There’s a late-summer-fade quality to the Republican primary contest, as if the candidates are passively sliding into the inevitability of a Biden-Trump rematch.
Donald Trump and a variety of other people see the animating factor here as the indictments against him. “We need one more indictment to close out this election,” Mr. Trump joked last month. This is also the prism through which the other candidates get discussed: that they don’t criticize Mr. Trump much, especially over his indictments.
But there’s a bigger and more claustrophobic reality to the fading quality of Ron DeSantis and all these other Republicans: It’s as if they constructed their identities as Trump alternatives and ended up all the same.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote this summer that Mr. DeSantis can sound generic next to Vivek Ramaswamy: They talk the same way about China and TikTok, about how they will use military force against the cartels in Mexico (even though this really sounds as if we will be going to war with Mexico), about the F.B.I.
Two weeks before Mr. Wallace-Wells was in Iowa watching Mr. Ramaswamy make Mr. DeSantis sound generic, I heard Mr. DeSantis and Senator Tim Scott use a similar metaphor about the border — houses, which are being broken into — in events 18 hours apart. If we don’t control the border, it might not be our country, Mr. Scott said. We will repel the intrusion with force, Mr. DeSantis said. We will finish the wall, they said.
“That’s why you see these things like weaponization of agencies, because nobody’s held them accountable,” Mr. DeSantis said. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired watching the weaponization of the D.O.J. against their political opponents, against pro-life activists,” Mr. Scott said. On Day 1, Mr. DeSantis said, we’ll have a new F.B.I. director. The first three things we have to do, Mr. Scott said, are fire Joe Biden, Merrick Garland and Christopher Wray. “You’re going to have housecleaning at the Department of Justice,” Mr. DeSantis said. “We should actually eliminate every single political appointee in all the Department of Justice,” said Mr. Scott, who wants to “purge” the politicization of the department for the benefit of all Americans. They walked off the stage to the same song (Darius Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel”).
It can be hard to remember what made Mr. Trump distinct eight years ago, because it has become the texture of our lives. The 1980s tabloid dimension of his language — weeping mothers, blood and carnage, rot and disease in institutions, brutal action — crushed the antiseptic piety and euphemisms of the post-Bush Republican Party. The lurid, fallen vision of American life that implicitly casts critics as naïve chumps or in on the corruption is the one we still occupy.
Now they all sound kind of like that. Politicians’ impulse to shorthand and flatten major policies and controversies is eternal, but it’s not just that they use similar words. The way these politicians talk takes the old, once-novel Trump themes, aggressive energy and promises and packages them into indoctrination and the administrative state.
At the event in July where Mr. DeSantis sounded so like Mr. Scott did the evening before, he was midway through a period that the campaign had signaled would be a reset. At first, speaking to a midday crowd in Iowa, Mr. DeSantis ventured onto different ground, talking about economic concerns, the cost of things, debt. But he ended up talking about woke ideology, the administrative state, Disney and all the rest. If you spend a few days in New Hampshire, seeing Mr. Ramaswamy here and Mr. DeSantis there, or the full field at something like Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner, you can imagine nearly the entire Republican presidential field, hands joined, heads turning at once and saying with one voice, “End the weaponization of the Justice Department.”
This dynamic might be on display in its purest form on the subject of voting and elections, in the way what Mr. Trump cares about flows through the base and becomes the starting premise of what the other candidates talk about. Mr. DeSantis runs a state with well-regarded early voting and ballot-counting practices — one where Mr. Trump won twice, along with a bunch of down-ballot Republicans. He transformed widespread voter fraud, an (illusory) concern of Mr. Trump’s, into a unit that would address (rare) instances of voter fraud and arrested a handful of people, some of whom have said they had no reason to believe they couldn’t vote, to prove the point that he takes Mr. Trump’s fake concerns seriously.
Practically every candidacy right now is about Mr. Trump: The protest candidates exist to oppose Mr. Trump; the alternatives basically seem constructed in the negative (Trump but nice, Trump but we’ve got to win the suburbs again, Trump but competent) and grown inside the Trump concerns lab. Here and there, the candidates talk about health care, education costs, the economic changes with artificial intelligence or anything that might be kitchen table — things that exist beyond Mr. Trump’s reach — but it’s amazing how little some of this stuff is emphasized beyond inflation and energy costs.
During the August debate, the Fox News moderators put something Nikki Haley said — that trans kids playing girls’ sports is “the women’s issue of our time” — to a few candidates. When they asked Ms. Haley, she barely registered her own line and led with, in what seems to be her real voice: “There’s a lot of crazy, woke things happening in schools, but we’ve got to get these kids reading. If a child can’t read by third grade, they’re four times less likely to graduate high school.” She can oscillate a bit, in and out of past and present iterations of the G.O.P., but as David Weigel wrote this spring, she accepts the premise of the Trump era: “I am very aware of a deep state,” she told a voter who asked about her plans to dismantle it this spring. “It’s not just in D.C.; it’s in every one of our states.”
And none of them are winning! It might be the indictments that have firmed up Mr. Trump’s support, but the inescapable sameness of the candidates, especially when they should sound and seem different, is real.
The idea some conservatives had for Mr. DeSantis — including Mr. DeSantis — was that he would be a singular figure, uniting the people attracted to the statist aggression of Mr. Trump and the people looking to move beyond Mr. Trump. Fundamentally, this depended on the idea that Mr. DeSantis is distinct from Mr. Trump, which seems like a misunderstanding. His appeal for certain kinds of conservatives, particularly donors, depended then on a subtle trust that he would not go too far and could shift into some other plane of political operation.
But they were never distinct figures; Mr. DeSantis’s rise in the party as a competent aggressor exists because of the Trump era and the things that Mr. Trump is and isn’t. He makes happen what Mr. Trump talks about. And, like all the others who have defined themselves by being an alternative to an individual who is still always present, he has ended up talking about the same things and sounding the same as most of the others. Mr. Trump created the air that everyone now breathes.
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