Last night, on 15 January, Iowans braved sub-zero temperatures and wind chills of around -35°C to vote in America’s Iowa Republican caucuses, the country’s first presidential contest. The weather was apt. Trump’s expected blowout victory made it seem as if American politics was in a state of deep freeze, unable to move on from a level of unreality that has prevailed since his ascendancy in 2016.
But there Trump was, speaking after his win before a presidential phalanx of American flags, patronising Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis (he called them “Nikki” and “Ron”), and speaking of healing and unity. Gone was his public promise, recently made, to use the federal government to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”. Instead he expressed sympathy for his freshly widowed father-in-law – “he’s home now and lonely; he’s a lonely man but he’ll be okay” – cocked his head and turned his eyes upward to address his “beautiful” late mother-in-law. Four times indicted, facing 91 criminal counts, he spoke like a weary saint, eager to forgive. You thought of Dickens’s striking phrase, “the attraction of repulsion”. It was insane, and it was riveting. And it wasn’t over. “Tonight,” Haley said in her speech following the Iowa vote, “Iowans made this Republican primary a two-person race.”
With Americans busy telling one story after another about themselves on TikTok, the country now looks forward to a new national tale. Trump’s juggernaut momentum coming out of Iowa puts him on a collision course with Nikki Haley in New Hampshire, the next Republican primary, where Haley holds a formidable lead over DeSantis and is only a few points behind Trump. Though Haley came in third in Iowa, just behind DeSantis, and may be a long shot in competition with a seemingly invincible Trump, for now she presents a tantalising possibility. In New Hampshire, unlike Iowa, independents are allowed to vote in the Republican primary. That gives Haley, who struggles to appeal to the Make American great again (Maga) crowd, an edge among moderates and traditional, as opposed to populist, conservatives.
Even if it only lasts up until New Hampshire’s primary on 23 January, Trump/Haley squaring-off would possess the appeal of a match made in Hollywood heaven: the mega-aggressive male narcissist vs. the soft power of a subtle, feline intelligence guided by feeling rather than driven by it. And indeed, what is striking about Haley is that, for all her hard-right policy proposals—mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, war on the unions, shrinking the Department of Education—she brings a breath of nuanced humanity to issues such as abortion, and even immigration. She seeks what she calls “consensus” on abortion, and condemns angry Republican tirades against immigrants.
Though DeSantis barely squeezed past Haley for second place in Iowa, he is merely a Trump knock-off. His signed legislation as governor of Florida to ban abortion in the state after six weeks will sink him; unwanted pregnancy is not something only liberals “do.” And his peculiar inability to match the expression on his face with what he is saying makes him look like an old black-and-white film that has been badly dubbed. That doesn’t mean that he won’t be able to give Trump a run for his money. But it does mean that he most likely will never come close to catching up with Trump.
The great American male icons have all possessed a powerful feminine aspect, from Brando and Elvis to Clinton and Obama. Trump in many ways is the last gasp of an exhausted American masculinity, himself now in a free-fall of self-emasculation. With her sly admonitions to DeSantis’s flailing male ego beside her on the debate stage on 10 January – “These fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion” – Haley could well be the liberated essence of American maleness, the American six-shooter giving way to the 5-inch heels she said that she wears in response to Vivek Ramaswamy’s insult on a debate stage that she is “Dick Cheney in 3in heels”. In a general election, that coveted chimera of the American electorate, the so-called suburban independent woman voter, could well tell Trump that “no” means “no” and cast their lot with the former governor of South Carolina.
Modern American politics is largely about mood-creation. Republicans get glassy-eyed when they hark back to what they cherish as Ronald Reagan’s “vision,” but Reagan had no “vision” beyond the traditional conservative objectives of low—or no—taxes and radical deregulation. What he did offer, most potently, was a mood, comprised of an almost otherworldly smile and a slogan that could have come off the back of a cereal box: “It’s Morning Again in America.” (From a TV ad for Total cereal in 1972: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”). Obama’s “audacity of hope” drew from the same dreamy millenarianism, but from the opposite direction: it isn’t morning in American now, but it will be and we can make it so.
Trump, however, brought American mood-creation to its peak of perfection. In a country where one out of every four people is suffering from some sort of mental illness, largely depression, he replaced the American ideal of the “shining city on a hill” with Armageddon. It was now night time in America, and the audacity of rage would supplant hope with the infernal energy of despair. Morning and hope imply a good day’s work; rage and despair are creatures of the night. You work during the day and you party at night to throw off the frustrations of the day, and Trump’s supporters, whose hard work has, in their eyes, gotten them nowhere, wish to bring down night and rule by it. They are the spirit of chaos, which is another way of saying that they are the spirit of partying, and the riots, or celebrations really, on 6 January were the marathon party that was the culmination of Trump’s riotous audacity of despair.
Haley is trying hard to create a mood. The wild signalling of her multiple subtexts could be effective: peace-making femininity, nuanced humanity, strong principles rooted in felt experience rather than stiff ideology, a playful wit running through a morally pragmatic streak implying an almost winking openness to misfits and outsiders who might otherwise find no home among her standard conservative principles. As Trump’s creation of a mood has shrunk to his temperament, and his mastery of embodying grievance has declined into mere whining, Haley seems like someone even the most disruptive nocturnal beings can run to in order to escape an impotent father’s helpless rages.
But it is no easier to detach yourself from a mood that has borne you up and empowered you than it is to get off a powerful antidepressant. As Haley and DeSantis, her one remaining rival, slugged it out in a debate 10 January, Trump shrewdly refused to participate, instead making a solo appearance at the same time at a so-called town hall on Fox News. He seemed for the most part, to the despair of liberals, startingly reasonable and even sane, forswearing his customary calls for revenge on his enemies as he insisted that once he was back in the White House, he would have “no time” for retribution.
Trump’s creation of a mood, his stubborn power, lies in the fact that he is an entirely original experience, and an original experience, no matter its moral quality, is nearly impossible to resist, especially at this late stage of American ennui. Americans must be the most simultaneously stimulated and bored people in the world, and a Trump/Biden rematch, bearing all the qualities of a great sports rivalry, would cancel out its surreal “Groundhog Day” quality with the sense of excitement and suspense that always accompanies the sequel to a blockbuster entertainment. During his Town Hall, Trump said that he had settled on a running mate but that he couldn’t divulge the name of that person yet. I loathe Trump, and if he wins a second term I may well arrive on Britain’s shores the next day with my family asking for asylum; but the drama he enacts, a unifying conflict unfolding far above the fractures in American life, is irresistible.
Trump, as improbably as it might seem, is charismatic. He reconciles and embodies two opposing definitions of charisma: that of Max Weber, who conceived of the charismatic person as rebellious and transgressive; and Philip Rieff’s understanding of the charismatic person as embodying an absolute authority that rests on secrecy and taboo. Trump is transgressive to the extreme, and his vicious attacks on anyone who even brushes against his ego bristle with mysterious psychic wounds and a forbidding mental space that no one must enter.
To put it more simply: the man is addictive, the way all instantly gratifying, unhealthy things are addictive. That’s why former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, having dropped out of the race on 10 January, bitterly refused to endorse Haley, a decision that made no sense since Christie was Trump’s most committed adversary and such an endorsement would have greatly helped Haley. Better the continuing drama of despicable Trump than business as usual. And Trump’s addictive quality, even more than his populist base, most likely accounts for the admission from Chris Sununu, governor of New Hampshire and Haley’s most vital ally in that state, that if Trump is the party nominee, Sununu would vote for him even if Trump was convicted of a felony. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, it was an incredible betrayal of Haley. It made no sense.
For all that, if Trump is the nominee, which is not inevitable, the general election would be a difficult slog for him. His Maga base consists of about 35 million people, not nearly enough to get him elected, and at least a third of the Republican Party has soured on him. He may have been convicted of at least one of the felonies he is charged with by then, and still be in the process of being tried for the other three. Trump’s is not an ego made for pounding, and on the campaign trail and the debate stage, he would again lapse into whining, vindictiveness, self-absorbed rambling and ever stronger signs of mental instability. Even the 20th-century American journalist HL Mencken’s mocking figure of what he called the “boobus Americanus” is not going to stand for that. It’s boring; the mesmerisng current of charisma would congeal into the dried mucus of a wild child who refuses to wipe his nose.
If Trump did implode and Haley became the nominee, Biden would step aside for a younger candidate and watch as Haley explained to working-class and middle-class people – who generally do not live as long as rich people – in their twenties why she wanted to raise the age at which they are eligible for retirement Social Security from 66 to 70. The country would also most likely be treated to the unprecedented drama of two female presidential candidates, both of South Asian descent – Haley and Kamala Harris, who almost certainly would take up Biden’s mantle – competing for the White House.
But if Trump prevails, the election will be Biden’s to lose. The looming problem is that, at the age of almost 82, and showing ever stronger signs of mental decline, Biden would, leaving the alternative aside, deserve to lose.
[See also: Why Trump will win]