On Saturday, October 9, 2021, former president Donald Trump held a rally in Des Moines, Iowa. It needs to be remembered that the Iowa caucus is the first event in the quadrienniel presidential primary season, which means that Iowa, like New Hampshire (which has the first primary election a week later), gets a disproportionate amount of attention from prospective contenders for president. And there is every sign that Trump plans to run again in 2024; the fact that he hasn’t made it official means nothing, because before he makes it official, he can do all the things that a confirmed candidate can do–and with a lot more freedom from election law scrutiny.
Trump went on about the failings of the Biden administration, said he and his supporters were going to “take America back” and “make America great again again,” and all the rest of the usual, but I want to put the spotlight on one particular moment at that rally: his exchange with Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Grassley is 88 years old and has been in the Senate since 1981. He’s running for re-election next year. Trump, at the rally, announced that Grassley had his full endorsement, and here is what Grassley said in response:
I was born at night, but not last night. So if I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart. I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.
In other words, Grassley does not want to be primaried. Indeed, for the past few years primary has been a verb. To primary an officeholder is to oppose that officeholder in the primary election of that officeholder’s own party. And indeed, Grassley knows that if he doesn’t cozy up to Trump, Trump will endorse a challenger to Grassley in the Republican primary for Senate next year, and (unless Iowa’s Republicans have stopped loving Trump by then) Grassley will be defeated. And Grassley does not want to be defeated.
Nationwide, Trump has the enthusiastic support of a great majority of Republican voters–including many who were posting memes on Facebook against him in the early stages of the 2016 primaries. Trump’s support base therefore wants Republican officeholders to be not only loyal to the ideology of the party, but personally loyal to Donald Trump. This is very out of the ordinary; this is very bizarre. When you look at Trump’s character and conduct, it becomes even more bizarre. But it’s not showing any signs of abating. And because he has such a hold on the loyalty of the Republican electorate, Republican officeholders and candidates who under other circumstances would not give the time of day to the likes of Trump are scrambling to make sure he knows he has their loyalty. This is why Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who has been consistently loyal to the ideology of her Republican Party, got removed from her leadership position in the House and has been subject to a lot of flak from the Republicans in her state for voting to impeach Trump after the January 6 insurrection.
What makes the situation particularly bizarre is that to be loyal to Trump means to buy into his utterly false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. I’m not expressing a political opinion when I say that; I’m stating a fact. The election was not stolen, Biden won it legitimately, and while we can differ over whether we’re happy about the outcome, there aren’t two sides to the fact that that is the outcome. Moreover, it is a fact that in the weeks following the election, Trump was trying to plead with and pressure both state and federal officials, including his own attorney general, to find some loophole, some string they could pull, to make him the winner. He fired Attorney General Bill Barr when Barr told him he could find no credible evidence of election fraud, and he called Vice President Mike Pence a pussy for not trying to overturn the results on January 6 in the Senate. Moreover, on January 6, even if you look at Trump’s conduct in the manner most favorable to Trump, you’re still left with the fact that he organized a rally based on the false claim that the election was stolen, and he dispatched the ralliers to stand outside the Capitol and shout loudly to the lawmakers that they should invalidate the results of the election. There’s political ideology, and then there’s conduct. The fact that so many millions of Americans think this conduct on the part of the president is all right is just bizarre.
Next year’s midterm congressional elections are on everybody’s mind. It needs to be remembered that in midterm congressional elections, the president’s party usually loses seats in both chambers of Congress. In the case of the Senate, the Democrats can’t afford to lose even one seat without losing their precarious majority (a majority that is only made possible by Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote). In the House, the Democrats already lost some seats in the most recent election, and are ahead by only a handful of seats now. If the Republicans flip the House back, Kevin McCarthy, who is steadfastly loyal to Trump despite having had a moment of showing anger at him in the January 6 insurrection, will become Speaker. If the Republicans take the Senate, Mitch McConnell will return to the position of Majority Leader. McConnell and Trump actually don’t like each other very much, but McConnell doesn’t stick his neck out far to oppose Trump, and in any case McConnell’s seat in the Senate is safe till the election of 2026.
On top of the odds usually being against the president’s party in midterm elections, there’s the fact that Biden’s popularity is sagging. His approval rating was in the 50s a few months ago (higher than Trump’s ever got), but it’s been down in the 40s in recent times, on a par with Trump’s average. A lot of things influence congressional elections, so they could still go either way, but definitely, the Democrats have an uphill battle, and they can be sure that the Republicans won’t be playing softball in next year’s races.
When things are normal, the difference between the parties is a matter of ideology: differing opinions about what the role of the government should be, opinions about what public policy should be on this or that issue. But things are not normal now. One party has become dominated by a cult of personality, and is being controlled by a narcissistic loose cannon who panders to prejudice and to belief in wild conspiracy theories. And that party may well be about to come back into power. So indeed, the Trump era is far from over.
Chuck Grassley’s words at that rally can be heard in this NPR report, October 11, 2021.
Article about the rally in the Des Moines Register, October 9, 2021.