Reflections on the Revolution in Iowa

 /  Jan. 30, 2024, 11 p.m.

Trump Aboard Air Force One

In recent years, a host of rebellious “anti-Trump” conservative intellectuals and thinkers have published scores of books and articles bemoaning the demise of the Republican party. To hear them tell it, Donald Trump sounded the death knell of Lincoln and Buckley’s party. In one spray-tanned swoop, Trump obliterated norms, habits and customs; he insulted his way to the presidency and, in so doing, pissed on the political graves of Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and many other “institutionalists.” To these old-school classical liberals, Trumpism represents the antithesis of conservatism. The “Right” lost its mind, chucked Edmund Burke under the bus and embraced Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.

This popular narrative is overly simplistic and, for the most part, incorrect. Republican voters view Trump in a larger political and historical context than the ivory tower elite; voters compare Trump and Reagan. By anointing Trump the herald of a rabid populist, authoritarian brand of politics, conservative “Never Trumpers,” “anti-Trumpers” and the rest of the so-called “resistance” fail to acknowledge their own role in planting the seeds for Trump’s rise. Similarly, these #NeverTrumpers maintain that the way out lies in the past. They argue Republicans must reembrace traditional, limited government conservatism, crack open dusty volumes of Hayek and restore the conservative mind.  

No, no and no. Trump killed conservatism. Those Republicans mired in the proverbial wilderness, claiming to still carry the eternal flame of true, Burkean conservatism are fighting a losing battle. Too often, when push came to shove, “principled” conservatives kissed Trump’s ring. Compare the Ted Cruz at the 2016 Republican National Convention with the Ted Cruz of today. We–those who still believe in liberalism and deplore Trumpism–must present a coherent, persuasive case to the American people. At this moment, we must rally behind Joe Biden. I believe, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, we can convince Trump voters to cast their ballots for the Prince of Darkness himself: Sleepy Joe Biden. 

But, theory only goes so far. Arguments require evidence. In a rare moment of physical activity, I risked life and limb to acquire it. Earlier this month, I packed up all of my winter gear and traveled to the 2024 Iowa Republican Caucuses. In the process of gathering material for this article, I almost froze to death in a tour bus, got stuck at an IHOP after midnight with only 1% on my phone, and forced Trump’s security detail to remove me from his “private event.” Clearly, I discovered the truth and you must believe what I say. 

With that out the way, let’s get into the good stuff. For years, pundits called Iowa a bastion of evangelical, moral conservatism. To be fair, they had a point. Pre-Trump, faith-based candidates regularly won Iowa. In 2008, Mike Huckabee comfortably defeated Mitt Romney. Next time, in 2012, Rick Santorum shocked Mitt Romney. Then, Ted Cruz beat Donald Trump in 2016. Notably, all three appealed to Iowa’s religious Right and courted powerful evangelical leaders. At one point, Iowa voters stood for traditional principles. No longer. They love Trump and what he stands for. 

What does he stand for? Well, Trump concocted a poisonous amalgamation of the latent insanity lurking in the far reaches of right-wing talk radio, obscure message boards and websites riddled with advertisements for all kinds of miracle supplements. He made it mainstream, and people loved it. They elected him President and may do so again later this year. What happened to the Republican party of Paul Ryan and John Boehner? Why the quick embrace of Mr. Trump? Republican leaders abandoned their supporters. 

In his 2017 book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, Charlie Sykes chronicles the slow death of the Grand Old Party. He pins the blame on party elites. For decades, conservative intellectuals believed themselves to be the representatives of the smarter, more cultured and more innovative political movement. Unfortunately, Republican voters did not share this conviction; they merely toed the party line. They did not immerse themselves in obscure philosophical texts. In a sense, this is not surprising. Ignorance spreads like wildfire among American voters. The mainstream media dumbed down the electorate. Popular outlets prioritized entertainment over substance. They created compelling narratives instead of reporting the facts of the day. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and more extreme outlets like Breitbart created a world awash in perpetual apocalypse. Reared on a diet of omnipresent disaster, voters began to see civilizational threats everywhere. Enter Trump: he offered to “fix it.” He counseled voters to put their faith in him and he would, presumably, wave his magic wand and restore America to its rightful place astride the world. 

In Iowa, I observed the beginnings of the 2024 effort to reinstall Trump in the White House. Nearly a hundred Iowans gathered in the auditorium of McCombs Middle School. They came from Districts 70 and 71. Outside, temperatures reached record lows. Inside, people engaged in the boring business of democracy. I went into the auditorium expecting passionate oratory, fierce negotiation, and tremendous displays of emotion. I came away disappointed, bored, but optimistic. 

For those unfamiliar with the subtle art of caucusing, allow me to explain. Its simplicity might surprise you. The person overseeing the proceedings surrenders the floor for three minutes to anyone who would like to speak on behalf of their preferred candidate. Ideally, a regular Iowan delivers a touching, if folksy, sales pitch. After the speeches, the audience votes. The caucus chair enlists two aides to count the votes and, lastly, he announces the results. 

Simple, easy, and efficient. The entire caucus took no more than 30 minutes. However, the attitude of Trump’s representative surprised me. I anticipated an address full of references to wokeness, BLM, the liberal media, Anthony Fauci, Jeffrey Epstein, and perhaps Hugo Chavez. Instead, I heard a warmed over version of the madman theory tinged with just a skosh of nativism. 

He argued that the world faced unprecedented challenges. From wars in Ukraine and Israel to the disaster at the border, America is being challenged. To reinvigorate our flagging country, we need an experienced leader. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley–wonderful people though they are–do not possess the requisite skills to shepherd our great country through these trying times. Trump can do that. He did it once before and will easily do so again. 

He continued in a similar vein for 3 minutes. Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood it was not; Joe from Des Moines delivered a pretty capable endorsement without resorting to repugnant nativism. He spoke clearly and confidently, stumbling only when he broached the subject of the 2020 election. Instead of conceding Biden’s victory (that would have been far too much to ask), he referred to “the transfer of power.” A rather tame way of admitting one’s election denialism, but nonetheless his waffling served to remind me of the extremism lurking under the mild-mannered facade. Rescuing our country requires dealing with normalized insanity. 

Therein lies the key to annihilating Trumpism. We must understand the phenomenon before attacking it in November. Powerful media outlets (NYT, WSJ, WaPo, etc.) and even smaller ones (The Bulwark, The Dispatch, etc.) devote thousands of words per week examining Trump’s “cult of personality.” Talented polemicists (i.e. Jordan Klepper on The Daily Show) conjure up images of red, white and blue-clad lunatics praying in front of gold-encrusted Trump figurines and burning effigies of Mike Pence, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, former New York Governor George Clinton (oh wait…maybe not him) but the point stands. Influential media figures convinced me that every Trump supporter subscribed to the most ludicrous parts of Trump’s rhetoric. I thought they all believed in vast sex trafficking rings, lizard people and ancient Jewish plots to take over the world. 

No doubt, the crazies exist. Some Trump supporters believe outlandish conspiracies: Trump won the 2020 election, JFK Jr. is alive, Democratic politicians secretly drink the blood of slaughtered children, Obama lied on his birth certificate, and the list goes on. However, people believed absurdities well before Trump. One look at human history illuminates this fact. Taking just a few highlights, many people thought (and continue to think), despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, that the CIA gunned down John F. Kennedy; in the McCarthy years, Americans saw communists behind every corner, manipulating the levers of power, and lining their pockets; in the chaotic years after 9/11, many claimed George W. Bush’s government orchestrated the attacks.  

But behind the Riefenstahl-esque fanaticism of Trumpism lies a larger, more apathetic majority. I saw them in Iowa. During my time covering the caucus, I ate at several local restaurants, and sheltered in a few stores. When I could, I chatted with the employees. Their apathy struck me. 

Several did not know anything about the caucus. But, mostly, they did not care. One Uber driver informed me, “I’ll vote when I vote.” Ambivalence, despite Trump’s encouragement, was the norm. We–those hoping to defeat Donald Trump later this year–must not overlook this advantage. Current polling predicts a close election. In most polls, Trump leads. But that can change. Several factors are working in Biden’s favor. First, the economy. Second, the economy. And, third, the economy. 

Why the emphasis on our national economy? For one thing, it’s always the economy. But, this year Carville’s famous quip seems especially prophetic. For months, Republicans ripped Biden over his handling of the economy. By contrast, Trumpistan views their Glorious Leader as an economic wizard. In their version of history, Trump presided over a booming economy replete with low prices and a powerful dollar. On the other hand, Biden’s economy sports runaway inflation, gargantuan gas prices and no jobs. They feel that Biden drove the US economy off a cliff.  

Well, did he? Apparently not. Recently, the Commerce Department reported that our GDP increased 3.1 percent in 2023. Biden defied the naysayers and crushed inflation. From a historical perspective, Biden has overseen historic economic growth. Between 2019-2022, median household wealth grew by 37%. Better yet, during her annual press conference on the state of the economy, Janet Yellen announced that, in 2023, median wage growth outpaced price growth. On top of these rosy figures, consumers are slowly regaining their faith in the economy. According to the Biden administration, our economy has never been stronger.  

To have the authorities reassure you that everything is fine and you have absolutely nothing to worry about while prices soar can be disconcerting. And under Biden, consumer prices rocketed into the upper stratosphere. As goods became more expensive, median weekly earnings tanked. Simply put, Biden took over; things cost more and people earned less. Not a great combination, and voters noticed. They yearned for the halcyon days of the Trump administration. In their view, for all his mean tweets, Trump looked out for the common man and Biden does not. Joe prefers the rich. Many Iowans I spoke with intimated that “they” decide everything–especially the caucus results–and leave “us” out to dry. Applying this logic to economics, the Biden administration abandoned America’s middle class. There exists a gaping disconnect between economic rhetoric and reality. 

Fortunately, we still have many months before voters elect our next president and bridge the disconnect. If Biden curbs consumer prices, he has a decent chance of trouncing the Orange Man. Iowans (and Republican voters across the country) want to spend less and earn more. They want a government that looks after them. In the words of every campaign speech ever, one that caters to Main Street instead of Wall Street. Slowly, Biden is doing that. Last year, he defied the suit-wearing, cologne sporting TV anchors who universally predicted a catastrophic recession. Consumer prices are returning to orbit. This is all wonderful, election-deciding news. 

Ron DeSantis’ faceplant proves lib-owning will not headline the 2024 presidential election. Online radicals may have the loudest voices, but practicality overwhelms their hysterical screeching. Democrats must not allow Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger and the rest of the right-leaning cool kids to distract them from their goal: fix the economy and beat Trump in November. Voters care more about inflation, the border, and the employment rate than drinking leftist tears and clowning Claudine Gay. In Iowa, I heard not a peep about stereotypical liberal boogeymen; Christopher Rufo’s hyper-activist conservatism failed to make an appearance in Iowa. Trump beat Rufo’s preferred candidate, Ron DeSanctimonious, into a pulp. And Trump, unlike Meatball Ron, ran on experience and his economic sorcery. Biden can beat him on both fronts. 

Biden’s reversal of our economic fortunes allows him to present a compelling case for reelection to the American people. He must resist the urge to engage in the right-wing culture war. Don’t let the Twitterverse and the Blogosphere confuse you, the 2024 election will revolve around economic and foreign policy issues. If Iowa caucus-goers serve as a microcosm of the entire GOP, the culture war is dead. Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo no longer cast long shadows over our politics; right-wing candidates cannot score easy points by decrying the excesses of the Defund the Police movement. With the world aflame and the economy only now beginning to climb out from the dumpster, voters demand a candidate prepared to improve their lives and not just dunk on the other side. 

The image in this article is licensed for commercial use under CC0 1.0.  

Evan Spear


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