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How Trump swallowed an entire generation of Republicans

When he wins Iowa tonight, the former president will have effectively taken out any potential heirs to the Maga movement

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Monday 15 January 2024 21:29 GMT
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Trump promises political retribution, anti-migrant measures if elected

The Republican presidential primary ended as soon as Donald Trump announced he would run for another term as president in November 2022. Everything else has been an exercise in theater where donors, Republican consultants and the press pretend that anyone without the last name “Trump” has a legitimate shot to run against President Joe Biden.

But an endorsement on Sunday from Sen Marco Rubio of Florida on Sunday ahead of Monday evening’s Iowa caucus seemed to underline Mr Trump’s dominance. For those with the memory of a goldfish, Mr Trump once dubbed Mr Rubio “Liddle Marco” and mocked him for drinking water during his response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address while Mr Rubio made fun of the size of Mr Trump’s hands and called him a “con artist.”

Mr Rubio’s duplicity and opportunism are hardly a surprise. Few Republicans have rolled over for Mr Trump as much as the Florida senator, but as friend of Inside Washington James Hohmann at The Washington Post flagged, the endorsement is a double gut punch: in 2016, before the South Carolina primary, the state’s then-governor Nikki Haley endorsed Mr Rubio and said “Donald Trump is everything I taught my children not to do in kindergarten”; meanwhile, it’s an additional thumb to the nose to his homestate Governor Ron DeSantis. (The latter is a further sign that Mr DeSantis, notoriously aloof and averse to cultivating friendships, ignored a cardinal rule of politics: make your friends before you need them.)

But Mr Rubio’s decision to get behind Mr Trump also underlines another crucial point about how Mr Trump has wholly conquered the Republican Party: he has effectively defenestrated at least an entire generation of Republicans.

At this point, the fact that Barack Obama’s historic 2008 historic victory preceded the decimation of the Democratic Party on a state and local level and the rise of the Tea Party is old news. But it also meant that numerous Republicans won elections that should have catapulted them to the prime time to seek the presidency.

Indeed, when Mr Trump ran for the GOP nomination, many of his competitors were those bright lights in the GOP, including Ohio’s then-governor John Kasich, Mr Rubio, Sen Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen Rand Paul of Kentucky, and then-Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. All of these Republicans offered some grand vision for how the GOP could move forward; Mr Paul offered a libertarian brand that might appeal to younger folks; Mr Cruz offered a hardline conservative approach after conservatives felt they nominated insufficiently right-wing Republicans in 2008 and 2012; Mr Rubio embraced a brighter vision of tax credits and immigration reform.

One-by-one, Mr Trump obliterated their prospects. He essentially called Mr Paul ugly, accused Mr Kasich of being a sloppy eater and accused Mr Cruz’s dad of helping assassinate John F Kennedy. Mr Trump proceeded to swallow up all of their constituencies. Many of them likely endorsed or got behind Mr Trump in 2016 under the assumption that he would lose and they would eventually be rewarded for getting behind him.

That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, Mr Trump won and therefore guaranteed he would dominate the party for at least four years. Mr Trump’s victory also guaranteed that other up-and-comers like then-speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy had to contort themselves to Mr Trump’s pleasing.

Meanwhile, other establishment golden boys of the GOP like Josh Hawley and JD Vance had to adopt a more Maga stance as they hoped to climb the GOP ladder and win their senate races while other more Trump-critical Republicans such as Bob Corker and Jeff Flake would leave the Senate. Ironically though, by aligning more with Mr Trump, these Republicans would surrender the ability to appeal to a wider audience.

At one point, Liz Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president, was seen as the first female Republican speaker of the House before she voted to impeach Mr Trump and lost her primary. After voting to convict Mr Trump for January 6, Ben Sasse of Nebraska quit the Senate to become the president of the University of Florida.

A big reason for this is Mr Trump’s belief in complete dominance. The GOP could not be a party wherein he could have potential apprentices who could usurp him. Rather, he needed subservient lieutenants who could not replace him.

Tonight, Mr Trump is set to finish his conquest of the GOP as he dethrones Ms Haley and Mr DeSantis. Mr Trump already steadily put Ms Haley under his thumb when he absorbed her into his administration and made her US ambassador to the United Nations despite her lack of foreign policy credentials.

By doing so, he neutered someone who offered a more enticing version of the GOP – the daughter of Indian American immigrants with sterling conservative credentials who nonetheless appealed to Democrats. Mr Trump’s ascent also blocked the candidacy of Tim Scott, the Senate’s sole Black Republican who offered a sunnier version of the GOP and who might appeal to people of colour.

This is to say nothing of Mr DeSantis, a young hardline conservative, a veteran and graduate of Yale and Harvard who achieved a conservative wishlist of policies from rapidly re-opening his state during the Covid-19 pandemic, banning abortion after six weeks and restricting how gender identity and sexual orientation are taught in schools. Mr Trump’s repeated insults, to which Mr DeSantis refused to offer a response, weakened him.

Now, Mr Trump is set to become the only national candidate for Republicans. In the same token, his endorsing of candidates that are too toxic for swing states has meant that there are few other candidates who could win presidential races once he exits the stage either if he loses this year, finishes a second term or when he eventually passes away.

By handing Mr Trump the keys to the GOP clubhouse, he’s effectively locked out every other Republican.

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