Trump will win. Despite the televised pageantry, there’s no competition – and no ‘normal’ either

In recent weeks, I have forced myself to endure a task that often makes me want to pull my hair out: watching cable news coverage of the United States' unbearably long presidential election season.

Staying abreast of the news cycle is, after all, one of my professional responsibilities; some of what I write is media criticism. This is particularly necessary in an era when the US stands on the brink of fascism - a position that our civil society institutions, including and especially the free press, have at best failed to prevent or, in some cases, enabled.

It has long since been obvious that it is all but inevitable that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in this year's general election. Yet I found that the major news networks have all been covering the earliest nominating contests - the Iowa caucuses on 15 January and the New Hampshire primary on 23 January - with such excitement and enthusiasm that one might think they actually mean something.

Even in years when it has not been certain from early on who will represent each of the US's two major parties in the election, the patchwork system of state caucuses (long meetings with speeches, arguments, and multiple votes) and primaries (a simple machine and/or paper voting process similar to a general election) is cumbersome and arguably unfair. The lion's share of attention from candidates and the media goes to early voting states because of the chance they give winning candidates the opportunity to project a sense of "momentum". These states have historically remained unchanged, although the Democrats have moved to shake this up in recent years.

Even pundits who clearly understand both that the outcome of the Republican primaries is near enough certain and that the 2024 election is particularly high stakes seem to love the ritual and the pageantry of the nominating process.

In the run-up to Iowa's contests, they nattered on endlessly about the 'life-threatening cold' in the state (major winter storms had hit much of the US) and the 'hardy' Iowans who wouldn't let the weather stop them from caucusing. But unable to resist a horse race narrative, they also, somewhat confusingly, blathered about how some Midwestern conservatives might stay home due to the enthusiasm gap between the supporters of Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. This, they suggested, would be to Trump's advantage.

Maybe they had a point. Trump did win the low-turnout caucuses by a record-breaking 30%, with DeSantis in a distant second, just a bit ahead of Haley, who was widely expected to take second place but whose supporters were less enthusiastic according to polls.

Even so, there was never any real competition among the Republican nominees. And there is no evidence, now that DeSantis has dropped out, that the competition between Trump and Haley will tighten much going ahead. Trump beat her in New Hampshire, after all, despite the high proportion of independents voting in the primary there.

Ever since DeSantis's campaign began to seriously lag months ago, American pundits and news presenters have held up Haley as a possible more 'moderate' alternative to Trump, even though it has long been clear that the GOP base is disinclined to accept any alternatives.

Haley has lately done much to undermine this 'moderate' image. She refused to say that the fundamental cause of the American Civil War was slavery (though she has since backtracked) and subsequently insisted that the US has never been a racist country. To be fair, journalists and pundits took her to task over both issues, highlighting the contrast between this behavior and her willingness to remove the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina's state capitol when she was governor.

But even despite the deserved criticism, the American punditocracy seems determined to craft not only a narrative that the 2024 primaries represent a real competition between Trump and Haley, but also that Haley somehow represents a less extreme Republican Party. (And no, I'm not talking about Fox, which has never been a good-faith news organization - I'm talking about the other major cable news networks.)

Journalists and pundits perform mental and rhetorical gymnastics to portray Haley as more or less 'normal', just as they interview Republican caucus and primary voters as if their entire party isn't responsible for the devastating backlash - in which every Republican voter is complicit - against women's and LGBTQ+ rights in the US. In short, they wrongly imply that the only real problem in American politics is Trump, ignoring the Christofascism that is the current GOP's defining ethos. Ignoring that the problem is the Republican Party.

As a self-employed transgender woman, I fully expect the gender-affirming healthcare I get covered through the Affordable Care Act to be defunded under any Republican president, should Republicans control the House and the Senate as well as the presidency. With this in mind, the moderate improvement TV news and legacy print journalists have made in their coverage of Trump since 2016 is cold comfort.

Yes, they'll now call out falsehoods when Trump or one of his surrogates makes them; they've been doing so for several years. But the yearning for 'normal' politics that comes through in the punditocracy's enthusiasm for essentially meaningless election year pomp and circumstance implicitly whitewashes the GOP (with the exception of Trump and, sometimes, his staunch supporters). This is aggravating, to put it mildly, and I have a feeling that it's going to be a very long 2024.

From openDemocracy

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