If the Ohio Senate primary two weeks ago shed some light on the ideological divisions in the GOP, yesterday’s primaries often seemed more like a showcase of the distinctive personalities that populate a trumped-up GOP.
The Pennsylvania Senate race provided us with an especially vivid combination: At the time of this writing, the famous doctor and the hedge fund guy pretending to be a true MAGA believer may be headed for a recount, after possible personality of the media with the inspiring backstory. and the Unlucky Twitter Feed faded back into the package. In the gubernatorial race, Republican voters chose to nominate Doug Mastriano, also known as QAnon Dad. In North Carolina, they have ended, for now, the political career of Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the con man who is obviously suffering.
On substance, however, as opposed to personality, the stakes tonight were relatively simple: Can Republicans prevent their party from becoming the party of constitutional crisis, with leaders tacitly committed to turning the next presidential elections closely contested in a legal, judicial and political train wreck? ?
This is a distinctive version of a familiar political problem. Whenever a destabilizing populist rebellion breaks out within a democratic political system, there are generally two ways to restore stability without some kind of crisis or breakdown in the system.
Sometimes the revolt can be quarantined within a minority coalition and defeated by a majority. This was the fate, for example, of William Jennings Bryan’s populist Prairie Rebellion in the 1890s, which took hold of the Democratic Party but ended in multiple presidential defeats at the hands of more established Republicans. You can see a similar pattern, by now, in French politics, where the populism of Marine Le Pen continues to be isolated and defeated by the widely rejected but grudgingly tolerated centrism of Emmanuel Macron.
On the alternative path to stability, the party being reshaped by populism finds leaders who can absorb its energies, channel its grievances, and reclaim its mantle, but also defeat or repress its most extreme manifestations. Arguably, this was the path of New Deal liberalism as it related to Depression-era populism and radicalism: in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt was able to maintain the support of voters who were also drawn to Depression-era characters. more demagogic, from Huey Long to Charles Coughlin. Two generations later, it was the path of Reaganite conservatism in its relationship to both the populism of George Wallace and the Goldwaterite New Right.
The problem for the United States today is that neither of the two stabilizing strategies is doing particularly well. Part of the Never Trump movement has aspired to a Macron-esque strategy, preaching establishment unity behind the Democratic Party. But the Democrats haven’t cooperated: They couldn’t contain and defeat Trumpism in 2016, and there’s no sign that the Biden-era twist on the party is equipped to maintain the majority it won in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party at this point does have a provisional model to harness but also contain populism. Essentially it involves leaning into the culture war controversy and rhetorical pugilism to a degree that provokes constant liberal outrage and using that outrage to reassure populist voters that you’re on their side and don’t need to be taken for a political theorist. the conspiracy or Marchante of January 6.
This is the model, in different styles and contexts, of Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis. In Tuesday’s primary it worked for the incumbent conservative Idaho governor, Brad Little, who easily defeated the far right-wing campaign of his own lieutenant governor. Next week the same approach seems likely to help Brian Kemp defeat David Perdue for the gubernatorial nomination in Georgia. And it offers the party’s only chance, likely through a DeSantis bid, to defeat Donald Trump in 2024.
Unfortunately, this model works best when you have a reliable figure, a known quantity, that conveys the message “I will be your warrior, I will defeat the left.” Cawthorn’s run, in which the toxic congressman was unseated by a member of the North Carolina State Senate, shows that this figure doesn’t have to be an incumbent to succeed, especially if other state leaders provide unified support. But if you don’t have unity and no statewide prominence or incumbent figure as your champion (no Kemp, no Little), then you can get results like Mastriano’s victory last night in Pennsylvania: a Republican gubernatorial candidate who can’t be counted on. trust to carry out its constitutional duties in the event that presidential elections are close in 2024.
So now the obligation goes back to the Democrats. Mastriano certainly deserves to lose the general election, and probably will. But throughout the Trumpian experience, the Democratic Party has consistently failed its own tests of accountability: It has consistently talked about the threat to democracy while moving left to a degree that makes it difficult or impossible to maintain the center, and has repeatedly cheered on unfit Republican candidates on the theory that they will be easier to beat.
This happened conspicuously with Trump himself and, more inexcusably, it happened again with Mastriano: Pennsylvania Democrats sent out ads promoting his candidacy and made a huge ad buy, more than doubling Mastriano’s television spending, calling him “one of Donald Trump’s Strongest Supporters” – a perfectly written “attack” line to enhance his core support.
Now they have him, like they had Trump in 2016. We’ll see if they can make the story end differently this time.