I watched the Emmys Monday night instead of Iowa caucus returns. (Congrats to the team behind The Bear, but that is not a comedy.) Sure, I switched briefly to cable stations; after 8:30, the headline essentially remained: “Trump wins, DeSantis and Haley vie for second” for hours. (DeSantis edged Haley.) But that had been the headline for at least a month. Can bored reporters and pundits make a “narrative” out of this dull and predictable story?
Probably. But the truth is not one our media enjoys telling. Disgraced former president Donald Trump, he of the 91 felony counts, lost Iowa in 2016; the state GOP’s strong evangelical vote went to Senator Ted Cruz. Eight years later, that same bloc backed the twice-divorced con man who a New York jury found sexually assaulted writer E. Jean Carroll. Trump won more than half the Iowa vote. The made-up media narrative, that a surging Nikki Haley would edge the hapless Ron DeSantis, based largely on “vibes,” turned out—surprise!—not to be true at all.
So what will the media chase into New Hampshire, a week from today? What will they tell us is interesting? What ought to keep our interest? I don’t know for sure, but here’s what I’m thinking about.
First, we are inadequately telling the story of Trump supporters’ increasing malevolence and violence. Last week, we learned that US District Judge Tanya Chutkan and Jack Smith, the special counsel who’s bringing charges in Chutkan’s courtroom against Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection, were both “swatted” last month, when false reports of violence at their homes led police to swarm them. People have been killed that way. Heading to court on the final day of Trump’s business fraud trial last Thursday, Judge Arthur Engoron was delayed because of a bomb threat at his home. Someone apparently swatted the White House this week—probably less worrisome given the enormous security apparatus already there. But yes, someone thought that was a worthy thing to do.
These odd and unsuccessful attempts at violence create a backdrop to Trump’s big Iowa win. Repeatedly we hear that Republicans in Congress and elsewhere might like to oppose Trump but are literally afraid to. Retiring Senator Mitt Romney says some wanted to vote to impeach him over January 6 but feared for their own safety and that of their families. I don’t think that’s why Florida Senator Marco Rubio, rather unbelievably, endorsed Trump on Sunday—snubbing not only his home state governor, DeSantis, but one of his most prominent and influential backers in 2016, Haley, the former South Carolina governor. Little Marco, as Trump liked to call him then, probably feared more for his political than his physical safety. But it’s all related.
We’re also under-covering the story of what will happen if Trump is reelected—which Trump and his allies are telling us about, themselves. After the addled former president pledged to begin “the largest deportation operation in American history,” Santa Monica sadist Stephen Miller tweeted: “The deportations will begin at noon, Inauguration Day.” Never mind that there will still be a few legal obstacles to a second Trump administration’s immediately doing that; if elected, he will find a way. Texas Governor Greg Abbott is already responsible for the deaths of three attempted migrants from Mexico, after stopping the Border Patrol from rescuing them as they crossed the Rio Grande. Trump will have red-state governors and local officials ready to support his deadly cruelty.
Finally, let’s focus a moment on Iowa in the rearview mirror. Trump’s big win is the story of evangelicals embracing cruelty, immorality, and authoritarianism. It’s a story of Iowa’s being increasingly dominated by white voters who didn’t go to college. But we should also pay attention to the way even some college-educated white Republicans found their way back to Trump. They were supposed to buoy Haley and DeSantis, and it looks like Haley did win at least a plurality of them. But she won only one county, Johnson, the home of the University of Iowa. DeSantis, who visited all 99 Iowa counties, won none. He held onto second place and that will stop the loud and large DeSantis death watch, at least for now. But it will pick up again soon.
Delusionally, Haley claimed Iowa made it a “two-person race,” referring to herself and Trump. Trump, meanwhile, headed to a New York courtroom where he is almost certain to lose again—another E. Jean Carroll defamation trial—but with his supporters, those courtroom dramas make him a winner. DeSantis had written off New Hampshire to go to South Carolina, but now he’s making a show of competing in New Hampshire again.
Iowa is known for giving primary season wins, or surprisingly strong finishes, to such presidents as Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum and, of course, Ted Cruz. Oh right, those guys never even came close to winning the nomination. This time around, Iowa almost certainly picked the GOP nominee. That’s probably enough to make sure thousands of media folks descend on its 99 counties, to profile its backward-looking voters, again in 2028. But I’ll be watching something else that night.