Trump Is Winning
Just not the fight you're watching.
Before we start, two quick notes: the un-official Discord and subreddit are both kind of blowing up. It’s awesome. You should go stop by.
The Discord is here.
The subreddit—r/thebulwark—is here.
And if you haven’t already, join us at Bulwark+.
1. Achievement Unlocked
Over the past year I’ve been insisting that Trump is Forever.
TL;DR is Trump won’t leave politics and the Republican party won’t be able to move on from him because its voters are bound to him.
The counterargument to this—often expressed by Republican friends who hated Trump, but went along with things—went something like this:
Voters hate losers. After Biden crushes Trump, the GOP will turn its back on him and move on. This is the cycle of defeat and renewal which is constant in American politics. Five years from now, you won’t be able to find a single Republican who admits to having voted for him.
This wasn’t a crazy argument, but I think we can now say with rough certainty that it was incorrect.
And yet I think it’s an interesting lens through which to view the last five weeks.
Everyone laughs at how stupid the Trump lawsuits are. Can you believe these morons? They lose everywhere! Even Republican judges keep slapping them down! How embarrassing for Trump!
But that’s the wrong way to think about Trump’s actions since November 3. Because his goal hasn’t been to keep the office of the president. It’s been to keep the Republican party.
On the morning of November 4, Donald Trump faced two problems. The first was that he was going to lose the power of the presidency. The second was that this loss endangered his ownership of the GOP.
Now, owning a major political party isn’t as useful as being president. But it’s not nothing, either. In a two-party system, you can exert a great deal of power by being the head of a party. You have businesses and foreign governments that will pay tribute to you. You have capos spread across the country, ready to do your bidding. You have an audience of something like 40 million partisans who can be mined for contributions and mobilized as a flash mob whenever you need them.
A political party is, to paraphrase El Blago, a valuable forking thing. Why would anyone willingly let go of it?
So for Trump, the lawsuits, the posturing, the couping—yes, it would be nice if he wound up as president on January 21. But that’s the secondary objective. The primary objective was to stop the Republican party from leaving him and, if possible, tighten his grasp on it.
And while everyone laughs at how incompetent Trump’s Elite Strike Force has been as a matter of law, they miss how effective it’s been as a matter of politics.
2. Count the Ways
How does a party move on from a defeated leader? It’s a routine process that occurs after a choreographed series of steps from the stakeholders.
The defeated leader concedes and steps away from public view.
The base voters melt back into the countryside for a short period—usually a few months—until they reemerge to begin fighting against the opposing party’s new regime.
The partisan media immediately start a fight over What Went Wrong, as the various factions try to blame each other in order to gain advantage in the bid to find a new leader.
Ambitious elected officials begin to put themselves forward as the face of the opposition in the hopes of eventually taking over the top position in the headless party.
Trump’s post-election fight has been designed to short-circuit each of these steps.
Trump will not leave the public eye.
His insistence that he won increased the activation of the Republican base.
The base’s acceptance of his claim forced the partisan media to toe his line and even created demand for more partisan options when Fox wavered in its willingness to deny reality. (The explosion of Newsmax and OAN as they went full-2020 Truther can only force Fox further away from the mainstream and into outright propaganda.)
This entire dynamic has stopped cold any questions of blame assigning or intra-party fighting.
Consider: It is the Democrats—who won a large victory!—who are engaged in recriminations and the re-thinking of their electoral pitch. There has been absolutely none of this—zero—on the Republican side. You can’t ask “what went wrong” when you’re not allowed to admit that you lost.
The next generation of ambitious elected Republicans isn’t just frozen in place. They’re subjugated. They’ve looked at the voters and realized that the best path forward is demonstrating absolute fealty to Trump. Which means that their incentive is to outbid their peers in expressing support for Trump’s claim of victory.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For anyone who wants a future in Republican politics, the price of admission is not admitting that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. You have to either skirt this reality, or outright deny it.
But this isn’t just a question of a fact, it’s a mindset. Because it means that the minimum ante for Republican politics is now support for an insane conspiracy theory.
And once you’re embracing “The guy who lost by 7 million votes actually won in a landslide, because Deep State,” then “Hey those QAnons have some interesting ideas” is only the next step. And not a very big one.
The election is over. Trump lost.
But the battle for the soul of the Republican party is over, too.
And Trump won.
I only watched the great Forrest Fenn treasure hunt passively, so I missed it in June when it was announced that someone had found the treasure. Now the finder has come out:
The treasure hunt immediately brought him back to his youth, when he was obsessed with a 2002 TV series called Push, Nevada, which allowed viewers to try and solve a real-life mystery that carried a million-dollar prize. Stuef also got caught up in a book by magician David Blaine, Mysterious Stranger, which combined autobiography with a treasure hunt and offered a $100,000 prize.
Over time, those teenage dreams of adventure receded, and Stuef went on to attend Georgetown University, where he served as editor in chief of the Georgetown Heckler, a campus humor magazine. He graduated in December 2009and began a career as a writer, both in humor—he worked for the Onion—and in more traditional media. He became embroiled in a few controversies early in his career, both at Wonkette, which he left after he made what Poynter describes as “a tasteless joke about one of Sarah Palin’s children having Down Syndrome,” and while freelancing for Buzzfeed, which had to apologize after an article Stuef wrote incorrectly painted a popular internet cartoonist as a hard-line Republican. He left the media business soon after.
“I don’t think those were giant incidents,” Stuef says. “I regret them, but I don’t think about them very often. It was a long time ago now.”
He soon entered a postbaccalaureate program, and then enrolled in medical school. But he disliked most everything about medicine beyond treating patients, he says, and something else captured his attention: Fenn’s chase. He was soon reading the hunter blogs to learn the basics, and he bought Fenn’s memoir, The Thrill of the Chase, before diving into as much primary source material as he could find. His method was to devour every Fenn interview, doing anything he could to hear and absorb his words directly, in an effort to better understand the man’s personality and motivations.
As the hunt took up more and more of his time, Stuef mostly kept the extent of his pursuit hidden from friends and family. He didn’t think they would understand.
“I think I got a little embarrassed by how obsessed I was with it,” Stuef says. “If I didn’t find it, I would look kind of like an idiot. And maybe I didn’t want to admit to myself what a hold it had on me.”
Two years later, he had achieved what so many other searchers could not, finding and claiming Fenn’s treasure. (Stuef’s status as the finder was independently verified with the Fenn family.)He retrieved the chest on Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Wyoming, and began the long drive down to Santa Fe to deliver it to Fenn that same day. That evening, news of the find was already beginning to come out, as Fenn believed it must. “‘We should let [searchers] know as soon as you have it,’” Stuef says Fenn told him.
“His thought was that, as soon as it’s out of place, we need to let people know,” Stuef says. “People have died. There could be issues.”