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The Most Durable Force in American Politics: Trump’s Ties to His Voters

In World
January 16, 2024

DES MOINES, Iowa — Bill Clinton once explained the nation’s two political parties by saying that Democrats want to fall in love while Republicans want to fall in line.

That adage has not withstood the Trump era. Today, it is Republicans who are besotted.

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Donald Trump’s decisive victory in Iowa revealed a new depth to the reservoir of devotion inside his party. For eight years, he has nurtured a relationship with his supporters with little precedent in politics. He validates them, he entertains them, he speaks for them and he uses them for his political and legal advantage.

This connection — a hard-earned bond for some, a cult of personality to others — has unleashed one of the most durable forces in American politics.

Iowa Republicans, following the lead of party officials across the country, rallied behind the former president despite a list of reasons to reject him. Republicans lost control of the presidency, the Senate and the House during his four years in office. He failed to deliver the red wave of victories he promised in the 2022 midterms. He has been charged with 91 felonies in four criminal cases this past year.

And they stayed with him even as they were offered viable alternatives: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a popular, young governor who embraced Trump’s policies, and Nikki Haley, one of the Deep South’s first female governors, who credibly promised she could win back voters Trump drove away.

Yet in the first chance Americans had to cast judgment on Trump since he tried to overthrow an election, many Iowa Republicans made clear they don’t judge him. They adore him.

“Trump is not a candidate, he’s the leader of a national movement,” said Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker who has advised Trump. “No one has come to grips with what’s it like to take on the champion of a movement. That’s why even as all these legal issues pile up, it just infuriates his movement and increases their anger unbelievably.”

The risks associated with the kind of unusually strong hold Trump maintains on the party have already emerged.

He has encouraged supporters to view him as above fault or defeat, a mindset that can lead to the kind of political violence that shocked the nation during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Elevating charisma over character can open the door to the kind of authoritarianism that Trump has promised on the campaign trail this past year.

“A lot of the people that support Donald Trump really are fed up with democracy, representative democracy, they think that an authoritarian-style government would probably be preferable at this point, in order to save the nation or whatever,” said former Rep. Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican who previously voted for Trump, but said he would not do so again. “I don’t think they feel threatened by having somebody who at least has the trappings of being more authoritarian than past presidents.”

Although Trump’s win was resounding, the Iowa results suggest the party remains deeply divided over his return to power. Roughly half of Iowa Republicans voted for one of Trump’s rivals, including about 20% who backed DeSantis, who finished in second, with Haley close behind.

Republicans who resisted Trump in Iowa included the party’s youngest voters and anti-abortion-rights conservatives who backed DeSantis, according to entrance polls.

Similarly, Haley won moderate voters, Republicans who believed Trump lost the 2020 election, those who support a muscular foreign policy and the segment of the party that prioritized temperament in their choice for a presidential nominee.

Party strategists and officials in other states caution against drawing sweeping conclusions from the votes of a narrow slice of Republicans in a small state. As the Republican nominating contest moves to New Hampshire next week, one poll this month showed Haley within striking distance of Trump. The state’s voters tend to be more moderate and less religious, suggesting an opening for her.

DeSantis’ ability to threaten Trump is less clear. He marketed himself to voters as a Trumpian wunderkind, able to deliver America First policies without the drama and chaos that often trail the former president.

But MAGA Nation rivals the Queen’s Guard when it comes to standing at the ready to defend their sovereign, and DeSantis was turned back as Republicans showed they are less interested in policies than they are the man.

“I know that he is picked by God for this hour,” said Patricia Lage, an Iowa caucusgoer who spoke in support of Trump on Monday night in Carlisle, outside Des Moines. “There are things that he has done in the past, but we all have pasts.”

Trump has spent years tending to his voters — taking aim at their shared enemies and anticipating their grievances. He has compulsively tried to ensure that he was never out of step.

That preoccupation repeatedly drove his decisions in the White House, from refusing to wear a mask during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 to his opposition to striking the names of Confederate generals from U.S. military bases.

More recently, Trump has attacked DeSantis for signing a six-week abortion ban and avoided committing to a federal ban on the procedure, betting that his voters will either agree or forgive him for deviating from a core conservative priority.

Perhaps most significantly, he has rallied their support amid unprecedented legal troubles in part by describing the prosecution of him as an attempt to silence them.

“You and I have been in this battle side-by-side, together — and we have been taking on the entire corrupt system in Washington like no one has ever done before,” Trump told Iowa supporters at a rally Sunday, adding that the political establishment and global elites “are at war with us — we have to fight.”

Voter anger at political institutions remains sky-high — a dynamic that explains what appears, at first glance, to be nothing short of a political magic act: The billionaire son of a multimillionaire has become the voice for working-class Americans.

“His gift is that the average voter in Iowa, New Hampshire and state after state feels like he connects with them,” said David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016. “He’s a blue-collar billionaire.”

Both DeSantis and Haley have tried to weaken Trump’s ties to his supporters without issuing many direct attacks on Trump. But the race to emerge as the Trump alternative is becoming increasingly urgent, with limited time for the candidates to cement that standing.

Former Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a Haley supporter, lamented that much of his party had become “sort of a cult” around Trump. He still considers himself a Republican, though, and views Trump as the interloper.

“I don’t think Trump’s a Republican,” Gregg said. “He’s a demagogue.”

David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican operative opposed to Trump, said the former president’s bond with his voters was unlikely to be replicated by other candidates. The party has become more populist and anti-establishment, but Trump’s ability to capitalize on his celebrity status while harnessing the swirling mix of anger at elites, racial grievances and mounting distrust of political, judicial and international institutions was, for now, unique.

“He’s a unicorn in our party,” Kochel said. “Republicans have become more populist and anti-establishment, but that doesn’t mean the party will nominate Majorie Taylor Greene or Jim Jordan next. There’s no going back to the old party.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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