The South Carolina primary was a joke. It tells us something deadly serious.

Trump speaks at a campaign rally. | Nic Antaya/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Trump’s inevitable romp to victory in Nikki Haley’s home state reveals how strong his hold on the GOP is — and how dangerous he remains to democracy.

Tonight, in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Donald Trump defeated rival Nikki Haley in her home state. Ordinarily, this might feel like big news, as the Palmetto State tends to host one of the most important early contests. Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the state, after dismal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, is one of the biggest reasons he’s president today.

But the vote feels irrelevant: The 2024 Republican primary isn’t and never has been a competitive primary. Trump simply wasn’t going to lose a contest for the hearts and minds of the Republican base. Ideologically, psychologically, even spiritually — it’s the Trump party through and through.

I and others have been arguing this for years now. Yet during those same years, many prominent people in politics and the media deluded themselves into thinking he might be dethroned. They have been wrong every time and continued to be wrong long after the strength of Trump’s grip on the GOP could not be denied.

There’s a lesson to be learned from this track record of failure, one deeper than just “Republicans really like Donald Trump.” Trump’s persistence tells us something critical about the nature of the current Republican party — and why it’s become such a danger to American democracy.

How Trump keeps wiggling his way out of jams

Ever since the early stages of the 2016 GOP primary, the same pattern has repeated itself over and over again: Some new development that looked politically dangerous for Trump ends up not mattering at all. This happened so many times in the 2016 election cycle alone that it became a running joke during the campaign.

Tweet that says “Well, I’d like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam! Trump wriggles his way out of the jam easily. Ah! Well. Nevertheless.”

The pattern continued through Trump’s presidency, and most strikingly after January 6 — when Trump managed to maintain majority support in the Republican party after inciting an honest-to-god insurrection. At that point, you’d think it would be obvious that Trump was going to cruise to renomination in 2024. Yet somehow, the delusions of a Trump collapse persisted.

During the January 6 Committee meetings in summer 2022, there was widespread speculation that the dramatic public hearings had weakened Trump’s hold on the GOP. Republican primary voters proceeded to disprove this theory by booting the House members who voted for his impeachment and nominating full-MAGA election deniers, like Arizona’s Kari Lake, to contest key swing races around the country.

These candidates performed poorly in the 2022 midterms, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis cruised to reelection. This led many observers to see DeSantis as a possible Trump killer, with some going so far as to anoint DeSantis the frontrunner in early 2023. Soon after that, DeSantis’s poll numbers collapsed.

After the DeSantis train crashed, Trump skeptics crowned Haley the next anti-Trump Republican hope. She secured critical funding from Americans for Prosperity Action, the political arm of the Koch empire, in November — raising the Haley hype to surprising heights going into 2024. In mid-January, prominent pundit Jonathan Rauch gave Haley roughly a 40 percent chance to win the primary, adding that “the odds might shift in her favor quickly.”

Then she lost by double-digits in her supposed stronghold of New Hampshire, and the writing was on the wall in great big bold letters.

None of this speculation tracked Trump’s poll numbers. The former president consistently led in the polling averages, generally by wide margins. So why did so many get this so wrong?

Sometimes, the explanation is mundane wishcasting: centrist or anti-Trump Republicans desperately wishing to avoid a choice between a threat to democracy and a Democrat. But in some cases, there’s a more interesting explanation — that even some of the GOP’s critics didn’t fully appreciate what it had become.

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, one of the more perceptive of these critics, was an early booster of DeSantis’s chances. In August of last year, he admitted that he had gotten it wrong — and wrote an interesting column trying to explain why he erred. Chait’s basic argument is that Trump’s cult of personality was far more powerful than he had appreciated.

“Defeating Trump in a contest determining who can most effectively advance ideological or party goals is difficult but attainable. It is obviously impossible to defeat Trump in a contest of who is most loyal to Trump,” Chait concluded.

This is surely a key part of the story. But it also raises a more fundamental question that Chait doesn’t attempt to answer: Why does the Republican base have such unwavering faith in the man?

Trump’s celebrity charisma alone isn’t enough of an explanation. Otherwise, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would bestride the GOP like a colossus. Nor is Trump’s fawning coverage in the conservative media. Fox News has repeatedly tried to turn the Republican base away from Trump and toward figures like DeSantis, only to have to kiss the ring when the voters didn’t follow their lead.

The answer, at least as far as I can tell, is that Trump’s cult is the product of his unique ability to channel the cultural grievances at the heart of the current Republican party.

Again and again, social scientists found that the best predictor of Trump support among Republican voters is the degree to which they feel discomfort with the changing nature of American demographics and social norms. Trump has sold himself as the only person capable of fighting back against the alleged elite conspiracy behind these changes, saying things like “I alone can fix it” and “I am your retribution.” From these building blocks, he has created a full-scale political movement dedicated to reconquering America.

A crowd of people in Trump merch, many of whom are holding up smartphones to film.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
The crowd as former President Donald Trump arrives at a rally on February 17, 2024, in Waterford, Michigan.

Trump’s appeal isn’t premised on delivering concrete policy goals, nor even “owning the libs” with high-profile stunts. It is about assuaging the sense of fear and resentment at their America being replaced: about achieving victories that assuage the sense of psychological assault created by things like mass immigration, a Black president, shifting gender roles, and a beloved beer brand cutting an ad with a trans influencer. Donald Trump, as a figure, represents the America they know and love. His victories are their victories, his defeats their defeats.

This frame helps us understand why Trump can’t be beaten inside Republican politics. It also clarifies why Trump has been able to steer the Republican party so harshly against democracy.

By making his very person into a stand-in for the existential struggle for America’s soul, he has created a world where any loss represents an intolerable blow against everything good about the country. Such a setback can only come from a place of deep corruption — from the Swamp and “Democrat-controlled cities.” And if American democracy has truly been subverted this thoroughly, the logical conclusion is clear: We have to “fight like hell” to save it.

The South Carolina primary’s irrelevance points to this deeper and darker story. It is one we must wrestle with in order to truly appreciate the stakes in the coming general election.

Update, February 24, 7:30 pm: This article was first published on February 24, 2024, and has been updated with the results of the South Carolina primary.

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