things: First, with Kemp, governing actually matters. With incumbents, primaries for governor can be somewhat different because of that. Kemp was Ron DeSantis-esque without the attention in his handling of Covid. (This does not extend all the way to full anti-Trump or Trump-skeptical governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland or Charlie Baker of Massachusetts — Kemp almost never said an ill word about Trump.)
Second, the type of electorate matters. Republican voters actually bucked Trump in another state, my home state, Colorado. What do Georgia and Colorado have in common? Suburban sprawl around a major city that dominates the state and a young, college-educated population.
Douthat: Does that sound right to you, Rachel? And is there anything we aren’t seeing about a candidate like Lake that makes her more than just a stalking horse for Trump’s own obsessions?
Bovard: Tim is right in the sense that there is always nuance when it comes to state elections. That’s why I also don’t see the Washington State primary race as a definitive rejection of Trump, as Tim alluded to earlier. Lake is, as a candidate, bombastic on the election issue.
Miller: “Bombastic” is quite the euphemism for completely insane. Deliberate lies. The same ones that led to the storming of the Capitol.
Bovard: Well, I don’t see that as determining how she governs. She’s got an entire state to manage, if she wins, and there are major issues she’ll have to manage that Trump also spoke to: the border, primarily.
By the way, I regularly meet with Democrats who still tell me the 2018 election was stolen, and Stacey Abrams is the rightful governor of Georgia, so I’m not as pearl clutchy about it, no.
Miller: “Pearl clutchy” is quite a way to describe a lie that has infected tens of millions of people, resulted in multiple deaths and the imprisonment of some of Trump’s most loyal supporters. I thought the populists were supposed to care about these people, but I guess worrying about their lives being ruined is just a little “pearl clutching.”
Bovard: I know we don’t want to relitigate the entirety of Jan. 6, so I’ll just say I do worry about people’s lives being ruined. And the Jan. 6 Select Committee has further entrenched the divide that exists over this.
Douthat: I’m going to enforce a pivot here, while using my moderator’s power to stipulate that I think Trump’s stolen-election narrative has been more destructive than the left’s Abrams-won-Georgia narrative or the “Diebold stole Ohio” narrative in 2004.
If Lake wins her primary, can she win the general-election race? Can Doug Mastriano win in Pennsylvania? To what extent are we watching a replay of certain Republican campaigns in 2010 — long before Trump, it’s worth noting — where the party threw away winnable seats by nominating perceived extremists?
Bovard: A key for G.O.P. candidates going forward is to embrace both elements of the cultural and economic argument. For a long time in the party these were seen as mutually exclusive, and post-Trump, I don’t think they are anymore. Glenn Youngkin won in Virginia in part by embracing working-class economic issues — leaning into repeal of the grocery tax, for example — and then pushing hard against critical race theory. He didn’t surge on economics alone.
Douthat: Right, but Youngkin also did not have to run a primary campaign so deeply entangled with Trump. There’s clearly a sweet spot for the G.O.P. to run as economic moderates or populists and anti-woke fighters right now, but can a figure like Lake manage that in a general election? We don’t even know yet if Masters or J.D. Vance, who both explicitly want to claim that space, can grab it after their efforts to earn Trump’s favor.
Tim, can these candidates win?
Miller: Of course they can win. Midterm elections have historically washed in candidates far more unlikely than nominees like Masters (and Lake, if she is the nominee) or Mastriano from tossup swing states. Lake in particular, with her history in local news, would probably have some appeal to voters who have a personal affinity for her outside the MAGA base. Mastriano might be a slightly tougher sell, given his brand, vibe and Oath Keeper energy.
Bovard: It’s long been conventional wisdom that you tack to the right in primaries and then move more to the center in the general, so if Lake wins, she will have to find a message that appeals to as many voters as possible. She would have to present a broad spectrum of policy priorities. The G.O.P. as a voting bloc has changed. Its voters are actively iterating on all of this, so previous assumptions about what appeals to voters don’t hold up as well. I tend to think there’s a lane for Trump-endorsed candidates who lean into the Trump-style economics and key culture fights.
Miller: I just want to say here that I do get pissed about the notion that it’s us, the Never Trumpers, who are obsessed with litigating Jan. 6. Pennsylvania is a critical state that now has a nominee for governor who won because of his fealty to this lie, could win the general election and could put his finger on the scale in 2024. The same may be true in another key state, Arizona. This is a red-level threat for our democracy.
A lot of Republicans in Washington, D.C., want to sort of brush it away just like they brushed away the threat before Jan. 6, because it’s inconvenient.
Douthat: Let me frame that D.C. Republican objection a different way: If this is a red-level threat for our democracy, why aren’t Democrats acting like it? Why did Democratic Party money enter so many of these races on behalf of the more extreme, stop-the-steal Republican? For example, given the closeness of the race, that sort of tactic quite possibly helped defeat Meijer in Michigan.
Miller: Give me a break. The ads from the left trying to tilt the races were stupid and frankly unpatriotic. I have spoken out about this before. But it’s not the Democrats who are electing these insane people. Were the Democrats responsible for Mark Finchem? Mehmet Oz? Herschel Walker? Mastriano won by over 20 points. This is what Republican voters want.
Also, advertising is a two-way street. If all these self-righteous Republicans were so angry about the ads designed to promote John Gibbs, they could’ve run pro-Meijer ads! Where was Kevin McCarthy defending his member? He was in Florida shining Mr. Trump’s shoes.
Douthat: Rachel, I watched that Masters ad that Tim mentioned and listened to his rhetoric around the 2020 election, and it seemed like he was trying to finesse things, make an argument that the 2020 election somehow wasn’t fair in the way it was administered and covered by the press without going the Sidney Powell route to pure conspiracism.
But let’s take Masters’s spirit of generalized mistrust and reverse its direction: If you were an Arizona Democrat, why would you trust a Governor Lake or a Secretary of State Mark Finchem to fairly administer the 2024 election?
Bovard: Honestly, the thing that concerns me most is that there is zero trust at all on elections at this moment. If I’m a Democrat, I don’t trust the Republicans, and vice versa. Part of that lack of trust is that we aren’t even allowed to question elections anymore — as Masters did, to your point, without going full conspiracy.
We regain trust by actually allowing questions and full transparency. This is one of the things that worries me about our political system. Without any kind of institutional trust, or trust of one another, there’s a breakdown.
Miller: This is preposterous. Arizona had several reviews of their election. The people lying about the election are the problem.
Douthat: Last questions: What do you think are the implications of the big pro-life defeat in the Kansas abortion referendum, for either abortion policy or the November elections?
Bovard: It shows two headwinds that the pro-life movement is up against. First is money. Reporting shows that pro-abortion advocates spent millions against the amendment, and Democrats in many key races across the country are outpacing Republicans in fund-raising. Second, it reflects the confusion that exists around this issue post-Roe. The question presented to Kansas voters was a microcosm of the general question in Roe: Should abortion be removed from the state Constitution and be put in the hands of democratically elected officials? Yet it was sometimes presented as a binary choice between a ban or no ban. (This early headline from Politico is an example: “Kansas voters block effort to ban abortion in state constitutional amendment vote.”)
But I don’t think it moves the needle on the midterms.
Miller: I view it slightly differently. I think most voters are in a big middle that Republicans could even use to their advantage if they didn’t run to the extremes. Voters do not want blanket abortion bans or anything that can be construed as such. Something that moved the status quo significantly to the pro-life right but still maintained exceptions and abortion up to a certain, reasonable point in pregnancy would be politically palatable.
So this will only be an effective issue for Democrats in turnout and in places where Republicans let them make it an issue by going too far to the extreme.
Douthat: Finally, a different short-answer question for you both. Rachel, say Masters and Vance are both in the Senate in 2023 as spokesmen for this new culturally conservative economic populism you favor. What’s the first bill they co-sponsor?
Bovard: I’d say a large tax on university endowments.
Douthat: Tim, adding the evidence of last night to the narrative, can Ron DeSantis (or anyone else, but let’s be honest, there isn’t anyone else) beat Trump in a Republican primary in 2024?
Miller: Sad to end with a wishy-washy pundit answer but … maybe! Trump seems to have a plurality right now within the party on 2024, and many Republicans have an affinity for him. So if it were Mike Pence, Chris Christie or Liz Cheney, they would have no chance.
Could DeSantis thread a needle and present himself as a more electable Trump? Some of the focus groups The Bulwark does makes it seem like that’s possible. But will he withstand the bright lights and be able to pull it off? Will Trump be indicted? A lot of known unknowns. I’d put DeSantis as an underdog, but it’s not impossible that he could pull it off.
Douthat: There is absolutely no shame in the wishy-washy pundit game. Thanks so much to you both for joining me.
Ross Douthat is a Times Opinion columnist. Rachel Bovard is the policy director at the Conservative Partnership Institute and a tech columnist at The Federalist. Tim Miller, a writer at The Bulwark, is the author of “Why We Did It: A Travelogue From the Republican Road to Hell.”