Iowa caucuses: How Trump went from insurrectionist to GOP frontrunner

The deep roots of Trump’s staying power.

Donald Trump, surrounded by a crowd, raises a fist in the air and wears a serious expression.

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump departs after speaking at a rally in Clinton, Iowa, on January 6, 2024. Tannen Maury/AFP via Getty Images

For a brief moment in January 2021, it was possible to imagine that Donald Trump’s days at the apex of American politics were over.

After all, the marriage between Trump and the Republican Party had always been one of convenience. And by the winter of 2021, the latter no longer had much use for the former. Trump had just cost the GOP a winnable election, as his historic unpopularity overwhelmed the advantages of incumbency. He’d then proceeded to put the American republic — and, more relevantly, Republican elites — in mortal danger. By January 6, the GOP had already secured its side of Trump’s Faustian bargain: its promised tax cuts and Supreme Court seats. Now the party could comfortably kick its authoritarian interloper to the curb.

Shortly after the Capitol riot, Mitch McConnell attempted to do just that, declaring Trump personally responsible for an assault on “the rule of law” in the United States, saying from the Senate floor, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”

Since then, Trump helped cost Republicans multiple Senate races, got himself held civilly liable for sexual assault and indicted four times, facing 91 criminal charges — and became the GOP’s most likely 2024 presidential nominee. As of this writing, Trump leads his closest primary rival by nearly 50 points in national polls and by 34 points in Iowa.

That an aspiring authoritarian is also the standard-bearer of a major political party is obviously an unfortunate turn of events for democracy. But it’s also a strategic setback for the GOP: Despite her low name recognition, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley polls better against Joe Biden than Trump does. Given the Democratic president’s dismal approval rating and advanced age, a minimally normal-seeming Republican nominee might well win November’s election in a landslide. Trump’s singular toxicity is Biden’s lifeline. Or so the president’s campaign seems to believe.

Nevertheless, judging by the polls, Trump is in a stronger position to win the presidency in November than he was at this time in 2016. And a Trump presidency has never been a more alarming prospect than it is today. In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riot, Trump disavowed the mob that had violently interrupted Congress’s tally of Electoral College votes. Now, he lionizes the January 6 insurrectionists as “political prisoners.”

Trump entered office in 2017 as a political neophyte with scant understanding of the executive branch. Today, he boasts a comprehensive plan for bending the administrative state to his will. In recent years, right-wing think tanks have recruited a cadre of MAGA loyalists ready to staff a Trumpified civil service and developed blueprints for consolidating his power over federal law enforcement. In court, meanwhile, Trump’s lawyers recently argued that the US president has absolute immunity from criminal prosecution unless impeached and convicted by Congress. When asked by a judge whether this meant that a president could order the assassination of a political rival and face no criminal repercussions — so long as he persuaded his allies in Congress to block an impeachment — Trump’s attorneys affirmed that this is indeed their understanding of the law.

The GOP’s failure to break free from Trump constitutes a dereliction of its core duties as a political party. Parties exist, among other things, to organize political conflict in a manner conducive to both their own electoral interests and the maintenance of democratic rule. By most accounts, the Republican old guard has no great fondness for the man who executed a hostile takeover of their party, saddled them with daily political headaches during his time in office, and then instigated an insurrection that nearly got some GOP leaders pummeled, if not killed. Yet McConnell and his allies have proven incapable of steering their party in another direction.

You could attribute this failure to various contingent factors. Perhaps things would have been different if the GOP’s anti-Trump wing hadn’t invested so many resources into Florida’s exceptionally uncharismatic governor, or if Biden’s weak poll numbers hadn’t undermined critiques of Trump’s “electability,” or if Nikki Haley hadn’t stumbled into doing apologetics for the confederacy.

But such contingencies are inadequate to explain the scale of Trump’s polling advantage or, by extension, the depths of the GOP primary electorate’s tolerance for the former president’s authoritarian criminality.

Rather, the Republicans’ inability to oust Trump is a symptom of deep, structural pathologies in American political life — specifically, the decades-long decay of our nation’s political parties and the radicalization of the GOP base.

Over the past half-century, changes in American society have shifted power away from formal party structures and toward donors, political action committees (PACs), issue advocacy groups, and the media. And as the parties have grown institutionally disempowered, they’ve also lost much of their social standing. Today, highly partisan voters are motivated less by affection for their party than by fear and loathing for the other. All this has made it more difficult for party leaders to choose optimal candidates, dictate legislative priorities, and set boundaries on members’ conduct.

Such erosion in party authority helps explain why Republican leaders have struggled to oust a billionaire interloper whom they largely revile. It does not tell us, however, why Republican primary voters are at once so attracted to Trump and so unconcerned by his authoritarian tendencies or legal woes.

To understand the resilience of Trump’s appeal, one must look to the conservative movement’s decades-long cultivation of paranoid outrage, social distrust, and contempt for the give-and-take of democratic politics.

Together, the weakening of America’s political parties and the maniacal recklessness of the conservative movement have brought Trump to the brink of renomination and the United States to the verge of a democratic crisis.

How America’s parties grew hollow

In their new book, The Hollow Parties, political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld chart the decline of America’s major parties and the rise of the modern conservative movement. Schlozman and Rosenfeld persuasively argue that these two trends are deeply intertwined, and that the GOP’s lurch toward authoritarianism is inextricable from both.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, US political parties were relatively strong institutions. The Democrats and Republicans were less ideologically coherent and disciplined than their peers in Western Europe, but the two parties exercised considerable autonomy over their internal affairs and boasted strong bonds of affection and loyalty from many of their constituencies. Democratic and Republican leaders could compel a degree of party discipline through their power to dispense patronage and campaign funds, while party officials largely controlled the candidate selection process. Meanwhile, through their urban machines, local chapters, and allied trade unions and civic organizations, the parties were a positive presence in many constituents’ daily lives.

Under these conditions, no one could become a party’s presidential candidate without winning over much of its officialdom, which boasted both formal power and popular influence.

But beginning in the 1970s, the parties’ autonomy and social standing steadily eroded. The upheavals of the ’60s increased tensions between activists and leaders in both parties, as progressives mobilized against Lyndon B. Johnson’s war in Vietnam and conservatives raged at the GOP’s (relatively) liberal northeastern wing. In the face of such internal schisms, both parties struggled to defend the prerogatives of party officials in internal governance and eventually gave rank-and-file voters more sovereignty over candidate selection through state primaries.

In practice, this development weakened state and local party organizations, which no longer had direct authority over nominating contests. It also greatly enhanced the mass media’s influence over politics, since news coverage decisions and advertisements hold more sway in primary elections than they do in smoke-filled rooms.

Around the same time, popular participation in local political parties and other civic groups collapsed. Such institutions had helped tether parties to ordinary constituents. But mass-membership organizations were increasingly displaced by issue-oriented advocacy groups run by educated professionals and accountable only to a narrow donor base.

As television advertisements and polling operations became increasingly central to electoral politics, the cost of campaigns skyrocketed. Congress successfully imposed limits on the amount of money individuals could contribute to political parties, but the Supreme Court barred restrictions on independent political spending. Taken together, these developments transferred funding (and therefore power) away from parties and toward PACs and outside groups that did not answer to party officials.

In Schlozman and Rosenfeld’s view, these developments, among others, have turned the Democrats and Republicans into “hollow parties”: “hard shells … unrooted in communities and unfelt in ordinary people’s day-to-day lives.” In the hollow era of American politics, networks of “unattached paraparty groups, devoid of popular accountability, overshadow formal party organizations at all levels,” while activists and ordinary voters alike harbor less pride or affection for their party than contempt for its rival.

Trump’s initial conquest of the GOP in 2016 and his resilient grip on red America’s loyalties in 2024 are inextricable from the formal parties’ decline. The Republican Party did not choose to give Trump a prominent place in conservative politics. No GOP operative looked at the serially bankrupt, libertine reality star and said, “We should make this guy into a leading spokesperson for the Republican point of view.” Rather, Fox News made that decision because Trump’s “birther” conspiracy theorizing was good for ratings. And once conservative media anointed Trump a tribune of enraged Republicans, the GOP had little capacity to veto his bid for its presidential nomination. The Republican old guard’s attempts to break with Trump after January 6 were halfhearted. But even if McConnell and company had made a more robust effort to oust him, they likely still would have lacked the formal powers and popular legitimacy to break with their voters’ favorite insurrectionist.

And yet, as a glance across the aisle makes clear, the hollowing out of American parties is not sufficient to explain the Trump phenomenon or the GOP’s broader pathologies. In the Democratic Party, hollowness has manifested in frustrated legislative ambitions, declining working-class support, poor message discipline, difficulty setting policy priorities, and an inability to replace Biden with a younger, more popular 2024 standard-bearer. (Democratic elites generally recognize that Biden’s advanced age and poll numbers render him a suboptimal nominee. But since the president can only be replaced through a divisive primary, rather than through a quick negotiation between party officials, Democrats have decided that staying the course is their best bad option.)

Yet the Democratic establishment has nevertheless retained some legitimacy in the eyes of its rank-and-file voters, as its success in marshaling support behind Biden in the 2020 primary demonstrated. More critically, the party has had little difficulty preventing random authoritarians from commandeering its ballot line, or performing Congress’s most basic duties, such as keeping the government funded (a task that seems to perennially confound today’s GOP).

Thus, the GOP’s hollowness explains why its leaders lack the tools to block the nomination of a would-be tyrant who commands more respect in red America than the party itself does. But the weakening of American parties doesn’t tell us why Republican voters have more respect for an authoritarian conman than for their party’s traditional leadership. Broad changes in civic organization, campaign finance rules, and media technology did not force the GOP to embrace a toxic brand of right-wing populism. The conservative movement did.

The conservative movement was born Trumpy

There are many ways to narrate the conservative movement’s decades-long drift toward authoritarianism. A comprehensive account of that phenomenon would require a lengthy book (if not a library aisle) and touch on the backlash to the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the traumas of deindustrialization, and the post-1970s explosion in income inequality, among myriad other economic and social developments.

And yet, as Schlozman and Rosenfeld emphasize, the qualities that made the conservative movement amenable to Trumpism were present from its inception.

The modern right was born in opposition to the moderate Republicanism of the postwar years. Disenfranchised by a GOP leadership that had made peace with the existence of Social Security, labor unions, and the near-term existence of a communist bloc, the conservative movement’s founding generation harbored contempt for the Republican establishment and a cynical attitude toward political parties as such. After all, in their view, America’s parties had delivered the nation into the tyranny of New Deal liberalism, and much of Eurasia into that of Soviet totalitarianism. (Such conservatives tended to attribute their ideology’s every setback to establishment treachery, rather than to the inevitable give-and-take of democratic politics or limits of American power.)

The conservative movement’s reliance on the cultivation of outrage and apocalyptic paranoia also dates back to its infancy. Many in the movement genuinely believed that the State Department was brimming with communists and that Eisenhower was dragging America down the road to serfdom. But even (relatively) level-headed conservatives recognized the political utility of promoting hysteria. In the 1960s, the advent of direct-mail fundraising expanded the resources available to conservative organizations and issue campaigns. And the right quickly discovered that their prospective donors were far more likely to put a check in the mail once worked up into a frenzy of terror and indignation. As the conservative movement’s “funding father” Richard Viguerie told NPR’s Terry Gross, when it comes to political giving, “people are motivated by anger and fear much more so than positive emotions.”

The right’s contempt for mainstream politics and penchant for catastrophism informed its ruthless approach to political combat. For the movement’s leading functionaries, the headlong pursuit of power took precedence over honesty or social responsibility. Conservative operatives therefore cheered the displacement of formal party committees by unaccountable, dark money PACs that facilitated smear campaigns. As Terry Dolan, co-founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, said in 1980, “A group like ours could lie through its teeth and the candidate it helps stays clean.”

Combine these three tendencies — to perennially blame every ideological defeat on a traitorous GOP establishment, to stoke apocalyptic rage about the direction of the country, and to pursue power by any means necessary — and you aren’t far away from a recipe for Trumpism.

The politics of right-wing hysteria don’t age like fine wine

If the conservative movement undermined healthy partisan politics from its outset, the right’s most destructive tendencies grew more destabilizing over time. It was one thing for the right to rage against a genuinely moderate Republican establishment. It was another to slander and delegitimize an already extremely right-wing one. Yet the conservative movement did not forfeit its iconoclastic outlook after it conquered the GOP in the 1980s. Rather, the right carried on attributing every subsequent compromise with political reality and social change as a betrayal by its leaders and grounds for replacing them with more reactionary ones. Now, the leader of the House Republicans is a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus — and, according to some of his colleagues, still a treacherous sellout to the powers that be.

In its early years, conservatives’ cultivation of paranoid rage was at least directed at galvanizing support for concrete policy goals. Viguerie’s direct-mail campaign to preserve US control of the Panama Canal might have histrionically overstated the importance of that objective, but it was genuinely aimed at preserving US sovereignty over the waterway. By contrast, in recent decades, the conservative movement’s most powerful institutions — Fox News and right-wing talk radio — have been principally motivated by the pursuit of high ratings, not policy change. Their promotion of fear and alienation has therefore been untempered by any practical political considerations.

Meanwhile, in the late 20th century, the right’s tactical ruthlessness manifested as a willingness to stoke racial grievances, spread lies, and interfere in Democratic primaries in pursuit of an electoral victory. Today, the right is not merely taking an unscrupulous approach to building majorities, but seeking to wield power in defiance of them.

From the era of Richard Nixon to that of George W. Bush, many white Christian conservatives understood themselves to be a silent (moral) majority whose will was frustrated by an overweening liberal elite. But demographic and cultural change gradually impeded on this self-conception. The election of an African American president, the increasingly unabashed social liberalism of corporate America, and the nation’s steadily declining religiosity have all deepened the conservative base’s sense of dispossession. In some parts of red America, economic decline compounded cultural alienation, as jobs and capital fled small industrial towns for major urban centers.

For the Republican Party, the declining demographic weight of white conservatives was happily mitigated by their coalition’s geographic efficiency. America’s state legislatures, House of Representatives, Electoral College battlegrounds, and Senate all tended to overrepresent white rural areas. And this overrepresentation could be enhanced through gerrymandering and (at least, theoretically) voter restrictions, such as voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement. Add to this a conservative Supreme Court majority, and Republicans proved capable of exercising significant influence over public policy even as they lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

The need to publicly justify this anti-majoritarian power, however, increasingly led conservatives to explicitly critique democratic government — or, more commonly, to suggest that some voters were more equal than others. After a Democrat won the Wisconsin governorship in 2018, Republicans in the state’s heavily gerrymandered legislature voted to transfer various official powers away from the incoming governor and toward itself. The Republican State House speaker Robin Vos justified this power grab by saying, “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority. We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.”

The insinuation that real Americans should not have to share power with Democratic constituencies gained a more coherent ideological expression in the “great replacement” narrative, a conspiracy theory that holds that Democrats deliberately flooded the US with obedient foreigners so as to permanently disempower white Americans. As future Trump White House adviser Michael Anton put the point in his infamous 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election,” the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” Tucker Carlson mainstreamed these sentiments, declaring on Fox News that the “worst attack on our democracy in 160 years” had been “the Immigration Act of 1965,” which had “completely changed the composition of America’s voter rolls, purely to benefit the Democratic Party.”

Put all of this together and you’re left with a conservative base that despises the Republican congressional leadership, believes that their most fundamental values and interests are under existential threat, trusts right-wing infotainers more than party officials, and views their nation’s majority party as illegitimate.

Conservatives have too little trust in liberal democracy to recoil from Trump’s attacks on it

In this context, McConnell and his allies had little prospect of persuading the Republican faithful that Trump had disqualified himself from high office by fomenting an insurrection on January 6. In fact, as the Washington Post’s Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey report, pressure to whitewash the events of that day emerged organically from the party’s grassroots and was then amplified by conservative media.

In the first months after the insurrection, even Trump felt compelled to decry the siege of the Capitol as “terrible.” But friends and families of the rioters took a different view and promulgated it over their social networks. Carlson, still in his post at Fox News, rallied to their cause. Soon, GOP members of Congress found themselves confronted with constituent demands to defend the January 6 rioters. As Arnsdorf and Dawsey report:

“It came from the grass roots,” said a former senior House Republican leadership aide. The aide, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions, said most Republicans who had been at the Capitol “knew exactly what happened, knew how wrong it was, and knew that Donald Trump was responsible” but shifted after hearing from constituents.

If the conservative base was too contemptuous of the political system to take an attempted insurrection seriously, there was little prospect of it abandoning Trump in the face of his legal woes. Indeed, to a voter who deems their nation’s institutions catastrophically corrupt, felony indictments can look like endorsements — the Justice Department’s way of vouching for Trump’s bonafides as a threat to the system.

Trump’s staying power is, therefore, a byproduct of both the weakness of America’s political parties and extremism of the modern right. Various social forces hollowed out the GOP, and the conservative movement filled its remaining shell with a toxic form of reactionary populism.

Trump’s conquest of this broken party has thrown American democracy into an acute crisis. Yet even if Biden prevails in November, the fundamental challenge to democratic politics in the US will remain. So long as America’s parties remain hollow — and our right radicalized — something menacing will always be threatening to fill the void.


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