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Any Republican nominee will have to pander to extremism

Much of Trump’s base has been immersed in an insular ecosystem of right-wing Christian media.
Image: Supporters of Donald Trump wearing t-shirts that read "TRUMP 2024" and "Let's go Brandon".
Supporters of former President Donald Trump await his arrival at a rally at Dayton International Airport in Vandalia, Ohio, on Nov. 7. Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

While Donald Trump was unopposed in his last run for the Republican presidential nomination, he is far more likely to face opposition this cycle. Intraparty squabbles will give rise to off-the-record whispers and micro-coverage of internecine disputes. Amid the bloated horse race coverage that accompanies any primary, reporters should be careful before covering Trump’s potential rivals as more “moderate” alternatives. 

Sadly, Republican candidates aiming to defeat Trump can’t do so by rejecting extremism. Serious would-be nominees understand that, to win the primary, they must win Trump’s Christian nationalist supporters, and they must do so by motivating voters radicalized to believe they must engage as “spiritual warriors” to save America from the “woke” or “radical” left.

Republican candidates aiming to defeat Trump can’t do so by rejecting extremism.

For years, much of Trump’s base has been immersed in an insular ecosystem of right-wing Christian news, broadcasting, televangelism, and social media. Both Trump and his allies in Republican leadership encouraged this isolation, supposedly to shield supporters from “fake news” that they claimed was driven by “Trump derangement syndrome.” During Trump's first impeachment, for example, leading Republicans, including then-Rep. Mark Meadows and Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, explicitly told activists at large events not to watch or read the mainstream news about Trump. Right-wing Christian media and activism widely disseminated the idea that Trump was being persecuted by satanic forces and that patriotic Christians needed to act decisively to defend him.

More recently the Christian right’s leading influencers lambasted the FBI’s execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, with both evangelical scion Franklin Graham and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins accusing the FBI of being politically motivated against Trump. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk called the raid an “invasion” and a “military occupation.” Evangelical publisher and Trump promoter Stephen Strang called it “spiritual warfare.”

Trump’s potential rivals for the nomination know this world well, and are banking on these spiritual warriors switching Republican teams. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made multiple appearances this year urging Republican audiences to put on the “armor of God” to fight the left, which he equated with Satan. He even released an ad claiming to be anointed by God.

Mike Pence, who spent his vice presidency reinforcing the Christian-right mythology that Trump has done more for them than any other president, is still timid about criticizing Trump, even though he incited a mob that wanted to assassinate Pence. Yet he eagerly takes on “woke ideology,” a catchall phrase that casts civil rights, equality and academic freedom as a threat to Christian America.

The gamesmanship of conservative elites is irrelevant to Trump’s most dedicated fans.

And Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director and secretary of state, told Liberty University students last year, “I have no doubt that Satan is real and that he seeks to divide our nation through discord and exploitation.” He launched a political organization, Champion American Values, which runs a project “to combat the woke indoctrination in our military.” Pompeo complains the military is “under assault from the radical left,” and is teaching service members about “genders, not jet engines.”

There is no real difference between these potential candidates’ overtures and Trump’s. All of them need these voters, steeped in themes of spiritual warfare and motivated to the polls by campaigns pitting godly Christians against an existential enemy. On Tuesday Trump claimed “the decline of America is being forced upon us by Biden and the radical left lunatics running our government right into the ground.” He vowed to “defeat the radical left Democrats that are trying to destroy our country from within,” and assured his supporters that the corridors of power “are our corridors, and we are coming to take those corridors back.” Such stark, anti-democratic messages aren’t only the centerpiece of Trumpism. They’re the mainstream of the Republican Party.

As pollster Natalie Jackson points out, Trump “maintains tremendous strength” with the Republican base. Yet the urge of reporters and pundits to highlight anti-Trump forces and intraparty clashes risks giving readers and viewers a false sense of comfort that, if Trump loses, the GOP is done with him and his politics. Chatter that Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch and Republican megadonors are turning on Trump may provide schadenfreude. But as we learned during Trump’s first campaign and his time in the White House, the gamesmanship of conservative elites is irrelevant to Trump’s most dedicated fans. They take their cues elsewhere, and their views will remain just as extreme no matter who leads the party. Trump’s 2024 adversaries know that, too — and the rest of the country should know more about it.