The institution of the Republican Party was less lucky. The political equivalent of a corporate raider, Trump blew the GOP establishment apart, plucking out its value: conduits to the presidential ballot, various storehouses of political power. He also revealed the rickety nature of institutions allied with the party, the sorts of places where candidates used to go to build political support. He didn’t need any of that and — since the need was the source of those institutions’ power — left a trail of hollowed-out organizations behind as he headed to Washington.
As he again seeks his party’s nomination, this dynamic hasn’t changed much. One evangelical leader in Iowa, though, is offering a new challenge to Trump, one that might help reassert the importance of his own organization and other institutions like his in the state. Or it might simply reinforce that Trump holds power outside the old systems — and that the moment to offer a principled, moral stand against Trump passed about eight years ago.
Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump
Bob Vander Plaats, head of the religious group Family Leader, has never been a big Trump fan. In 2016, he and Trump feuded, with the Republican candidate hinting that Vander Plaats sought a payoff before granting his endorsement. (There’s no reason to think this is true.) Vander Plaats endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) bid; Cruz went on to narrowly win the Iowa caucuses that year (and not much else).
This month, Vander Plaats endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Trump again reacted negatively, making similar allegations about Vander Plaats’s ethics. In a radio interview on Monday, Vander Plaats hit back, insisting not only that DeSantis was the best candidate but that Trump “deserved to lose my endorsement.”
What’s striking about the argument he offered against Trump, though, is how obviously it ignored everything that we already know about Trump.
For example, Vander Plaats excoriated Trump’s attacks on DeSantis and on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who also backed the Floridian.
“What you’re seeing from the former president is character being revealed. Character being revealed,” Vander Plaats said. The attacks on the governors were beyond the pale, he added. “You completely throw them under the bus. You call them names and that just because they don’t bow the knee to you. That’s not leadership.”
It certainly is not in keeping with traditional intraparty politicking of the sort that drove primaries back in the pre-Trump era, in the institutional-leaders-matter era. But that era ended? For anyone to come out in 2023 and suggest that Trump is revealing his character by attacking political opponents is baffling, given that he’s been doing this loudly and publicly for so long. The last time someone could credibly feign surprise at Trump attacking people over politics was before the movie “Moana” came out.
“Being president is just not a CEO. It’s not just moving the embassy to Jerusalem as much as we applaud that. It’s not just it’s not just appointing three Supreme Court justices, even though we applaud that,” Vander Plaats said of Trump. “It’s been a statesman. Are you worthy to be followed?”
This question of worthiness is understandably something that a religious leader in a conservative state might be interested in considering. But, again, the point at which this argument was lost occurred during the Obama administration.
PRRI has repeatedly asked Americans over the course of the past 12 years whether they think that an elected official who commits immoral acts in private can be ethical in their public actions. In 2011, during Obama’s first term, about half of Democrats said this was possible. Only about a third of Republicans and White evangelical Christians agreed.
Then came 2016 and, with it, a Republican presidential nominee whose private indiscretions were not at all private. Instead of rejecting Trump on moral terms, Republicans and evangelicals adjusted their moral terms.
This isn’t entirely in line with “being a statesman,” certainly, but it’s also clear that this idea that Trump isn’t very presidential isn’t much of an obstacle to his serving as president. Most voters in 2016 thought Hillary Clinton was qualified to be president and Trump wasn’t — but you will recall this did not prevent Trump from being elected to that office.
Consider this another way. At the moment, Trump leads in 538′s average of national primary polling with just shy of 60 percent of support. That is the highest prior-year percentage since 1980 for any candidate in 538′s averages, regardless of party, with the sole exception of George W. Bush’s 66 percent support in 1999. (Excluding uncontested races, obviously.) Bush, you’ll recall, won the nomination.
“The number one hurdle for Donald Trump is I’ve never met a dad or a mom or a grandpa or a grandma who have told me they want their son or daughter grandchild to grow up to be like him,” Vander Plaats said on Monday. “That’s a big deal.”
No, it isn’t. It isn’t because Republican voters acknowledge in polls and in voting that this doesn’t matter to them. It also isn’t because a majority of Republicans told YouGov in polling conducted last year that they view Trump as a good role model — this after years of vituperation and his efforts to subvert the 2020 election results. Vander Plaats hasn’t talked to them, but a lot of Republicans think Trump is someone worthy of emulation.
There is no reason to think Vander Plaats isn’t sincere in all of this, from his criticisms of Trump to his endorsement of DeSantis. But it is also clearly the case that, as in 2016, he stands to benefit should Trump underperform in Iowa. That’s less likely now than it was then; his lead is much wider than it was when Cruz slipped past him.
“I believe Iowa will send a message on January 15th,” Vander Plaats said on Monday, referring to the date of the caucuses, “because I think they’re seeing it through this as well. This is smoke and mirrors. This is not leadership our country needs.”
Again, though, Iowa sent a message in 2016 that it didn’t like Trump, too. It also sent a message in 2012 that it didn’t like Mitt Romney and in 2008 that it didn’t like John McCain. Institutions — even including state voting results — are not the impediment they might once have been.
As this story was being written, another such reminder emerged: Americans for Prosperity Action, backed by Charles Koch, announced that it was endorsing the presidential candidacy of former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. Remember the Kochs? Putative Republican kingmakers? After sitting out 2016, they’re weighing in on 2024.
“This is a choice between freedom and socialism, individual liberty and big government, fiscal responsibility and spiraling debt,” Haley said in a statement accepting the endorsement.
Now please reread all of the above arguments above, swapping “fiscal restraint” for “moral guidance.”
Read the full article here