Good Friday Morning, that sound you just heard was the Nashville Predators scoring actual goals in an actual game of hockey for the first time since March. Sports. Is. Back! We have baseball, basketball, and hockey back. I got to thinking about it and this is the first time I’ve had hockey in my life since listening to a truly awful game, in the dark, right after a tornado swept through Tennessee. That was the first of March there’s been nothing since then.
The virus is still here, of course, and nothing is the same. But we’re headed back towards some semblance of normalcy. Speaking of normalcy, one of the big debates as we move to under 100 days to the election is this: what is the future of the GOP post-Trump? It’s a debate taking over the right because different factions are jockeying both for position and formulating ideas to move into this era. A lot of it is useless DC insider baseball, but I believe the first actual proxy battle is happening in Tennessee, in what Politico calls the most contentious Republican primary in the country. I’ll get into that below, links to follow.
- Highlighting this incredible piece of investigative reporting over at ESPN. The NBA ran multiple basketball camps over in China, that NBA sources described as follows, “A former league employee compared the atmosphere when he worked in Xinjiang to “World War II Germany.” It’s an explosive report. And one which explains much of the hypocrisy of the NBA and China last summer. I don’t blame players like LeBron James for any of this happening. But I do place blame on the NBA executives, team owners, and coaches for letting things like this happen. Notice the silence from otherwise talkative coaches like Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors.
- I’ve got a column coming out about this article, but it’s worth highlighting by itself. Dave Wasserman writes in NBC: “Democrats are strongly pushing mail voting. But its pitfalls could boost Trump: Absentee ballots are rejected at a higher rate than in-person votes.” Legal groups are already jockeying for position in battling over the validity of absentee ballots. Wasserman details situations where a higher rejection of these ballots, which has happened in several primaries this year, could deliver the election to Trump. NY’s primaries, for instance, took a month to tally up. Trump’s caustic tweets about mail-in ballots are wrong, but the larger problem these ballots pose for November threatens to derail the entire election’s legitimacy (a billion conspiracy theories are ready to bloom over accepted/rejected absentee ballots). Buckle up.
Where you can find me this week
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Partisan tribalism animates Portland riots, not injustice – The Conservative Institute.
The elites have already rejected the 2020 election results – The Conservative Institute.
The Opening Proxy War for the future of the Republican Party
In case you haven’t gathered, or are new to this weekly missive, I reside in Tennessee. Right now, it’s considered one of the reddest for-sure Trump states come November — and that’s an accurate depiction of state politics. It hasn’t always been that way; in my lifetime, I’ve watched Tennessee move from a deeply Democratic state to Republican. It’s one of many reasons I roll my eyes at my Democratic friends when they complain about one-party control in state politics. This is a very recent development.
For the longest time, whenever a Republican won a federal or statewide seat, it was a novelty. For instance, Governor Winfield Dunn won the gubernatorial race in 1971 and was the first Republican to win it in 50 years. Republican Bill Lee is the current governor, and he was preceded by Governor Bill Haslem (we have a thing for Bill’s right now). They are the first back-to-back Republican governors going back to Reconstruction (William G. Brownlow and Dewitt C. Senter; 1865-1871 combined).
In 2008, state Republicans won majorities both the House and the Senate (narrowly) for the first time since… reconstruction. Democrats dominated state politics before that time. As recently as 1996 — still my lifetime — Tennessee voted for a Democrat for President. Coalitions move around over time. I am fully confident that at another point in my lifetime, Tennessee will go to Democrats again (just as I hold the same confidence when it comes to California and New York moving to the GOP at some point).
But I started all that to say this: Tennessee has been mostly uncontested in federal politics for some time (2018 was the closest Senate race we’d had since 2006), which means most races don’t have national implications. That’s not true right now.
Tennessee race shows the future fights of the GOP
For the first time in a while, I’ve got a front-row seat to the Republican Party’s future. That’s a popular topic right now on the right. Jonah Goldberg at the Dispatch, Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast, Charlie Sykes and crew at the Bulwark, and more have all been debating the future of the Republican Party post-Trump. Given the state of things on a polling front, most of them presume that moment is coming this fall with Trump’s wipeout. I’m less convinced of that.
I’m not convinced any of them have a clue what is happening right now politically, and where things are moving. I think that for several reasons, but foremost is the Republican Senate race happening in front of me to replace retiring Senator Lamar Alexander (Lamar is close to my platonic ideal of a US Senator). The race pits Trump-endorsed Bill Hagerty, former ambassador to Japan against Manny Sethi, a doctor, and conservative upstart politician. Hagerty has the Trump endorsement, and Don Jr. has been in town stumping for Hagerty, both in-person and in ads. Sethi has had Ted Cruz and many ultra-conservative in-state activists going hard on his behalf.
Politico even profiled the race recently, calling it the nastiest Republican primary in the country. And the line-up of national actors involved is fascinating and illuminating. Here’s Politico’s report:
The race was never supposed to be competitive: The Trump-backed candidate, Bill Hagerty — who served as the president’s ambassador to Japan — was on a glide path. Trump endorsed Hagerty before he even left Tokyo or entered the race. But as the contest has tightened in the run-up to the Aug. 6 election, Hagerty’s main opponent, Manny Sethi, has found traction by claiming to be the true, unapologetic Trumpian conservative in the race — while blasting Hagerty as a squishy, Mitt Romney-loving phony.
Hagerty largely ignored Sethi most of the race — seemingly confident of his lead which his internal polls had at 17 points — until earlier this month, when he abruptly went on the offensive. His recent campaign speeches and interviews are chock-full of attack lines. His campaign has dubiously accused Sethi of donating money to a group “bankrolling these rioters” in an ad with a wounded veteran telling voters that Sethi can’t be trusted to defend the flag.
And Hagerty has been repeatedly mispronouncing Sethi’s name as “Set-ee” instead of “Seth-ee” a year into the race, even in response to reporter questions with the correct pronunciation. Hagerty told POLITICO it was inadvertent, and he didn’t know which pronunciation Sethi, the son of Indian immigrants, prefers.
Many ambitious Republicans eager to position themselves as future leaders of the party have picked sides. Last week, Cruz endorsed Sethi, joining Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Two other 2024 presidential prospects, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have lined up behind Hagerty, with Cotton’s super PAC set to make its first 2020 expenditure to attack Sethi.
The brawl between the two candidates escalated when Sethi went after Hagerty over his support of Romney in 2008 and 2012, branding him as a “Mitt Romney Republican” — scarlet letters in Trump’s GOP.
Since then, the race has devolved into a gnarly thicket of misleading attacks: Sethi’s campaign is running an ad that claims Hagerty is endorsed by Mitt Romney, even though the Utah senator hasn’t endorsed and Hagerty has denounced him aggressively on the trail. Hagerty’s team has accused Sethi of donating money to a group supporting the rioters, a distortion of a $50 contribution in 2008 Sethi made to a Democratic congressional candidate in Virginia that was processed by ActBlue, a party-aligned payment platform that has been used recently by Black Lives Matter-linked groups and other protestors.
This Republican primary has turned into a proxy war for the future of the Republican Party. And because we have a Trump-endorsed candidate in a close race against someone without an endorsement, the results are informative.
Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, both publically supportive of Trump, are lining up with Sethi. Meanwhile, the perceived stars of the future, Tom Cotton and Nikki Haley, are going with the Trump-endorsed Hagerty. And here’s the more unusual thing: within the state, the most Trumpy of Trump supporters support Sethi. A great example is former state Senator Mae Beavers, a very loud Sethi supporter and the most vocal Trump politician in the state.
The Trump endorsement is carrying little weight in divvying up support. Instead, Sethi’s appearance as an establishment challenger is what is giving him credit with the Trump-right. Hagerty appears to be an establishment Republican and lacks any credibility as an outsider. Sethi is the quintessential outsider. And unlike prior Republican primaries (2006 Senate, 2010 & 2018 Governor), conservatives aren’t split between 2-3 candidates, giving establishment candidate an easy lane (Corker, Haslem, and Lee all benefited from a primary split between three candidates).
The post-Trump future has less to do with who Trump endorses or chooses, and more to do with who appears to be the outsider to voters.
Fusionists versus Trump: Round Two.
Matthew Continetti has written what I think is the best treatment for the Republican Party’s fissures and conservative movement right now. Last summer in National Review he divided the GOP into four basic camps: The Jacksonians (represented by Tom Cotton), the ReformoCons (represented by Yuval Levin / Marco Rubio), the Paleoconservatives (represented by Tucker Carlson and Mike Lee), and the post-Liberals (represented by Sohrab Ahmari, Rod Dreher, and Sen. Josh Hawley).
I think he’s mostly correct in his treatment, and summarizing it would take a while, so I recommend reading it. All those camps exist, and they’re ascendant in GOP politics. But what politics is proving is that there are two more factions. The fifth represents old-school Reagan-era fusionism (represented by Ted Cruz). The sixth is the post-Republicans (represented by the Bulwark, Lincoln Project, and Republican Voters Against Trump).
In politics, only three of these factions actively recruiting and fighting for their vision of the Trump-era. The Jacksonians, Fusionists, and post-Republicans are all actively involved in the Tennessee race. The other factions are quietly staying behind Trump while doing little or just observing. The Jacksonians support the Trump-endorsed Hagerty. The fusionists support the outsider Sethi, and the post-GOP groups are trying to defeat all Republicans in the fall, including the moderate Trump-skeptical ones.
A crucial political lesson is this: having an intellectual framework to work with is great, but it’s better to have elected officials on your side, filling out the ranks and voting for your ideas. That’s why the post-Republicans, while technically a faction, are effectively writing themselves out of Republican/conservative politics forever. I don’t have to think hard about their future, they’ve so myopically bought in the “burn down all things Republican (and support Democrats)” to prove their bonafides on political purity that they’ve made themselves worthless politically. They’re either Democrats or nonentities now.
That leaves the fusionists as the fascinating group here. Left for dead in the wake of Trump’s victory and suffering a constant barrage of attacks, they’re best represented by Ted Cruz right now. Cruz believes himself to be the GOP’s equivalent of Ronald Reagan in 1976, losing out to Gerald Ford, and biding his time.
The important part is this: instead of biding his time and waiting like the other groups, Cruz is jumping in and challenging Trump now in a proxy battle and — this is key — winning over Trump supporters. It’s not quite like 2016, but he is the only one on the field right now. If Cruz can get a victory in Tennessee, then for him, it doesn’t matter what happens to Trump in 2020. If Trump loses, Cruz can say he tried to get non-Trump politicians elected. If Trump wins, Cruz shows his strength in getting someone elected against a sitting President’s will.
The Jacksonians, represented by Tom Cotton, are challenging this future. They’re trying to maintain the Trump core, instead of fracturing it like Cruz is doing. The other groups will try to claim victory, whoever wins.
Cruz, Pence, and the future of the GOP
What is all this future of the Republican Party and Trumpism missing? Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump, himself. If Trump wins again, he will have sway over the future of the party. And if Trump loses in 2020, depending on how that happens, it not insane to think he runs and wins again. Either way, Trump will have some say in his legacy just through the sheer fact that the man will continue tweeting until the day he or Twitter dies. And Pence, as VP, has the most direct claim to the mantle of Trump.
Almost all these insider-DC pieces skip over Pence in their analysis. And they do so at their peril. Pence can claim the Trump base and build off it. The Vice President always has a claim to the boss’s mantle. These various factions may have to figure out how to move from Trump to Pence, depending on how things shake out.
But first, the Tennessee primaries. The primary is on August 6th. Polling shows a tight race. And this election is one of the early proxy battles in the future of the national Republican Party. Most everyone will be focusing on the power of the Trump-endorsement in heavily-red Tenessee. But there’s more bubbling under the surface here than just the Trump-endorsement.
If Sethi wins, that’s going to be a big boost to a faction of the conservative movement that is mostly written off.
What does this mean for all the talk of “burn it all down!” crowd? It means they’re arguing while politics is showing a different fight. If Trump proved one thing, it’s that the leading public thinkers in the Republican Party and “conservative movement” are mostly out to lunch on electoral politics. They’re fighting over ideas, which is essential, but when it comes to elections, the results show a broader fight. The first fight, post-Trump, won’t be between all the factions outlined by any of the burn-it-down crowd, or public intellectuals. The first fight will be between Mike Pence and Ted Cruz and their respective wings. Cruz is better positioned for a Trump win or loss. Pence is better positioned for a Trump win, and weaker if Trump loses.
And if Trump wins, you can just go ahead and throw all the digital words spraying out from mainline conservatives on a post-Trump future. The burn-it-down debate depends more on a Trump loss than it lets on.
Links of the week
Hey, Guys, That ‘Letter of the Law’ Thing Matters – Jim Geraghty, National Review
The Sad Cult of Esoteric Trumpism – Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review
The World That China Wants (III): Taking Chinese Communism Seriously – Scholars Stage
We’re heartbroken, and the world is poorer: Herman Cain has gone to be with the Lord – Herman Cain’s website.
Donald Trump Stole Their Republican Party. They Want to Take It Back: On the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump—and their differing approaches to winning over Trump-skeptical conservatives. – Declan Garvey, The Dispatch
Stalin’s chair – Rob Long, The Washington Examiner
‘Ellen DeGeneres Show’ Workplace Under Investigation by WarnerMedia – Matt Donnelly, Variety
Minneapolis police say ‘Umbrella Man’ was a white supremacist trying to incite George Floyd rioting – Libor Jany, Star Tribune
Trump’s Biggest Problem Isn’t Wealthy Suburbanites. It’s the White Working Class: To win, the president needs to capture untapped support from the blue-collar base. In Scranton, he’s not getting the job done. – Tim Alberta, Politico Magazine
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Biden Selects Aunt Jemima As Running Mate – The Babylon Bee.
Thanks for reading!