Losers, Quitters and the Only One Who Wins

Illustration by Rob Dobi

Did the Republican primaries even matter?

From its start the Republican presidential primary race has seemed utterly pointless, like a table full of office workmates rehashing where to eat lunch, even as they’re wolfing down what they already decided to eat. With Donald Trump almost certain to win the nomination — in spite of, or because of, spewing Nazi-style vitriol about poisoned national bloodlines and left-wing vermin — and with all of his final-round competitors in lockstep with the MAGA agenda, what is there to say?

Perhaps only this: that Trump has so deeply put his personal stamp on U.S. politics that, even if he were removed from every ballot by a rigorous application of the 14th Amendment, or wound up in jail, or withdrew from the race betting that a pardon from his last remaining rival was a safer way to avoid imprisonment, he would still have won control of his party. 

This de facto victory was clear even before the Iowa caucuses, when Ron DeSantis finally departed from his whipped-cur posture to bite the hand that fed him — and with what for teeth? That Trump’s opposition to abortion was insufficiently extreme, that Trump failed to keep his pledge to make Mexico pay for a border wall, that Trump deported fewer undocumented immigrants than Barack Obama — in short, that DeSantis was a better alternative because he would be more Trump than Trump himself.

The fact that the Republican primaries don’t seem to matter is precisely what matters most about them.

VP TRYOUTS 2023 Sign held by Trump supporter
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump carry signs around the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Win McNamee/Getty Images

If you believe that the healthiest form of two-party politics is dialectic, a principled struggle between antithetical viewpoints that resolves itself on a higher level, then the sickness of U.S. politics in the 21st century might best be described as a lack of dialectic. Nothing like it exists between the parties, and it scarcely exists within one of them. The Democrats can claim some creative tension between their progressive and centrist wings, but you don’t see anything resembling a dialectic among Republicans, and especially among the party’s shrinking roster of presidential candidates. There are outliers like Liz Cheney, true, but they remain outliers, quite often in the sense of being out on their ears. Variations are permissible, but only if they stick to the strongman’s playbook. So it makes sense to find the party’s major presidential candidates (though maybe not its rank and file) most solidly aligned in their support of Israel’s war of wholesale vengeance on Gaza. Even in foreign policy, the domain that interests Trump the least, he defines the ethos: I am your retribution.” 

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It was no surprise when Vivek Ramaswamy dropped out of the race at the conclusion of the Iowa caucuses, or that he threw what negligible weight he had behind Trump. Ramaswamy had always seemed a cipher, little more than a stagy medium for conjuring up those specters most frightful to the Right, a textbook example of that entrepreneurial, can-do shtick also found among people who jump off rooftops while flapping their arms.

Yet, for all his seeming insignificance, Ramaswamy could still come closer than any of his second-tier counterparts to appearing on a presidential ticket. Trump’s campaign has already downplayed that possibility, and Trump himself has accused Ramaswamy of being sly” and a player of deceitful campaign tricks” — just as he mocked Kim Jong Un as Rocket Man” before deciding he was his long-lost friend. I would not rule out a similar change of heart toward Ramaswamy. He seems a natural choice for Trump’s running mate: young, corporate, culturally paranoid and possessed of that capacity for abject subordination that Trump perceives as loyalty. Ramaswamy’s lack of votes might actually count as an asset, flattering to Trump’s sense of transcendent impunity: if he can get away with shooting someone dead on Fifth Avenue, he can get away with marching up Pennsylvania Avenue beside an acolyte as electable as a corpse (if only because Ramaswamy’s Indian-American heritage reportedly links him, in some voters’ eyes, with 9/11).

Were Trump to pull this off, the Republican party could lay claim to the most religiously diverse presidential ticket in U.S. history: a Hindu paired with a Christian only a little less committed than Julian the Apostate. Both would bend over backward to appease the Christian nationalists who supported them, while their supporters bent over backward in self-congratulation for their lack of doctrinal prejudice and the laudable openness of their locked-shut minds.

Illustration by Rob Dobi

Even if he has no future political prospects, Ramaswamy may still be remembered as having bequeathed his party a stroke of innovative genius very much after its own heart. Perpendicular to his embrace of the white supremacist replacement theory” and his party’s voter-suppression initiatives aimed at communities of color, Ramaswamy has advocated disenfranchising 31 million voters by raising the voting age to 25. Think of it as intersectionality, GOP-style. Give it a catchy logo and you could put it on a T-shirt, possibly with the image of a youngish Black person standing at the intersection, or should I say, in the crosshairs. That this innovation comes from a 38-year-old son of Asian immigrants only sweetens the perverse irony on which right-wing politics seem increasingly to feed. Not so perverse as Trump in the role of working-class hero, granted, but pretty close.

If you believe that the healthiest form of two-party politics is dialectic, a principled struggle between antithetical viewpoints that resolves itself on a higher level, then the sickness of U.S. politics in the 21st century might best be described as a lack of dialectic.

I was sorry to see Chris Christie leave the race. As someone born and raised in New Jersey, who still thinks of himself as a New Jerseyan in exile almost 50 years after moving away, I find it hard not to feel a grudging affection for the man. He’s like Hackensack in a suit. And he was, after all, the only major contender gutsy enough to have opposed Trump from the beginning, the only one who ruled out a presidential pardon should the insurrectionist-in-chief be convicted for his assault on the electoral process.

Yet one can’t help wondering whether Christie’s change of heart from Trump’s erstwhile advisor to anti-Trump campaigner had more to do with the personal than the political, whether Christie was, in fact, seeking revenge for the dismissive way he was treated once Trump decided Christie had served his purpose. This would certainly be in keeping with what is suspected of Christie’s politically motivated role in Bridgegate, where he’s alleged to have been seeking vengeance against the Fort Lee mayor who hadn’t endorsed him. If settling scores was at least one motive for Christie’s presidential run, then Trump’s most vituperative opponent was in fact the candidate most like him in terms of that big-boss vindictiveness which views all opposition as a personal attack. 

In other words, Christie’s break with Trump may only serve to show the extent to which Trump has possessed his party’s soul. 

Nikki Haley glances at Ron DeSantis during a debate
Republican presidential candidates Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley participate in the CNN Republican Presidential Primary Debate on January 10, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At least we still have Nikki Haley in the race, a woman for once, if not my first pick for Woman of the Year (nor my last, for which I would need to do my picking in Congress). Haley’s lamentable failure to name slavery as the central issue of the Civil War highlights her deficiencies (her defense of the Confederate flag among them) almost as much as the resulting discussion highlights ours. We would have had a more meaningful discussion had she given the correct answer; better still, if we considered the sad limitations of the question itself.

For us in 2024, the pertinent question is not what the Civil War was about, but rather what it was not by any stretch of the imagination about: the creation of a multi-racial democracy in which the equality of human beings is as indisputably self-evident” as their equal entitlement to life (including life expectancy), liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For Frederick Douglass, this may have been the goal, but not for many others, including some noted abolitionists. Never mind the goal to extend the same equality to women, to create a social order in which Haley’s run would not be such a rarity. The civil war to decide those issues is going on right now, or is soon to commence, and no one wins a draft deferment by correctly naming the cause of the Civil War.

The most passionate segment of the Republican base is not seeking a standard bearer so much as an animus. Meanness counts more for them than meaning. DeSantis was shooting himself in the foot when he pledged to restore a modicum of propriety to the White House.

Turning once more to DeSantis but with an eye still on Fort Sumter, we might recall what Lincoln is supposed to have said about fooling some of the people all of the time. Probably more intelligent than Trump and possibly more ruthless, the governor was certainly the most demonstrably committed to the MAGA agenda (taught school in Florida lately?), yet he never could convince a sizeable number of voters to support him. His failure to do so, and his lack of resolve in even trying to do so after a single primary defeat, both call into question whether people actually want what they say they want, or even know what they want. Might they be fooled so easily because they’re such masters at fooling themselves?

Then again, what the most diehard Trumpers want is only secondarily ideological. Trump is closer to the mark when he speaks of himself as his supporters’ retribution. The most passionate segment of the Republican base is not seeking a standard bearer so much as an animus. Meanness counts more for them than meaning. DeSantis was shooting himself in the foot when he pledged to restore a modicum of propriety to the White House. Were the Republican primaries the kind of sporting event they so often resemble, a player’s athletic prowess would score fewer points than his surliness toward the referee. In fact, it is the referee — more even than the opposing team — whom the fans want to see beat. Anyone who maintains some sense of objective reality, who speaks in terms of ethical strikes and legal fouls, systemic racism and climate change, is the bum most in need of throwing out.

Christie’s break with Trump may only serve to show the extent to which Trump has possessed his party’s soul.

The longstanding reluctance of every recent contender but Christie to criticize Trump, and the pathetic belatedness of those lukewarm criticisms that have finally arisen (Haley’s reference to the chaos” of the Trump presidency, for example, and her jibes at his age), disqualify the critics from any claim to leadership. Base is any would-be leader who’s scared to death of their base. The pandering of Trump’s competitors only made him look stronger, more fit to lead. He refused to debate because any notion of a contest was beneath him; they debated in such a manner as to cede him the contest. And they were done debating even before DeSantis bowed out, because Haley decided she wouldn’t if Trump wouldn’t, an ultimatum that further underscored his role as model to his rivals. They were always less his competition than his cadre.

Given the tendency of certain right-wing zealots to style themselves as revolutionaries, I suppose it’s only a matter of time before some MAGA demagogue invokes a twisted version of Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat” — Trump has already latched onto the first word — or Lenin’s stated preference for a tribune of the people” over a trade-union secretary” (a questionable preference if you ask me). I have a hard time imagining any of Trump’s challengers, past or present, as a trade-union secretary or a tribune of the people, but Trump may be the closest to an old-fashioned Roman tribune as any U.S. politician we’ve seen to date. One can imagine — and really must imagine, to fully grasp the joylessness of our political moment — the kind of figure he could have been had he come even close to Lenin’s ideal. Imagine the same brash persona with a leftward bent. A tribune who said, I know a thing or two about how wealth works in this country, and you guys are getting screwed.” Who belted out This Land Is Your Land” backed by a mariachi band. Who rode a float in a Pride parade while giving hecklers a middle-finger salute. Who converted Trump Tower into a shelter for battered women, a Secret Service detail guarding every door.

What fun! Maybe fun enough to seduce some of us into thinking we had finally arrived. We’d be wrong. Eugene Debs, the truest kind of tribune because an anti-tribune, sets us straight: If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I lead you in, someone else could lead you out.” Debs saw what too many of us fail to see, that while leaders have their uses, a preoccupation with leadership is a sure sign you’re going nowhere — at least nowhere good. 

The pandering of Trump’s competitors only made him look stronger, more fit to lead. He refused to debate because any notion of a contest was beneath him; they debated in such a manner as to cede him the contest.

I began to give closer scrutiny to the Republican race toward the end of 2023, a focus hardly guaranteed to boost my holiday spirits. But then I came upon a piece of news that did. In a recent issue of Labor Notes was an insert, roughly the size of a small notecard, detailing how a number of Swedish trade unions were acting in solidarity with 120 striking Tesla mechanics. The transport workers’ union was refusing to load or unload Tesla cars, the building maintenance workers’ union was refusing to clean Tesla showrooms, and the painters’ union, electricians’ union and postal union were all doing their part too. As the Wobblies used to say and every decent trade-union secretary knows, an injury to one is an injury to all.” Elon Musk, the richest person in the world and therefore one of its most dangerous, was reportedly fit to be tied.

I clipped the piece, disappointed I was too late to include it in at least one of my Christmas cards. But what would I have been trying to say — that is, what did I fancy those Swedish workers were saying to me? 

Just this: that the most important question to ask in the midst of the Republican primaries and in the general election to follow is not whether we have the wherewithal to beat Trumpism — or, in the event of a Republican win, to survive its freshly empowered cruelty — but whether we have one another’s back. In essence, they come down to the same question with the same provisionally hopeful answer, but only if we ask the most important question first.

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Garret Keizer is the author of nine books and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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