In political analyses of political races in the US, the kids in the media these days like to use the metaphor of ‘lanes’ to signify where candidates stand with respect to their rivals. Traditionally, the lanes had labels such as progressive, liberal, centrist, moderate, and conservative that, while hardly precisely defined, gave one a vague sense of whether that person was aligned with ones own values or not. One could make the distinctions more fine-grained by separating them on economic/fiscal and social polices, so that one could describe someone as a fiscal conservative who is socially liberal and so on. So in principle one could identify many different ideological lanes that people could be pigeonholed into. (Warning: This post is going to overwork the lane metaphor to death.)
But when it comes to current Republican politics, all that has to be thrown out of the window because since Donald Trump, the lanes are no longer defined by ideology. What we have is the Trump lane and the non-Trump lanes. The Trump lane is defined by whatever Trump thinks serves his own interests and will enable him to win and that ideologically amorphous structure makes it harder for his competitors to find their own lanes, since the Trump lane can weave erratically across ideological lines, as he opportunistically seizes on any issue to attack his opponents, even if it involves flat-out lying about them and himself. For example, his stance against cuts to Social Security and Medicare makes those who are on record as favoring privatizing or cuts (such as Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence) vulnerable to attacks from him. He has already started doing so.
The non-Trump lane is also forced to stick very closely to the Trump lane since they do not want to alienate his fanatical base which makes it even hard for them to articulate why they should be preferred over Trump. In a crowded primary race, it is possible for someone to gain the nomination with just a plurality and not a majority of delegates or votes, and the person most likely to benefit from that is Trump since he starts out with such a big advantage in name recognition and with his ability to get media attention. I have no doubt that even if the Republican primary race is bitter and divisive, the party will rally round the eventual winner if it is Trump, just like they did in 2016, in which the party establishment and candidate after candidate tried and failed to bring him down using all manner of attacks.
The main problem would be if he does not get the nomination. In such an event, I fully expect Trump to run as a third party candidate because it is clear that his loss in 2020, making him a one-term president, is something that he still smarts over. and he will stop at nothing to regain the presidency so that he can shake off the loser label and wreak vengeance on all his enemies. His speech at CPAC is pretty clear about this, where he spoke about seeing himself in the role of bringing retribution. While he said that he represents retribution on behalf of the people who think they have been wronged, he is obviously talking about retribution for himself because he feels that he has been deeply wronged. One of the targets for his retribution campaign is the traditional Republican party itself. So while the party establishment fears that nominating him will result in them losing the election, not nominating him and having him compete in the general election, seething with anger against the Republican party for rejecting him, might be even worse for them in down-ballot races. They are in a bind, like a person in an abusive relationship who fears that breaking off the relationship completely will make the victimizer even more dangerous.
Fox News is also in a bind. While Rupert Murdoch has said internally that they should distance themselves from Trump, their past promotion of him will come back to haunt them because what the Dominion case depositions made clear is that they are terrified that if they do not toe the Trump line, the viewers who are his followers will abandon them and move to even more extreme rightwing outlets like Newsmax, One America Network, Right Side Broadcasting Network, and others.
Far from being a media superpower, as his foes would describe him, Murdoch comes off as trapped by the craven choices he made to serve as Trump’s supplicant and protector. By 2020, Murdoch had been trying to elect a president of his own choosing for decades. He loaded the Fox payroll with presidential aspirants like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Ben Carson. Murdoch gave Trump the keys to popular shows like Fox & Friends both before his run and after he became president, allowing him to phone in and gab at his leisure. All of this squiring of Republican candidates became known as the “Fox Primary,” the implication that the road to the White House led through the Fox green room, an implication that delighted Murdoch.
Fox News fed this monster and now the monster is turning on them, as evidenced by this year’s CPAC conference.
Fox Radio skipped its usual booth on media row at CPAC this year. Fox Nation didn’t livestream or sponsor receptions as it has in years past. There were no primetime Fox News stars like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, or Tucker Carlson scheduled to speak on stage — a contrast to years past, where Fox stars were in heavy rotation on the stage or in the halls.
Key speakers at CPAC also ripped into Fox.
In his first minute onstage at CPAC on Friday, Steve Bannon identified one of his top targets of the moment, an entity he claimed is opposing Donald Trump’s presidential campaign at its own peril: Fox News.
Far from random broadsides, Bannon’s screed against Fox News was the latest in what has become a hot war between MAGA world and the longtime conservative channel. Trump himself has gone off on Fox News before, often for coverage he has deemed unfair. But the current state of affairs — coming at the start of what promises to be a deeply contested GOP primary — is as strained as it has ever been.
For his part, Trump has ramped up his attacks on the longtime conservative television channel, in recent days sharing multiple posts on his Truth Social platform critical of the channel and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. “Too many incompetent RINOS at FoxNews!” Trump posted on Thursday. A day earlier, Trump called Murdoch and other Fox executives a “group of MAGA Hating Globalist RINOS” who should “get out of the News Business as soon as possible.”
The challenge for Trump’s rivals is to decide where in the non-Trump lane they wish to travel. While they need to distinguish themselves from him, it is hard for them to use any ideological marker since Trump’s ideology is just a mess of vanity, vindictiveness, and knee-jerk culture war issues. What seems clear is that traditional mainstream Republicans like former Maryland governor Larry Hogan see no room for a lane of their own. All the rest of them seem to be jostling for space in the lane that says that they will act just like Trump in fighting the culture wars but do not have all the baggage that he brings with him, such as his legal troubles and the intemperate language. Haley and Mike Pence seem to have decided that that will be their lane. Other potential candidates like Mike Pompeo and Tim Scott will have to find some room in that same narrow lane to squeeze themselves into.
On the other hand, DeSantis seems to think that a lane has opened up for someone taking a far more aggressive culture-war stance than even Trump and that that will distinguish him from the other contenders. Because Florida has Republican super-majorities in the state legislature providing him with a compliant legislature that will do his bidding, he can sign laws like the Don’t Say Gay, banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, push anti-trans bathroom bills, and so on that appeal to the rabid party base to show his extreme culture warrior bona fides. What is notable is that none of these measures have done anything that materially improves the lives of even his supporters, instead focusing on pushing their emotional buttons. The fact is that Republicans have no appealing programs that they can put forward, and culture wars are all they have. They are far more rigidly committed to being ‘anti-woke’ than Democrats are to being ‘woke’.
None of these rivals can afford to attack Trump on all his many faults since Trump’s followers have a cult-like devotion to him and even though there are signs that some are defecting, it still seems pretty sizable. Right now, these rivals seem to be basing their argument on the fact Trump is a loser, with rivals like Nikki Haley and others pointing out that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections and that the party fared poorly in the 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022 congressional elections, blame for which they obliquely lay at the feet of Trump.
Given that these people acknowledge that Republicans have been on a losing streak for so long, you would think that they would seize on a candidate like Hogan, a Republican who got elected twice as governor in one of the strongest Democratic states in the US (Maryland), or at least take him a a model of how to win. But for them, winning in a blue state is not seen as a sign of political savvy about how to craft a broad appeal but an indication that he must not be sufficiently committed to their primary goal of alienating liberal and progressive voters by vigorously pursuing their culture war agenda. Hogan lost Republicans by winning over Democrats.
This implication by Haley and others that Trump is a loser and legitimately lost to Biden in 2020 has to be infuriating to him and he will lash out at those who say so if they get anywhere close to being a threat to him. Trump reminds me of the character Messala in the epic 1959 film Ben-Hur based on the 1880 novel of the same name by Lew Wallace. In the film that is set in the time of Jesus, Messala (Stephen Boyd) is a Roman who has risen high in the military and was the childhood friend of Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). But they have a serious falling out and become enemies when they meet again as adults because Ben-Hur, a Jew, refuses Messala’s request to become a Roman informant against his own people in order to advance the latter’s career. As a result of various circumstances, they end up competing against each other in a chariot race. Messala is ruthless in his desire to win, using a tricked-up chariot with blades on the outside of the wheel axle that can destroy the spokes of the wheels of any competitor who comes close to defeating him in either of the lanes on the left or right of him. When that does not work, he starts using his whip to strike at Ben-Hur. This is one of the best race scenes in cinematic history that you can see below. (For those who may not be able to identify these film stars from yesteryear, the director has helpfully used the cliche of white horses for the good guy and black ones for the bad.)
As a metaphor for Trump, Messala is almost perfect in his willingness to do anything to win.