Sunday, 21 Apr 2024

Opinion | Unprepared Republicans Are Flooding Into the Presidential Race

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By Charles M. Blow

Opinion Columnist

On Wednesday, the charmless and awkward Ron DeSantis entered the presidential race. In 2024 Republican primary polling, he consistently comes in second to Donald Trump. He has built his legend on an easy re-election as Florida’s governor and an easy route by which he enacted a slate of bullying and regressive “anti-woke” legislation, thanks to Republicans’ supermajorities in Florida’s Legislature.

He brandishes his record as evidence of his effectiveness, but all he’s done is win a series of fights in which his opponents had their hands tied by being in the minority.

Yet many Republican commentators and donors, who’ve been desperate to move on from the toxicity of Trump, landed on DeSantis when casting about for alternatives. They inflated his ego, convincing him his big-footing in Florida made him formidable.

He appears to be banking on Trump fatigue, or maybe Trump’s legal problems piling so high that even the former president’s most ardent supporters come to the conclusion that he is too encumbered to prevail. If he can’t outpace Trump, he’ll lie in wait to catch him limping.

He’s not alone in that lane. The candidates (or potential candidates) Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson and Chris Sununu — all current or former governors — occupy the same lane. They are the in-case-of-emergency-break-glass cohort: If Trump winds up on the path to prison and Republicans must scrounge for a last-minute replacement, they’re hoping that voters see them as solid substitutes.

They’re positioned as candidates who can deliver on Republican policy priorities without Trump’s baggage and Trump’s drama — but Trump’s drama is the thing that many of his supporters are addicted to. The policies are welded to the persona.

Trump allows his supporters to feel and express their full range of emotion: He entertains them; he channels their rage; he reflects their oppressive urges; he’s an oracle of their self-perceived victimhood and their model of a warrior against a government and culture that they feel are turning on them.

Trumpism is a whole-self experience, spiritual in its depth, so Trumpism without Trump would be akin to preaching Christianity without Christ.

And then there’s Republicans’ other lane, in which racial absolution without racial repentance is offered. It’s occupied by candidates of color who advance some version of this simplistic and opaque absolution: “America is not a racist country.”

Let me be clear: Is every person in America racist? No. Is race the superseding consideration and determinant for all negative outcomes for people of color? No. But was racism a foundational principle of our country? Does racism still permeate American society and its institutions? Yes.

And racism abhors its own name; it hates to be called what it is.

In recent election cycles, Republicans have embraced candidates who provided a version of that message — Herman Cain in 2012, Ben Carson in 2016 — even as their party has been rightly condemned for its tan-suit-faux-scandal-level anti-Barack Obama obsession, which was consistently colored by race.

And now they have two candidates who’ve used those exact words: When she began her candidacy in February, Nikki Haley said, “Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history: America is not a racist country.” And when he announced his candidacy on Monday, Tim Scott — whom she appointed to his Senate seat — repeated a line he delivered in a 2021 speech: “America is not a racist country.”

Scott’s policy positions — which straddle the Republican MAGA wing and the party’s limping Jack Kemp wing — are not his selling point. He sells a narrative, however distorted — a frozen smile for a fanatical party.

Haley is also in this lane.

She and Scott are using their own personal and political successes, not as exceptional examples of clearing hurdles, but to argue the height of the hurdles and to question the will of other runners.

They, too, are probably waiting for legal lightning to strike, for Trump to become politically incapacitated and the Republican primary field to be thrown wide open.

But Trump will fight to the last breath, maybe not because he wants to be president again, but because he wants to hedge against becoming a prisoner.

All the Republican challengers are governed by ambition, but Trump is now governed by a more powerful force: panic.

Yes, if he is elected again, he will get to claim that in the end he bested Biden. But he’s also aware that if he regains the presidency, he regains the power to blunt pending federal investigations swirling around him and to force a crisis over any state criminal proceedings, like one that may materialize in Georgia.

He wants to complicate any potential prosecutions by arousing the anger of his followers, giving rule-of-law-following institutionalists pause about the consequences of penalizing a president. Trump has shown that he has no qualms about breaking the country to save himself, that patriotism is a distant second to self-preservation.

Trump has spent his life swaddled in creature comforts, gilded and gauche as they may be. He’s bent the rules so often that he seems to have forgotten that the legal system has a gravity that few can escape forever.

Now, with the prospect of being shamed and maybe even shackled, he’s going to spare nothing in his quest to clear the Republican field — and none of his opponents look as if they’re ready for it.

If you thought the last two election cycles were ugly, strap up: This one will likely be worse. All creatures are most ferocious when backed into a corner.

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Charles M. Blow joined The Times in 1994 and became an Opinion columnist in 2008. He is also a television commentator and writes often about politics, social justice and vulnerable communities. @CharlesMBlow Facebook

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