Back Into The Matrix

By Rick Wilson

There is a moment in the 1999 film The Matrix when Joe Pantoliano’s character Cypher Reagan asks to be reinserted into the simulation that consumed almost all human life on Earth. “Ignorance is bliss…re-insert me into the Matrix. I’ll get you what you want.”

Right now, the Matrix is beckoning even stalwart members of the Never Trump and pro-democracy movement. The temptation to return to the tribal campfire is powerful and persistent.

I have the dubious distinction of being one of — if not the — first Republican strategist to draw the line on Trump far, far back in the dark times of 2015. I never wanted to go back into that Matrix, thought it would have been the smart thing to do financially, personally, and probably mentally.

After all, hundreds of friends and colleagues learned the easy way that once you bent the knee to Trump, the sting of shame and moral compromise faded fast in the comfortable fraternity of Washington life.

From the start, they told themselves that life would return to normal. Smart, sensible people would rein in Trump’s worst instincts and crude impulses, surely.  If that failed, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would stand athwart Trump’s bluster and madness. After all, Jared and Ivanka were there, right? Reince was there. Bannon? All a show for the rubes.

In the world of Washington consultants and the gentry conservative media, business went on more or less as usual, with nothing to worry about except the occasional deaths of 500,000 Americans in a pandemic, a violent uprising, the wholesale emergence of government by tweet, and policy set by madhouse conspiracy theories.

They stared at the utter disappearance of a conservative political party based on the rule of law, individual liberty, the Constitution, personal responsibility, fiscal probity, and a robust foreign policy. Somehow, they believed this was a lacuna, not a transformation. And, catastrophically, they dreamed they could control what it became.

Instead of recoiling in horror, they looked at the unwashed, uneducated, and unhinged base of Trump’s red-hat army and decided they would milk them financially through a spectacular scam called WinRed and build what one staggeringly foolish GOP insider called “A permanent governing majority” on the backs of people who quite clearly were ready to burn the government to the ground on January 6, 2021 and who today talk glibly about slaughtering FBI agents.

But those are just details.

After Trump’s defeat, which was greeted with a vast (and of course, utterly off-the-record) sigh of relief from the Republican professional class and the GOP leadership of the House and Senate, they were ready to seize control again, to elect their kind of Republicans and purge the poisonous conspiracy loons, the edge-case weirdos of mutant parade characters like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and the rest of the cultist coterie while pretending to worship the Dear Leader in exile.

Last year, they set their sights on a Trump-free future, and after a brief flirtation with Glenn Youngkin’s electoral model of denatured just-the-tip sweater-vested Trumpism (a model that failed spectacularly in Georgia and Pennsylvania U.S. Senate races this year), they set their sights on Ron DeSantis.

Just as in 2015-16, Republicans saw in him the perfect counterpart to The Donald; educated, credentialed, seemingly normal (oh, boy do that have that wrong), and with enough cred with the crazies to win a GOP primary. Just as Republicans in the Before Times confidently asserted that “Trump’s just putting on a show.” “He’s playing the rubes.” “He’s an entertainer, relax!” so now do Republicans desperate to re-enter the Matrix assert that DeSantis is “Trump without the rough edges” and “A normal Republican playing to the base” and “He’d never plunge the nation into a thousand years of chaos and darkness.”

This pleasant fantasy is utterly divorced from the realities on the ground of today’s GOP.

Ron DeSantis isn’t campaigning like a Republican. He’s pure, weapons-grade MAGA. He’s a product of that base, owing his career to Trump and them. His governance in Florida has been one long culture war screech coupled to routine abuses of power, all to play to the worst impulses of the empowered Ultra MAGA base voters. He speaks their language fluently and passionately, and his kickoff for the 2024 campaign this week led him to the sticky embrace of Doug Mastriano and J.D. Vance without missing a beat.

None of this, my Washington friends, is normal. DeSantis (and every other possible Republican candidate) will not take you back to the days before Trump. They are Trump’s inheritors and imitators, and some are more dangerous innovators, ready to push Trumpism to the republic’s violent, deadly end.

If not DeSantis, there are a dozen other aspirants to the White House from the GOP, all selling the same idea of themselves as the perfect Diet Trump; all of the sexy populism, none of the existential threat to democracy. A few are much, much worse. There’s just one big, angry, orange problem and 75 million of his fanatic followers.

If your dreams of returning to normalcy, sanity, and comfort rest with DeSantis and his like, it’s time to wake the hell up.

Elite Republicans’ isolation from and ignorance of the MAGA base is, even now, definitional to their delusion. They certainly don’t watch the media sewer that tells Republican voters Trump won and the election was stolen. They laugh off the daily agitprop sales pitch that millions accept blindly; that only Trump stands between America and a tidal wave of godless transexual illegal immigrant groomer Antifa caravans coming for their children, and that Joe Biden is somehow both a globalist socialist mastermind and a doddering Alzheimer’s patient.

Trump will run again. Republican elites will delude themselves that DeSantis, Cruz, Hawley, Haley, or Jesus reincarnate will defeat him.  It’s the same old song from 2016. Trump will almost certainly be the nominee of the Republican Party in 2024. He will run and run ugly, stoking more of the violence, conspiracy, and hate that consumed the old GOP. He will make 2020 look sedate and restrained.

2024 won’t be a policy fight between competing ideologies. It will be a duel to the death over whether Trumpist authoritarianism or the American Republic dies. Imagining a younger, safer, Trump-lite will save them from the destruction Trump will wreak on this nation is both arrogant and utterly irresponsible.

Washington’s gentry conservatives, Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch, and the DC consultocracy will imagine they’ll get something better from the field, but Trump’s protean nature in the GOP will lead them to endorse and support a man who came close to destroying the Republic less than two years ago.

After eight years of this fight, I know one thing; ignorance isn’t bliss.


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There is no time for complacency.

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