The telling seeds of the 2024 Republican primary

Where does a party go when it won't admit it lost?

GOP 2024.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Judging from the early favorites to be the party's next standard bearer and the ongoing effort to hunt down and expel Trump critics, Republicans might want to go ahead and schedule their 2024 nominating convention in Crazytown. Unless something changes dramatically, the GOP is lost to traditional figures like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) for the foreseeable future, as allies of the defeated president consolidate their control over the party apparatus.

Aside from Trump himself, who may yet run again, it is two pugilistic red state governors and Trump loyalists who are garnering the most attention. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem came in first and second in the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) straw poll when Trump was excluded. And while that poll is not necessarily predictive — Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) won it three straight years from 2013-2015 and collected one delegate in 2016 — there are many other indicators suggesting that someone with Trump's politics and demeanor is likely to carry the day.

Noem is already headlining campaign-like events, and DeSantis is an early darling of donors. Both governors have gained strength and visibility through their public defiance of public health experts during the coronavirus pandemic, which tapped into widespread conservative mistrust of science and hostility to any kind of social solidarity.

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Noem, who never imposed a mask mandate in her state, gleefully plunged forward with a 460,000-person gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts in August 2020 that predictably contributed to a nationwide surge. Despite its relative isolation, South Dakota has a top-10 per capita death rate among U.S. states. Noem's Twitter page is a veritable showcase of the anti-woke hysteria that has burned through the GOP like history's dumbest wildfire. She's reminiscent of former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, with the important difference that Noem is able to speak in complete sentences. Unlike most of the Ivy League-educated populist poseurs in her party, Noem at least sports the background of a non-elite, having graduated from South Dakota State University while a member of Congress in 2012.

DeSantis, whose race for governor was much higher-profile to begin with, became the face of Americans weary of COVID restrictions and those who prioritized the survival of businesses over human beings when he lifted many restrictions just two months into the pandemic. An ostentatiously servile Trump lickspittle, DeSantis is prepping for 2024 by signing bills like last month's "anti-riot" legislation, which, among many other horrible things, grants civil immunity to people who drive into crowds of protestors if they are blocking a road. Florida being Florida, DeSantis is of course quite popular.

It's not just that the early 2024 field is dominated by candidates who style themselves after Trump, but also what is happening to the few Republicans who found the courage to impeach or convict the former president for his role in the January 6 insurrection. After she once again denounced the Big Lie of the stolen 2020 election, Cheney is facing renewed calls to strip her of her leadership position, and appears to be on the outs with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Romney was booed heartily and called a traitor at a Utah Republican convention and only narrowly avoided censure. These aren't random backbenchers getting tossed overboard, but rather the face of the party's rapidly fading old guard.

Why are Republicans doubling down on strategies that lost them both chambers of Congress and the presidency in four short years? The overarching problem is that many influential party elites either do not actually believe the GOP lost the 2020 election or are being forced to pretend as such to avoid day-and-night harassment by MAGA enthusiasts hopped up on conspiracy agitprop. The result is that the important internal debate that consumed the Democratic Party after Hillary Clinton's shocking loss to Donald Trump in 2016 is not happening in the Republican Party today.

In political scientist Seth Masket's Learning From Loss, he describes the role that post-election narratives play in processing a stinging defeat. "Narratives," he writes, "are a convenient way of breaking down a complex event like a national election into an understandable story or moral." These narratives can be wrong, of course, especially since there is no way to know for sure which of many possible variables best explains the outcome of a single binary contest.

In the aftermath of 2016, disoriented Democrats struggled to create such a story about 2016, one that would both explain the loss and offer a path forward to victory in 2020. They sorted through various explanations for Clinton's loss. Was it her gender, her policy stances, her gamble on demographic change? Was it the "deplorables" comment? The last-minute intervention of former FBI Director James Comey? Would Bernie have won?

According to Masket, Democratic insiders and donors concluded that the best way to take down Trump was to nominate an unthreatening male moderate like Joe Biden, who many believed would have won in 2016 had he chosen to run. The primary electorate, taking its cues from elites about how Clinton's focus on "identity politics" doomed her, got cold feet about progressive stalwarts Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom led the race at various points, and eventually gravitated to Biden after he recovered from a handful of early debate disasters in 2019. Biden won, and now the intraparty argument is over until at least 2028, unless for some reason he doesn't run for a second term.

How would Republicans willing to engage with reality like Democrats did explain their party's loss in 2020? It's hard to see what conclusion they could draw other than that it was Trump himself — his relentless, divisive rhetoric, ugly, unending scandals and his listless, counter-productive handling of the pandemic — that doomed the party to defeat. They might argue it was traditional Republican priorities like tax cuts and deregulation that delivered the strong pre-COVID economy for Trump in the first place, and that focusing on those core strengths is the path back to power. That would lead them toward the Liz Cheneys and Mitt Romneys, not away from them, maybe with more of an emphasis on curtailing immigration and revising trade agreements.

But you can't have a debate about what went wrong when you think you would've won if it weren't for big-city Democrats rigging the vote and Mike Pence failing at a crucial moment to deploy powers he did not actually possess to change the outcome of an election decided two months earlier. There has been and will be no 2012-style post-mortem, no introspection, no effort to reach people who voted for Biden. It's border paranoia, cancel culture nonsense, and publicity stunts all the way down.

So party leaders are waiting to see whether Trump wants another go at it, and if he doesn't, they want the next best thing: a prominent Trump ally, a culture warrior obsessed with books about critical race theory and New York Times Magazine projects they have never read, perhaps someone who won't spend the debates acting like a complete boor who accidentally swallowed a whole package of Claritin-D beforehand. A Trump, except capable of getting up every day, going to work, not stepping in it every time they get in front of a microphone and engaging in corruption within normal, pre-Trump parameters. That's Noem and DeSantis, who have the added benefit of not being tainted with the insurrection like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

It's also why this moment is particularly dangerous. People who do not believe they can possibly lose a fair election cannot process defeat. They will turn their attention not to policy or messaging or other strategies, but to ensuring that fewer Democrats can vote, and that even if they do, that there are multiple paths to defying their verdict. Neither governor should be underestimated, and if Democrats are wise they will take the threat as seriously as they did the menace of Trump.

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