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In It to Win It... Or ”In on It”
As the 2024 GOP primary begins to take shape, it's tough to know what's real and what isn't.
About a dozen or so years ago, the company I worked for went out of business, and for the first time since I’d entered the workforce, I found myself unemployed and looking for a job. It wasn’t a fun time. The economy was still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, the unemployment rate was through the roof, and few companies were hiring.
An acquaintance of mine had somehow caught wind of my situation, and reached out to me with a possible job opportunity at the organization he worked for. The position he described had little overlap with my chosen profession. It was a sales job for a coffee company, and being that I’d never worked in sales, nor even drank coffee, I felt pretty ill-equipped for it. But I was in a bind, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable blowing off any good-faith offer of gainful employment, especially with a family I needed to provide for. So, I decided to hear him out. He asked that I meet him at a local restaurant a few nights later for dinner, where I’d learn more.
I was prepared for the discussion that night to be a little awkward; prospective job-talk usually is, and I didn’t know the guy terribly well. But I was caught off guard when I arrived at the restaurant to discover that I hadn’t been the only job-hopeful invited… nor was the person who’d invited me the only “recruiter.” The coffee company had rented out the entire restaurant, and had set up video-projection equipment, a podium, and a lineup of speakers for an infomercial-style presentation of what was effectively a pyramid-selling model.
I was disappointed and half-tempted to leave. But I didn’t want to be rude to my inviter (who I’m convinced to this day thought he was doing me a solid). So, I sat through the show… and boy was it a show — one I’ll never forget.
Loud music, professional videos, and speaker after speaker walking up to the podium to share their story of how the company’s coffee had changed their life. There was an immigrant who came to this country with $7 in his pocket, and turned it into a small fortune through coffee sales. There was a single-mom who used the money she earned from selling coffee to put her three kids through college (major universities, no less). There was a guy who claimed his chronic illness was miraculously cured by regularly drinking the coffee (I’m not joking). It went on and on like a Saturday Night Live skit, and not a single one of them was believable. It was honestly one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.
Perhaps even crazier was what was going on in the audience throughout the presentation. Just about everyone around me was hooting, hollering, and clapping their hands together as if they were cheering on their favorite team at the Super Bowl. It wasn’t just the people who worked for the company; it was also the regular folks, like me, who’d been invited to learn about the gig that night.
At least, that’s what I (along with a few others) were supposed to believe. It became obvious pretty quickly that a good number of purported job candidates already worked for the company in some fashion, and were just pretending to be prospects — prospects who were wildly excited about what they were hearing, and ready to put down a credit card that night to invest in such an extraordinary opportunity.
As weird as it all was, it made sense. Enthusiasm is contagious, and if people in my position thought the product (and notion of selling it) was the most amazing thing they’d ever heard of, so would I.
By the end of the night, I was willing to bet that of the 30+ people in the room, only four or five of us weren’t — in one way or another — “in on it” (you could identify them by the deer-in-the-headlights expressions on their faces). It simply wasn’t real. And at that time in my life, in the serious situation my family and I were in, I needed something real.
I’ve been thinking about that night lately as I’ve watched the GOP’s 2024 presidential primary begin to take shape. Sure, we’re still in the very early stages. Donald Trump is the only candidate to officially enter thus far, but Nikki Haley is set to announce her candidacy next week, with Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Ron DeSantis expected to follow.
Trump is clearly the odds on favorite at this point, and it’s hard to miss the fact that three of his four presumptive challengers served as high-ranking officials in his administration. Also of note is that all four remain very hesitant to criticize the former president in any meaningful way.
For now that’s no big deal (politically anyway). But things are going to have to change if any of them are to stand a chance of defeating Trump in the primary. After all, winning the nomination would mean dethroning the party’s leader of the last seven years. And if none of them can bring themselves to aggressively go after one of the most profoundly flawed politicians in U.S. history (a president who tried to overturn U.S. democracy, caused a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and has screwed up the last three election-cycles for the GOP), their candidacies can’t be taken at all seriously.
Yet, I’m not convinced at this point that any of them will, or even that all of them are genuinely interested in becoming president.
The latter point shouldn’t be all that controversial of a position. I think it’s safe to say that in every presidential primary (at least of the last few decades), some candidates from both parties ran not so much to win, but to enhance their public profile. In some cases, it was to hawk a book or promote a brand. In others, it was to hopefully join the winning nominee’s administration, perhaps even as their Vice President, if that individual went on to win the general election.
The way I see it, such people — for all intents and purposes — are “in on it.” They aren’t real candidates. They’re just part of the act. And I already suspect that one (maybe two) of the four people I mentioned fall into that category. In fact, I’m even fairly confident at this point, based on her humiliating political positioning and repositioning over the last two years, that Nikki Haley’s hoping to become Trump’s running mate. Thus, she’ll probably spend a good chunk of her campaign going after whichever fellow candidate ends up posing the greatest threat to Trump (like Chris Christie did with Marco Rubio in 2016).
That’s my theory, anyway. I could be wrong.
As for those who sincerely want to win, but aren’t prepared to set their sights directly on Trump… Well, they might as well be “in on it” too.
Believe me, I understand their reservations. The Trump cult within the Republican party still has real strength, and Trump’s challengers don’t want to upset those voters, nor be rhetorically pummeled to mush by Trump himself. So, similar to what we saw in 2016 (most notably with Ted Cruz), the inclination may well be to take the fight to other candidates, and just hope Trump implodes on his own.
But that would be a fool’s bet (as it was last time). It’s almost impossible for someone to implode when they’re not held to any real standards… which has been the case for years now with Trump and a strong majority of Republican voters.
No, the only chance anyone will have of defeating Trump in the primary will be to forcibly weaken the man — to hammer him repeatedly over his failures as president, his disrespect for the Constitution and rule of law, and his electoral toxicity.
That would be real. That would be someone who isn’t “in on it,” but rather in it to win it.
Ideally, all of Trump’s opponents would go this route, but that assuredly won’t happen for reasons I’ve already described.
If Trump isn’t effectively rendered, in the primary, as the losing brand most Americans already see him as, he’ll be the Republican nominee. And he’ll very likely lose, once again, to his Democratic opponent (whether it’s Biden or someone else).
The prospective Republican candidates most inclined to step up to the plate in such a way are people I haven’t mentioned yet — folks like Larry Hogan and Will Hurd, who’ve been loudly critical of Trump before, but stand virtually no chance of becoming the nominee (if they even decide to run). Of those I mentioned, the individual best positioned to lead the battle is Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis isn’t answerable for anything Trump did as president, and he’s built up enough culture-war cred as Florida’s governor to impress more than a few Trump supporters. That at least makes him viable in today’s Republican party.
While DeSantis has (embarrassingly) done more than his fair share of kissing Trump’s rump over the years, he’s the only serious contender whose political future isn’t riding on a run for president, or reliant on an association with Trump. He’s a popular governor and he can continue to be one with or without the former president’s approval, should his presidential plans fall short. In other words, DeSantis can afford to take some risks.
Will he? I hope so, and I hope others will too. But at this point, the situation feels more like that coffee presentation than a serious job contest — a collection of Trump’s former inner-circle and consummate flatterers, who I don’t expect to stray too far from the company line.
Could things get real? Sure. But that’s not how they feel as of yet.