The Trump/Ye dinner suggests the GOP primary will be worse than you think
Races to the bottom generally don't end well.
By Noah Berlatsky
Many in the press have long assumed the 2024 GOP presidential primary season will be a knock-down, drag-out fight between the respectable fascism of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the shuffling mass of orange chaos that is former president Donald Trump.
But there’s reason to think the GOP primary is going to be messier than a one-on-one contest. It could, in fact, be messier than any primary contest in recent memory. The Republican Party has lost control of its nomination process and is busily whirling around in place trying to stab itself in the back. The spectacle would be amusing, if there weren’t such an obvious danger that the internecine fight could harm the country.
Trump’s Ye/Fuentes dinner is a bad omen
It’s notable that the first big story after Trump launched his election bid was not Trump/DeSantis, but Trump/Ye. The antisemitic rapper formerly known as Kanye West had a dinner at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort last week in which he brought along his racist buddy Nick Fuentes. Fuentes is a white nationalist who has called for a Catholic America to subjugate Jewish people.
At the dinner, Ye reportedly told Trump he needed to do more to help those arrested in the January 6 Capitol insurrection. He also suggested Trump should drop out of the 2024 race and run instead as Ye’s vice presidential candidate. As you’d expect, Trump wasn’t a fan of this advice, writing on Truth Social that “I told him he should definitely not run for President, ‘any voters you may have should vote for TRUMP.’”
You could turn this into a “this is good for Ron DeSantis” story, because meeting with Fuentes and Ye appears to have harmed Trump’s standing at least somewhat. Conservative Jewish pundits and orgs virtually never criticize anyone on the right for antisemitism, but Fuentes has been too much for even Ben Shapiro and the Zionist Organization of America to swallow. Other former Trump allies, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Pence, condemned the dinner, perhaps in preparation for their own 2024 runs against Trump.
Significantly, however, Trump has refused to denounce Ye’s antisemitism or Fuentes’s Nazi-adjacent views. Instead, he’s tried to defend himself by insisting (implausibly) that he didn’t know Fuentes, and by claiming Ye “expressed no anti-Semitism” during their meeting. Meanwhile, the presumptive next speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, has been trying to do damage control by lying on Trump’s behalf, falsely claiming Trump condemned Ye and Fuentes when in fact he did no such thing.
DeSantis has stayed quiet about Trump’s shameful dinner. He hasn’t even denounced Fuentes, as Jonathan Chait points out.
DeSantis defenders argue that he’s too busy to engage with Trump or weigh in on the relative merits of banning Jewish people from public life. Chait, however, argues convincingly that the real problem is that DeSantis sees white nationalists, antisemites, and neo-Nazis as a core GOP constituency that he needs to court for his own coalition.
The buffoons, the neo-Nazis, and the narcissistic grifters aren’t easily denounced, because the buffoons, the neo-Nazis, and the narcissistic grifters are a significant chunk of the GOP. Trump is their creature, but he didn’t birth them. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that he can’t necessarily control them.
The last GOP primary was an exploding clown car
It’s worth remembering that in 2016, Trump was not the only unconventional, unqualified, Bozo-like candidate in the GOP primary. In addition to Trump, surgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina had no political experience, and appeared to be running mostly to boost their brands. (Carson was successful, parlaying his run into a dismal stint as the head of HUD.)
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also ran. Both have conventional qualifications for president, but had not been in office for some time, and were running more as right-wing media personalities than as politicians. Then there was Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, two of the most loathed men in the Senate, who even their GOP colleagues consider to be mendacious narcissists.
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Sure enough, the GOP primary season in 2016 was a constantly erupting pustule of garbage and bigotry — in one notable low-point, Trump falsely and outrageously accused Cruz’s father of helping to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. It’s also been a model for intra-party Republican Hunger Games ever since. In 2022, Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens ran an ad encouraging “hunting” of moderate Republicans. He lost his primary, but other unqualified, unserious Senate candidates like quack cure salesman Mehmet Oz and Peter Thiel-inflated skin suit Blake Masters won their primaries before losing last month.
Most GOP infighting has involved the 2020 election, which Trump claimed was rigged as part of his effort to stage a violent coup. Trump’s insistence that he won an election he lost has led GOP partisans to turn on each other and on state election officials. Georgia Republican election officials were among those who received death threats and harassment from Trump supporters. And of course during the 2020 coup attempt itself, Trump partisans credibly threatened to murder Pence, with Trump’s blessing.
The future isn’t the past, and pundits aren’t gifted with precognition. It’s difficult to know exactly how the 2024 primary will play out. But based on 2016, 2020, and 2022, we can say a few things about the Republican primary process.
First, the party attracts, and frequently nominates, extreme and bizarre candidates with few qualifications other than ambition, ignorance, and a well of hateful policies. If the trend holds true, we should expect the 2024 primary to include at least a few random candidates like Ben Carson, Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker, Blake Masters, Trump — or maybe even Ye, though Republicans belatedly distanced themselves from him Wednesday after he went on Alex Jones’s show and praised Hitler.
Second, the party has little ability or inclination to restrain blatant lies and extremist rhetoric short of literal Hitler praise. There’s every reason to think Trump will continue to smear his opponents while dragging his Republican enablers into the gutter with him.
Finally, the party has embraced harassment, terror, and violence. Christofascist conservative commenter Matt Walsh, who has defended Ron DeSantis, is one of the leaders of the campaign to demonize children’s hospitals that provide trans care — a campaign that has led to multiple bomb threats. Trump organized a coup targeting his own vice president and continues to defend the insurrectionists who tried to carry it out.
Ye appears to be considering a 2024 run with the support of white nationalists who advocate openly for violence. Even if his campaign doesn’t get very far, people like him participating openly in the 2024 presidential contest could have explosive consequences.
The politics of dividing and demeaning
There’s certainly some schadenfreude in watching the GOP in anarchy after endless Dems-in-disarray headlines. And there could definitely be electoral benefits for Democrats if, for example, the Republicans have warring factions of extremists clashing at their convention. Or if there are endless fights about whether state GOP primary elections were rigged. Or (especially) if Donald Trump refuses to accept a primary defeat and decides to run as a third-party candidate.
There are also real downsides, though, if the GOP completely splits open as all of its rabid lies and hate pour out into the body politic. Harassment and violence spurred by conspiracy theories and bigotry aren’t easy to contain. When you legitimize and boost people like Nick Fuentes in public life, it can have long term consequences. It’s not hard to imagine a GOP primary season in which one candidate blames their losses on the Jews, another blames immigrants, and a third proposes solving the dispute by drastically scaling back voting in minority districts.
Ye’s meeting with Trump puts the the country on notice that the GOP has not pulled itself back from the abyss, but is instead thrashing towards the pit on its belly like some sort of craven caterpillar, with each of its segments trying to tear the legs off the others. Maybe Republicans will stop short of the edge and total annihilation. Maybe, somehow, unexpectedly, the GOP in 2024 will eschew conspiracy theories and election denial. Maybe less extreme candidates like Pence or even Liz Cheney will prove to have a surprising amount of juice. But it’s also possible that the campaign season that started with Nick Fuentes will only get worse from here.
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