The naked ambition of Trumpist Republicans

What news stories about the latest generation of GOP candidates leave out

Josh Mandel speaks during a January debate
Josh Mandel speaks during a January debate
(Image credit: AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

So how did Josh Mandel get to be Josh Mandel?

It's a reasonable question. Mandel leads the pack of Republicans seeking the party's nomination for the open U.S. Senate seat from Ohio, and he's achieved that rank with a series of ever-more-outrageous stances apparently designed to ensure no human being alive can flank him from the right. He's suggested closing public schools and leaving public education to churches and synagogues. He's declared that the "separation of church and state is a myth." And, of course, he's embraced the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. It's not been so long since a politician with Mandel's profile would've been consigned to the party's fringes. Now he's the man to beat.

Naturally, journalists are trying to figure the guy out. "Josh Mandel could be Ohio's next senator. So what does he believe?" Politico asked last week in a profile. The New York Times offered a similar take: "The Senate candidate was a rising Republican when he abandoned his moderate roots. Now, those who have watched his transformation wonder if his rhetoric reflects who he really is." Both stories echoed last November's conclusions from The Atlantic, which examined the question and labeled Mandel a "genuine phony."

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"He doesn't act the way he used to act, and he doesn't talk the way he used to talk, say so many Democrats and Republicans alike," Politico reported. "And they're right."

Maybe. But Mandel doesn't really seem like much of a mystery, does he? He's an ambitious guy who has decided that becoming fully Trumpist is his best route to power. That's it. End of story. Everything else is just commentary.

Still, the recent round of Josh Mandel profiles is interesting, if only because the stories represent a minor genre of journalism birthed by the Trump Era. Reports of this type look at an up-and-coming white guy conservative who used to be perceived as smart and thoughtful, or moderate, or perhaps simply decent — guys like Mandel, his Ohio rival J.D. Vance, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — and ask: What's up with this dude? He can't possibly be for real, can he? How did he get like this?

Conservatives have long joked about the "strange new respect" that some Republicans receive if they're perceived to have shifted left. So call these stories the "strange new disrespect" genre.

In these pieces, the candidates or their proxies often strain for some reasonable ideological explanation for their journey to the dark side. The recent Washington Post profile explaining the "radicalization" of Vance, for example, quotes writer Rod Dreher on why the Hillbilly Elegy author went from being a Never-Trump conservative to lobbing Twitter bombs at retired generals: "Trump remained Trump — but the Left went berserk." And the stories are often filled with a sense of betrayal from old colleagues and friends. "I absolutely could not have predicted that the bright, idealistic, clear-thinking young student that I knew would follow this path," a former mentor to Josh Hawley lamented after the senator helped fist-pump the Jan. 6 insurrection into being.

Hey, maybe these candidates really do have complicated stories and they genuinely have taken an honest intellectual journey toward Trumpism, simply because it makes the most sense to them. It's possible, right? But the simpler Occam's razor explanation here is that Hawley, Mandel, and Vance are just really ambitious and doing whatever it takes — no matter how ugly — to get the power they crave. Seems obvious, but it can get buried under all the other ideas.

The Founders knew a little something about ambitious men. While they drafted the Constitution — and as they explained themselves in The Federalist Papers — they obsessed over how to contain those ambitions and make sure the new nation's institutions could withstand demagoguery and corruption. Thus the whole checks-and-balances thing. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," they wrote. For more than 200 years it worked, more or less.

These days, not so much. American democracy is fragile at the moment, thanks largely to Trump, an ambitious man who cannot tolerate being counteracted — not by other ambitious people, and certainly not by a majority of voters. Now other Republicans are taking his cue. Ambition is amplifying ambition, not counteracting it. We're all worse off as a result.

Of all the "strange new disrespect" pieces I've read over the last year, I think my favorite was a story about Vance, written last summer by Molly Ball of Time magazine. In a possibly-unguarded moment, Vance indicated to Ball that his decision to evolve from his earlier anti-Trump conservatism was born of a desire to win support from Republican voters. Trump is "the leader of this movement, and if I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about, I need to just suck it up and support him," he said.

That's a false choice — and a grudging one at that — but it makes more sense than the idea that those awful Democrats goaded him into a reversal of his previously stated principles. He's ambitious. It's not that complicated.

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