The Republican lane problem

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.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    the [Republicans] fear that nominating him will result in them losing the election, not nominating him […] might be even worse for them in down-ballot races

    Great! Sounds like a win-win, for anyone who’s not Republican.

    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

    Doesn’t really work as an analogy, because
    (a) they didn’t go into the relationship voluntarily -- the Republican establishment threw everything it had at Trump, doing their very best to stop him, but the rat-bastard Republican voters kept on not doing as they were told.
    (b) unlike a person in an abusive relationship, in this case the “victims” deserve it, because even though they didn’t foresee and didn’t like the outcome, they had spent decades creating the climate in which (a) could happen. Fuck ’em.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    “it is clear that [Trump’s] 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”
    It’s much more than that. Trump’s empire is a house of cards, and needs constant infusions of hundreds of millions of dollars which he can get if he gets his base to donate some of their Social Security money to him. He has tried other things, like his silly NFT offer a few months ago, but he is a lousy businessman and his schemes nearly always fail. Only if he is a candidate for POTUS (either for real or in MAGA crazyland) can he get that money. Also, he knows he is in serious jeopardy of getting a jail sentence from many, many court cases, and he hopes that his candidacy will shield him. And of course if he gets his hands on Presidential power again, especially the ridiculously unlimited pardon power, he sees that as a Get Out of Jail Free card.
    Trump HAS to run for President. It’s his last hope.

  3. lanir says

    I kind of feel like Trump makes more sense if you view him as an entertainer crashing the political scene. It’s hard to really evaluate that without considering what someone else would look like running for president.

    Imagine Jon Stewart decided to try his hand at being POTUS. As another entertainer, he could do to the Democratic party a lot of what Trump has done to the Republican party. Just show up, make the points you feel like making and when anyone else brings up an issue you don’t have a good response for, mock them. And while the format would be different you can see videos of Jon Stewart interviewing politicians like he did with Oklahoma State Senator Nathan Dahm (youtube link). It’s reminiscent of Jeb Bush trying to sum up his brother’s presidency by simply saying “He kept us safe.” A normal Republican candidate would have been afraid to touch that talking point but I’m pretty sure Trump shredded him over it. And it worked because the “safe” line was an obvious lie.

    This is why I think if you want to define a lane for Trump and people like him, you can do it in the same way you can sum Trump up. He’s just an entertainer dabbling in politics as a one issue candidate. And his issue is he’d like to make money. Maybe someone else has a better summary or sees nuance I don’t but as far as I can tell, that’s Trump right there in a nutshell.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    just an entertainer dabbling in politics

    This a great characterisation. It also applies to Alexander Johnson, although I think he’d really like to be thought of as a politician who dabbled in entertainment. He’s not. He’s a comedian.

    Now the traditional joke at this point is to say “as a politician, he make a good comedian”, or vice versa. Sadly, even that’s not true -- he was a shit comedian and a worse politician. At one point I could have said he was the worst Prime Minister of my lifetime, but then Liz Truss happened.

    Entertainingly, it is unironically true of Volodymyr Zelensky, whose sitcom about a normal guy who becomes President (which is available with subtitles on BBC iPlayer) was properly funny (good comedian) and who is demonstrating some pretty impressive statesmanship for someone who’s made a sitcom about being President..

  5. Deepak Shetty says

    @sonofrojblake @1

    the Republican establishment threw everything it had at Trump, doing their very best to stop him, but the rat-bastard Republican voters kept on not doing as they were told.

    You may be referring to the primaries , but it is definitely not the case that the “establishment threw everything”. They had 2 impeachment opportunities as well as a possibility to make the Jan 6th committee appear more bipartisan .

  6. Erk1/2 says

    @2 moarscienceplz says:

    He has tried other things, like his silly NFT offer a few months ago, but he is a lousy businessman and his schemes nearly always fail.

    I thought the NFT sale was a way of getting secret bribes if he’s eventually re-elected POTUS. As I understand it, many of the NFT sales were suspected “wash sales” where the seller bought their own NFT using a different account that they control, ostensibly to jack up the price. However, if a bunch of those NFTs are now anonymously held by a supposed third party (that is actually a Trump entity), someone else wanting to bribe Trump can pseudo-anonymously buy one for a million dollars worth of whatever crypto and let it be known it was them who bought it. As long as the Trump entity cashes out the crypto fairly quickly, they stand to lose little money. This requires bribers to know which exact NFT to buy, but I imagine that info can be passed on.
    I have no evidence for this whatsoever, just my personal theory based on the idea that they bought a lot of their own NFTs.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @Deepak Shetty, 8:

    You may be referring to the primaries

    “May be”??? You appear not to remember them very clearly. Yes, once they saw which way the wind was blowing and realised they didn’t have a choice, the Republicans leaned into supporting Trump even to the point of allowing him to escape consequences for literally inciting insurrection. But that changes nothing about the validity of my observation that before he was selected as their candidate, it was clear that every actual politician in the GOP fucking hated him and the Republican establishment used absolutely every tool they had at their disposal to stop Trump.

    Have you really forgotten the second half of 2015 already? Trump was the joke candidate -- that bloke off the telly is running, hahahaha! He sold steaks, hahaha! He made a loss running a casino, hahahaha! He’s up against a field of real politicians, what on earth does he think he’s doing? He’s up against a guy who dad was President! Whose brother was President! He’s a brash New Yorker up against a southern good old boy! The Democrats are running someone who’s been Secretary of State! Whose husband was President! He’s got no fucking chance, but hey, it’s funny. I mean, ffs his name literally means fart. He’s a joke.

    And then Trump systematically dismantled the Republican party He didn’t just beat but absolutely humiliated Bush, Cruz, Rubio and all the rest. And then he beat and humiliated Clinton. And everyone (or at least everyone non-deplorable) stopped laughing.

    Now: massively anti-Trump as the Republicans unarguably were, once he was their leader, they supported him. As I’ve repeatedly said -- I wish the Left would take the lesson from that, instead of policing each other into ever smaller warring factions while the right unite behind leaders even they obviously can’t stand, so that they can do the only thing that actually matters, which is get power. It is the most contemptible characteristic of the Left that while they do oppose the right, they spend way too much of their energy opposing each other, while the Right laughs all the way to the winning podium.

  8. Deepak Shetty says


    But that changes nothing about the validity of my observation

    Sure if your observation is way back when in 2015-2016 the establishment threw everything they had… It is 2023 , you know.

    And then he beat and humiliated Clinton

    Beating Clinton in 3 swing states is a humiliation ? Ok.

    It is the most contemptible characteristic of the Left that while they do oppose the right, they spend way too much of their energy opposing each other

    I dont know what you identify as -- but if Left , then I eagerly await the time you just listen to the rest of us on the left instead of spending so much of your time arguing. If you dont identify as Left then please go and provide that group that you identify with your valuable feedback.
    Im probably way to the left of Sanders on most issues and I’ll argue with just about everyone and when its time to vote Ill vote(I cant) for Clinton or Biden if they are up against any of the current Republicans. Thats the attitude of almost all the leftists I know -- i dont know why you think that the majority on the left cannot distinguish between arguing whats the most progressive outcome and settling when its time to settle.

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