They're All Trumpists Now
There will be no changing of the guard for the GOP after 2024
A new Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows Donald Trump dominating the Republican field in the Iowa Caucuses. 51 percent list him as their first preference, up from 43 percent in October. Despite weeks of talk about a surge, Nikki Haley is stuck at 16 percent. Ron DeSantis, though certainly not the challenger his supporters imagined, pushed into second at 19 percent.
Why is this survey, led by renowned Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, so valuable? Because, unlike the general election polling that’s been causing periodic panics in Democratic circles, the people in this poll will be making their decision soon. The Iowa Caucuses are on January 15. The actual process of voting for president is about to start. And Selzer’s latest poll offers some worthwhile points of entry into American politics more broadly, including some data points that sound the alarm for our democracy.
Another MAGA Intake
First-time Iowa Republican caucus-goers overwhelmingly prefer Donald Trump. Compared to 49 percent in October, 63 percent now say they intend to back Trump as their first choice. DeSantis and Haley registered twelve and eleven percent support, respectively, with the same group.
First-time doesn’t necessarily mean younger voters, though Trump leads with every age cohort in the poll. One 62-year-old respondent told the Register, “I just think our voting and election is broken. And I want to just put more into it than just going to vote.”
A plurality of Iowa independents prefer Trump, as well. His 36 percent outpaces Haley’s 23 and DeSantis’s 17.
Once again, Trump is pulling new, young, and unaffiliated voters into the party. Yes, the GOP has struggled with young voters and independents in the MAGA years, but the ones who are coming to the party are coming for, rather than in spite of, Trump. This is a fundamental issue of political socialization. We come to our politics, our partisan identities and ideological tendencies, through the people with whom we interact. It begins at home but carries through to school, work, and the communities we build. So when people choose to call the Republican Party home, and when they do it by backing Donald Trump or other MAGA-inflected candidates, they are both cultivating their own political identity and reinforcing the political culture into which other Republicans and future Republicans are socialized.
And that is why I think the Iowa poll numbers are a grim reminder of both where the Republican Party is, and where it is likely headed.
For the Republican Party to find its way back—or forward, for that matter—to a non-MAGA identity, it will need voters who desire such a thing. But Trump’s dominance has meant that young voters, first-time voters, and everyone else socialized into Republican politics in the last eight years has only ever experienced it as a MAGA party. Simply by identifying with or dabbling in Republican politics, they’re affiliating themselves with this version of the GOP. What, then, is the reason to hope that Trumpists will simply die out or fade away?
Perhaps a Trump loss in 2024 or a string of felony convictions will rewrite the status quo. But, as in Iowa, younger Republicans continue to express confidence—or, at least, interest—in Donald Trump. National polling has shown around two-thirds are at least “considering” backing the former president.
The Washington Post interviewed young Republicans at the University of Alabama as part of its coverage of the most recent GOP debate. In addition to strong support for Trump—with some students sporting stickers with sayings like “Pretty girls love Trump”—affection for DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy was also high. Two interviewees even “agreed they would love to see Ramaswamy serve as Trump’s vice president.”
Ramaswamy has run on a pass-the-torch message in which he promises to be an even more chaotic continuation of the Trump movement. So it is easy to see how a younger, brasher Trump played at 2x speed is appealing to young people already enamored with MAGA politics. And while DeSantis has spent the last few months desperately hitting Trump from his right, there was a time when it was self-evident that the Florida governor’s key selling point was that he was another Trump: different, but not so different; electable, but not in a way that implies Trump shouldn’t be elected.
This is another key problem: openness to, even a preference for, the other Republican candidates does not necessarily constitute a rejection of Trumpism.
Alternative Doesn’t Mean Anti-Trump
Of the remaining candidates with an electoral pulse, only Chris Christie says anything anti-Trump. Nikki Haley’s case against the semi-incumbent frontrunner is merely that he’s no longer the best fit for the current election. According to her, he was “the right president at the right time.” That’s hardly a rebuke.
More recently, Haley said of Trump, “I agree with a lot of his policies, but the truth is, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him.” Rightly or wrongly? Again, there’s little sternness to this rebuke. And chaos in this case seems to be a self-animating thing rather than a direct and even intentional product of Trump the man. An anti-Trump insurgency Haley’s candidacy is not. It doesn’t look like she opposes Trump or Trumpism per se, so much as she is running against him right now. Her defenses of America’s international commitments are the only clear breaking point.
Everywhere else, we see a candidate who wants to be president. But wanting to win the White House and wanting to keep Trump out are different things. The fact that Haley is making some arguments about why she is a better choice—all the while insisting that Trump was the correct choice in the past—only backs up the idea that her campaign is pro-Haley only, not anti-Trump.
DeSantis and Ramaswamy have tried in their own ways to succeed and emulate Trump. But the idea that either man’s argument for seeking the White House is a rejection of Trump or MAGA is absurd. Both men want to be seen as Trump-like. Ramaswamy is still deferential to Trump in ways that show he might share the hopes of the eager young Republicans who said he’d make a good VP pick. DeSantis has grown more aggressive in his attacks on Trump, but does so primarily as a means of distinguishing himself in small ways from the man to whom he owes his career and profile. Theirs is a battle of egos.
At the most recent debate, Haley went out of her way to say she felt DeSantis “didn’t go far enough” in his “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. I found this to be a telling exchange. Such an attack only serves to stress that Haley is as willing as any on the MAGA right to attack and demonize LGBTQ Americans.
Even if we take into account that there are voters supporting candidates not named Donald Trump in the Republican primary, that does not mean Trumpism or the overall rightward lurch of the party is being contested. Even the 2024 nomination is barely being contested.
Waiting in the Wing(nut)s
Guessing who will succeed Trump when he does exit the stage is mostly a parlor game. Fortune is fickle in public life, and individuals who seem to be rising now (Marjorie Taylor Greene, Sarah Sanders, J.D. Vance), could easily lose their carbonation by 2028. Each of these individuals owes their rise to Trump and MAGA. There’s no predicting now what other figures might be elevated over the course of the coming election cycle or, more harrowingly, a second Trump presidency.
But it’s almost certain the next standard bearer will not be a compassionate conservative, nor a solutions-oriented moderate. What appetite for such things has been stoked in the near-decade of Trump’s receivership of the GOP? No matter how the 2024 election goes, many of the stressors pressing on our democracy will remain.
We absolutely should encourage “good” Republicans. But the paradox is that many of the “good” Republicans have either rejected the party themselves or are unpopular within it. Moreover, the bench of talent being built up has a decidedly MAGA bent to it. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to know who will be hot in politics four years from now, but let’s look at the lay of the land for the time being.
Governors like Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Arkansas and Kristi Noem in South Dakota surely hope to use their hardline policies at the state level to find a place either on the ticket or in a Trump administration. In the halls of Congress, figures like J.D. Vance, Josh Hawley, and Elise Stefanik have all used their positions on the Hill to build national MAGA profiles. And interlocutors like Michael Knowles, Tucker Carlson, and Elon Musk look poised to play kingmakers as thought leaders for the new base. Maybe Tucker will make a run himself? Maybe not.
The who is far less certain than the what. They will, almost certainly, be MAGA. Just this September, Jonathan Martin wrote an essay for OLITICO Magazine, the headline of which asked if Senator Katie Britt might “be the face of the GOP’s Post-Trump future?” Britt, whose likability is inherently increased by her being the only Senator from Alabama not named Tommy Tuberville, had managed to be noticeably less MAGA than her Deep South colleagues. She was not anti-Trump, but in comparison to her colleague Senator Tuberville, she seemed a far cry from a true believer. Then, in December, Britt wrote a column for an Alabama news site enthusiastically endorsing Trump. Perhaps she will be the face of the GOP someday, but there is no reason to assume it will be a post-Trump one.
America needs a healthy, mainstream center-right party that is committed to liberal democracy. But we will not get that back until we accept how far removed today’s Republican Party is from one.