Don’t look now, but Donald Trump is one of the more likable and entertaining figures in the Republican Party. There, I said it.
And no, I haven’t changed, man. I’m still the Never Trump conservative I’ve always been. Heck, I’m not even anti-anti-Trump. If you care to enter a Trump-dunking contest with me, you will likely lose. I’ve got the receipts. I can’t even count the number of critical columns I’ve written about him.
And yet, I’m finding myself liking Trump more (at least stylistically) than some of his most prominent primary opponents. One suspects other Americans—thanks to the new field of Trumpy dopplegangers—are getting nostalgic for the original formula, too. We have defined deviancy down.
But it makes sense. We judge people (at least in part) according to where they fit in the grand scheme of things. And while Trump is a uniquely dangerous man (having been the only president to make an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power), he is, in many ways, within the mainstream of today’s GOP. Others are (in different ways) more fringy, and certainly more cringey.
This is to say that Trump has redefined the Republican primary genre, spawning a whole field of ambitious copycats who only lack his joie de vivre.
In the process, he has also retroactively altered institutions like the venerable conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and remade them in his image.
It has often been said that Joe Biden isn’t really a centrist; he simply fits within the center of the Democratic Party. Today, that’s arguably even more true of Donald Trump, who has moved the Overton window so far that he is, daresay, a moderate within today’s GOP—at least, policy-wise.
We are in the midst of the first “open” Republican field since Trump was elected in 2016 (in that Republicans do not currently have an incumbent president running for re-election). And the primary campaign, such as it is, is being waged via the terms Trump set in 2016.
In this regard, Trump should be seen as something of an innovator, even if his creation is dark and disturbing.
Think of him as the political equivalent of Quentin Tantantino.
Stay with me here, and consider how journalist Jon Ronson described the now-famous auteur’s impact, as cited in Jeff Dawson’s 1995 book, Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool.
“Like the film industry after ‘Pulp Fiction,’ there was a very clear ‘before’ and ‘after’ demarcation in GOP politics.”
“Recently, I went to see [film director] Hal Hartley’s [1994 thriller] Amateur in which two hitmen discuss the relative merits of mobile phones before blowing away their target. The next day I attended the National Film School’s end-of-term screenings. Out of the five student movies I watched, four incorporated violent shoot-outs over a soundtrack of iconoclastic 70s pop hits, two climaxed with all the main characters shooting each other at once, and one had two hitmen discussing the idiosyncrasies of The Brady Bunch before offing their victim,” Ronson wrote.
“Not since Citizen Kane has one man appeared from relative obscurity to redefine the art of moviemaking,” continued Ronson.
Kind of like when a game show host with a sordid past went from a tacky escalator ride to Leader of the Free World in about a year and a half. Like the film industry after Pulp Fiction, there was a very clear “before” and “after” demarcation in GOP politics.
And if Ronson were to visit, say, a Turning Point USA cattle call today, he would see Trump’s influence on everyone from the keynote speakers to the college interns.
Attempts by less-talented filmmakers to ape Tarantino’s work in the 1990s were, no doubt, subtle compared with the identity theft we are currently witnessing with GOP primary candidates like Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy.
Just this week, DeSantis suggested that he might pick Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a noted anti-vaccine crackpot, to head the FDA or CDC. But that’s just the latest in a long line of Trumpy (read: shameless, irrational, and frankly stupid) things he has said.
As The Bulwark’s GOP operative Sarah Longwell described Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “He’s decided to be a mini Trump.” But it’s worse than that. DeSantis has actually tried to outflank Trump by pushing narratives that are darker and weirder than Trump’s.
If George H.W. Bush promised a kinder, gentler nation after the Reagan years, DeSantis is promising, post campaign reboot, a “leaner and meaner” campaign.
Somehow, I believe him.
At the same time, Ramaswamy, who has been called Trump 2.0, wants Ukraine to negotiate peace with Russia (which, to my ears, is tantamount to surrender) and has publicly called for GOP presidential candidates to pardon Trump if they are elected. And despite his previous criticism of Trump’s “downright abhorrent” behavior on Jan. 6, Ramasamy now blames “pervasive censorship” for the Capitol riot.
Trump likewise looms large over the rest of the field.
Trump’s former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s entire existence seems contingent on walking a fine line between keeping her former boss happy while distancing herself from some of his more disgraceful acts as president (and ex-president).
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has largely succeeded in running a positive, optimistic campaign that pretends there is no elephant in the room (which only serves to remind everyone that there is). But he’s so under the radar at this point that most Americans have probably never heard the sound of his voice.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leads the league in bravely attacking Trump. Christie’s greatest selling point is that, like Trump, he’s a bully. Even he understands that the election is about Trump. But has Chris Christie ever (intentionally) made you laugh?
It seems increasingly likely that Trump will be the 2024 GOP nominee. And if by some chance someone else gets the nomination, the winner will almost assuredly be someone who acts a lot like Trump.
Say what you will about Trump. At least he’s occasionally funny—and like Tarantino, he’s the original, compared to the cheap, imitation knockoffs.