US primaries: It’s Trump’s party, you can cry if you want to

How Trump is masterfully molding the psychology of presidential race

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks at a caucus night party in Des Moines | AP Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks at a caucus night party in Des Moines | AP

Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as the “Shining city on the hill” beckoning freedom-seeking people throughout the world was officially traded Monday for a vision of “Build a Wall”, anti-immigration and a candidate who effectively quotes Hitler and Mussolini. The Republican party is now purely the Trump party.

Trump won the Iowa caucuses with a whopping 51 per cent and a 30-point margin reflecting victories across all demographics by a wider margin than eight years ago. He won 98 out of 99 counties, losing by only one vote to Nikki Haley in the county that holds the University of Iowa University, a center of higher education in the state.

It was the largest margin of victory by any US presidential candidate ever, a blowout. Trump’s support is solid, and fervent. 

Speculation that below-zero temperatures would keep caucus-goers at home and thus open the possibility of a win by Haley or DeSantis proved wrong. Instead, under minus-30-degrees-Fahrenheit wind-chill conditions, it was Trump’s voters that showed up, and in larger numbers than in previous years their numbers were overwhelming. The victory was more impressive than anything seen in American presidential politics.

Iowa was made famous by making it possible for dark horse candidates like Jimmy Carter in 1976 to be propelled by a win or strong showing to the nomination and the presidency. But in 2024, the caucuses showed that Republicans are not looking to replicate Trump, widely rejecting options of a “more polished” Trump (DeSantis), a nicer-sounding Trump (Hailey), or even a Trumpier Trump (Ramaswami). 

Trump performed an incredible alchemy molding all demographics to him rather than molding himself to gain their support. The Conservatives and Evangelicals particularly abandoned their values and beliefs for the Trump brand and lifestyle projection, neither of which squares with conservativism or religious values.

Another surprising demographic where Trump increased his support is the “highly educated” sector, garnering 37 per cent, up from 11 per cent eight years ago; but the real surprise was the growth in support across all demographics. More than 60 per cent of Evangelicals supported him, but 48 per cent of non-Evangelicals did, too. Trump’s support among Republicans is solid.

Yes, the man who represents an existential threat to American values and the country itself is likely to become the Republican nominee. 

Also read: Opinion: Electing Donald Trump could lead to demise of American democracy

The Republican party is now an MAGA world, and MAGA means anything that Trump says. That is not hyperbole, that was how the party replaced its traditional platform for the 2016 election.

Trump is masterfully molding the psychology of the race, telegraphing to those still opposing him that it is time to rally behind him before it is too late. In other words, the clock is ticking, and the Trump bombs of destruction may fall upon you if you are too late.

Already Marc Rubio, the Florida senator who received Nikki Haley’s endorsement in 2016, ignored her rising numbers and endorsed Trump. Ramaswami, who received 8 per cent of the vote in Iowa dropped out of the race and immediately threw his support to Trump.

DeSantis came in a distant second in the race with 21.2 per cent, and Hailey a slightly more distant third with 19.1 per cent. Seeing the writing on the wall as polls showed large Trump support, both campaigns have sought to portray a good placing in Iowa as a platform to propel the rest of their campaigns.

A closer look, however, shows that, if anyone, Hailey is better positioned to capitalize if Trump falters in New Hampshire, a state of weaker Trump support and where she enjoys the endorsement of Gov. Sununu, whose Republican lineage dates to his father as governor and White House Chief of Staff under President George H. W. Bush.

DeSantis, on the other hand, was like the gambler with millions to play who spends all his money unwisely and then puts all his chips on one table. For him, that table was Iowa, he has virtually no structure in New Hampshire, and he highlighted that by heading from his disappointing showing in Iowa to Hailey’s state South Carolina, where he hopes an upset could shift the race to his favor.

Tick-Tock. The Trump clock keeps on running

On the day he dropped out of the race, anti-Trump candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie predicted that those who do not outright state that Trump is not fit to be president are bidding to become his vice-presidential running mate.

If they drop out and endorse Trump, they may get that chance and get busy on taking down Biden like he did Hillary in 2016. If their showing is again distant from Trump’s, he may just declare the race over and make his choice. 

Iowa was an easy win for Trump. Results were clear early. It was no contest. Though it would be worthy of note that it was Mike Huckabee in 2008, it was Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016, none of whom went on to win the nomination.

But another takeaway from Monday’s caucus is that Republican voters have bought the big lie. 

Two-thirds of those in the caucuses told pollsters they do not believe Biden won the 2020 election and that they see Biden as an illegitimate president. By a slightly larger number, Republicans say they would support Trump even if he is criminally convicted before the election.

In essence, they support the retribution-seeking candidate who would, in office, pardon himself, stop all criminal investigations against himself, and use the justice system to persecute his opponents. That is not speculation, he has said as much.

Also read: Understanding Trump's move to run for US presidency as criminal defense strategy

Indeed, the man who said in 2016 that he could shoot a man in the middle of Fifth Avenue and wouldn’t lose any voters proved wrong those who did not believe he was serious. He argued in court this month seeking presidential immunity for his past actions that a US president should be able to order a Navy SEAL team to kill his opponent and enjoy immunity. As outrageous as that sounds, the results show he did not lose any voters.

When reports came out that when the mobs at the Capitol on January 6, 2020 were chanting “Hang Mike Pence”, and that Trump responded, “Well, maybe he deserves it”, Trump’s support remained strong.

When Pence entered the 2024 race, he even said he would support Trump if he is the nominee, but Republicans had no use for the former vice-president when he is not fully on Trump’s team.

In fact, whether it is a political or a legal threat against Trump, it triggers a fight-or-flight response among his supporters, with most of them choosing to rally around him and fight.

There is still hope among the DeSantis and Haley camps that any of the 91 indictments Trump faces becoming actual convictions could change the game and put them on the road to nomination. That remains to be seen.

Trump’s electability has been questioned before, arguing that he could not win in the general election. It happened to the detriment of his 16 political Republican opponents in 2016 and, of course, Hillary Clinton.

Except for Christie and Asa Hutchinson, both of whom only garnered single-digit support, all other Republican nomination tiptoed around criticism of Trump in order not to offend his supporters or incur his wrath. Their complicity in the Trump takeover of the GOP is in the history books.

Trump has transformed the party. You can cry if you want to.

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