As they proclaimed his victory, the news anchors muttered, ‘It’s Donald Trump’s party now.’ Just like they’ve done every night since 2016
The journalists came in and issued their ritual dispatches from the bucolic midwest, describing the state in terms heavy on sentiment and light on respect. The candidates poured their money and time into the state, with Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and one-time favorite for the nomination, betting all his hopes on the state. They persisted through an ominous blizzard and through the punishing cold of a plains winter to make it to the high school gyms and recreation centers where the caucuses took place. And they did all this, made all this effort and expense, in order to change absolutely nothing about the race.
Trump won the Iowa caucuses handily; the major networks called for him almost as soon as the doors opened. There was never any question that he wouldn’t, except perhaps in the mind of the most delusional DeSantis aides. Nikki Haley was in a tight race for second against DeSantis, as each pretends that they are in fact really running for president – and not, as anyone can see, for the positions of vice-president and attorney general, respectively. Perhaps because Trump’s fait accompli has no plot and can’t drive ratings, or perhaps because they are in denial, the networks have spent the better part of the past year pretending that there is a legitimate primary contest in the Republican party. There isn’t.
In retrospect, the notion that the 2024 Republican nominee would ever have been anyone other than Donald Trump was always a bit absurd. In 2022 and 2023, when large donors, exhausted by Trump, began pouring obscene amounts of money into the DeSantis campaign, the move had a kind of desperate logic. DeSantis had won re-election in Florida by a commanding 19 points; he had used the state to launch himself as an avatar of the racial and gender grievance that had animated many voters’ loyalty to Donald Trump. But DeSantis was supposed to be “Trump without the baggage”. He was a hyper-competent policy wonk who was supposed to be more effective, more focused and less susceptible to flattery, scandal or the distractions of short-term self-interest.
But what DeSantis offered voters was Trump’s bevy of resentments without any of Trump’s humor or charisma. On the trail, DeSantis is reptilian and creepy. He has a plaintive, whining affect that makes his hatreds for racial and gender minorities become obviously pathetic, rather than commanding. He has an almost uncanny ability to say the wrong thing. In Iowa, he burned tens of millions of dollars in donor cash, like a dumped prom queen going through tissues. He needed a big win in Iowa, or what would have counted for a big win: a strong, definitive and close second place. He didn’t get it. It was a failure he paid dearly for. Over the past few weeks, DeSantis has been frantically travelling and pressing the flesh: he committed to doing in-person events in each and every one of Iowa’s 99 counties, and evidently has managed to be charmless and off-putting in every corner of the state.
Haley, meanwhile, has consolidated much of the “Never Trump” vote, or what’s left of it, all while studiously refusing to criticize Trump much at all. The former president’s advisers have reportedly suggested he seek a woman for VP, to try to counter the political liability of Dobbs. Haley’s campaign for president, such as it is, has been little more than a long audition for this role, one embarked upon with an eager solicitousness that seems almost canine.
Trump has long been understood as a morbid symptom of America’s failed institutions. He is what happens when a country takes on the pretext of being a pluralistic democracy without meaningfully politically empowering its historically subordinated populations; he is what happens when republican forms of government coexist with dramatic inequality of wealth; he is what happens when people understand corruption to guide their politicians more than principle, and when the clearly expressed desires of the electorate no longer seem to have any meaningful impact on the policy positions of decision-makers. All of these factors are behind his rise, and all of these factors drove him to victory in Iowa on Monday night with the same determination that they drove him to the nomination in 2016.
But what it less clearly understood is why the media and political apparatus that surrounds Trump has been so slow to accommodate the reality he has imposed. The donors flocked to DeSantis in a very expensive kind of denial; the networks covered the challenges as if they were serious; newspapers told us, yet again, that Trump’s appeal must be understood by liberals, as if we have not been made so exhaustively, repetitively aware of Trump and the exact nature of his appeal for the better part of a decade now. As they proclaimed his victory, the news anchors muttered, “It’s Donald Trump’s party now.” Just like they’ve done every night since 2016.
- Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist
Well, 2023 didn’t exactly go to plan, did it?
Here in the UK, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, had promised us a government of stability and competence – not forgetting professionalism, integrity and accountability – after the rollercoaster ride of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Remember Liz? These days she seems like a long forgotten comedy act. Instead, Sunak took us even further through the looking-glass into the Conservative psychodrama.
Elsewhere, the picture has been no better. In the US, Donald Trump is now many people’s favourite to become president again. In Ukraine, the war has dragged on with no end in sight. The danger of the rest of the world getting battle fatigue and losing interest all too apparent. Then there is the war in the Middle East and not forgetting the climate crisis …
But a new year brings new hope. There are elections in many countries, including the UK and the US. We have to believe in change. That something better is possible. The Guardian will continue to cover events from all over the world and our reporting now feels especially important. But running a news gathering organisation doesn’t come cheap.
So this year, I am asking you – if you can afford it – to give money. Well, not to me personally – though you can if you like – but to the Guardian. By supporting the Guardian from just $2 per month, we will be able to continue our mission to pursue the truth in all corners of the world.
With your help, we can make our journalism free to everyone. You won’t ever find any of our news reports or comment pieces tucked away behind a paywall. We couldn’t do this without you. Unlike our politicians, when we say we are in this together we mean it.
Happy new year!