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Done & Dusted

Iowa 2024: This Isn’t a Primary Process. It’s a Surrender of Will.

The contest was over early, and the results were anticlimactic. But the Hawkeye State revealed the indelible truth about the soul of the GOP.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

In case you didn’t tune in Monday night, there was some drama in the Iowa caucuses—at least around the idea of who would finish second. It was neck and neck late into the night between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis before the Florida governor finally eked out the win.

But how dramatic was that, really? I watched a few minutes of the Fox News Channel’s coverage, during which time I happened to catch Newt Gingrich, who told Sean Hannity, basically, who cares? “There is no number two,” Gingrich said. “Trump is not a candidate. He is the leader of a nationwide movement to take power back from the establishment.… In the worst case, he carries 49 states. In the best case, he carries 50.”

It should go without saying that Gingrich is a dedicated lickspittle of Trump’s—and a man who leaves behind a long trail of hideously wrong political predictions, all issued with the grinning confidence of one whose own view of the world is such that when his interpretation doesn’t suit reality, that means reality failed him. But on this one, I’m afraid he’s absolutely correct.

What we’re watching isn’t a primary process, at least not as we’ve understood the term historically. What we’re watching is something else entirely—even the word coronation is far too weak for this, and too … neutral. This is a prostration. A party of supplicants surrendering their will to a rapist facing 91 felony convictions who has proclaimed himself to be God’s direct agent of vengeance on earth for the devout. This is as far away from a small-d democratic process as anything in this country can get. The Republicans all love it; they’re deadly serious about it—and they very well might recapture power this November.

Now there is another way to interpret these results, which DeSantis and Haley will emphasize, at least until such time as they realize the jig is up and they need to join the rest of the sycophants. Their spin will go something like this: Half of the caucusgoers in an extremely conservative electorate trudged out in subzero weather to vote against Trump. And you know what? There’s something interesting in that.

Early in the day on Monday, I saw Steve Kornacki touting a poll in which a plurality of Nikki Haley voters said they’d vote for Joe Biden over Trump in November, by 43–29. This is consistent with general polling that suggests that somewhere between a third and 40 percent of Republicans are anti-MAGA. That may be something the Biden campaign can exploit in November to some extent.

Candidates usually get between 92 and 94 percent of the vote of their party members. If the Biden team can keep Trump below 90 among Republicans, that could make a real difference when the votes are tallied in November. Right now, the “Democrats mad at Biden” story line is getting a lot more media oxygen—mostly because those Democrats who are angry at Biden over his Israel policy or those averse to him cutting a deal with Republicans on the border are more vocal at the moment.

But there does exist a quiet and not so small army of Republicans who don’t want Trump to represent them. Whether there’s any way for the Biden campaign to tap into that army’s psyche and snap the particular synapse that might make them vote Democratic, I have no idea.

Still, let’s not fool ourselves here. Trump has won Iowa easily. And he benefits greatly from the tight DeSantis-Haley finish, because it means they’ll both stay in, splitting the non-Trump vote. So in a matter of days, he will win New Hampshire. Not by as wide a margin as Iowa, perhaps, but he’ll win. At that point, this “race” will be essentially over, if it isn’t already. Soon enough, it will be mathematically over as well.

Gingrich’s prediction of Trump prevailing in a 50-state march of the bootlickers will have come to pass. This is a party whose elites have turned themselves over to Trump lock, stock, and barrel. Even his strongest opponents (to the extent that we can call them “strong” or “opponents”) don’t significantly challenge this reality. Haley’s and DeSantis’s “attacks” were usually carefully balanced by praise. And the others, with the exception of Chris Christie, had almost nothing to say. Businessman turned North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said last summer that he wouldn’t do business with Trump. On Sunday, Burgum, no doubt taking measure of the drapery in the secretary of the interior’s office, endorsed him.

And by the way: The fact that Haley couldn’t even beat DeSantis is a bad look for her. He’s been getting pulverized in the media for weeks. She’s been winning favorable press—so much so that many contended she might sneak out of Iowa with some wind in her sails. None of the polls suggested that a win was in the offing, but it was within her power to exceed expectations and grab some momentum heading into persnickety New Hampshire. And from there, the story might have gone, who knows?

Haley’s hope rests on the fact that independents can vote in New Hampshire, so she should do better there for sure. But the Iowa results tell us a story of slackening momentum and underperformance; that maybe she just wasn’t as good on the trail as she looked from New York and Washington. But the main takeaway is that Haley was selling a product, a return to so-called responsible conservatism, that Republican voters aren’t interested in buying.

So no, this is not a primary process. This is a holy war and will be waged as such. Responsible conservatism, which was a once a thing, is dead. This campaign isn’t about any of the normal things of which presidential campaigns are traditionally made. To this transformed—or if you prefer, deformed—Republican Party, it’s about saving America from godless Marxists like Joe Biden. The GOP is not a political party anymore built around principles or ideas. It’s a crusade built around one man many of them consider a messiah. At least the Iowa caucus clarified that much.