The 2024 election cannot be about the price of gas

Author HeadshotBy Frank Bruni

NY Times Contributing Opinion Writer

To spend more than a little time toggling between news sites of different bents is to notice a fierce debate over the American economy right now. Which matters more — the easing of inflation or the persistence of prices that many people can’t afford or accept? Low unemployment or high interest rates? Is the intensity of Americans’ bad feelings about the economy a sane response or a senseless funk estranged from their actual financial circumstances?
On such questions may the 2024 election turn, so the litigation of them is no surprise. It’s not just the economy, stupid. It’s the public relations war over it.
But never in my adult lifetime has that battle seemed so agonizingly beside the point, such a distraction from the most important questions before us. In 2024, it’s not the economy. It’s the democracy. It’s the decency. It’s the truth.
I’m not talking about what will influence voters most. I’m talking about what should. And I write that knowing that I’ll be branded an elitist whose good fortune puts him out of touch with the concerns of people living paycheck to paycheck or priced out of housing and medical care. I am lucky — privileged, to use and own the word of the moment — and I’m an imperfect messenger, as blinded by the peculiarities of his experience in the world as others are by theirs.
But I don’t see any clear evidence that a change of presidents would equal an uptick in Americans’ living standards. And 2024, in any case, isn’t shaping up to be a normal election with normal stakes or anything close to that, at least not if Donald Trump winds up with the Republican presidential nomination — the likeliest outcome, to judge by current conditions. Not if he’s beaten by a Republican who had to buy into his fictions or emulate his ugliness to claim the prize. Not if the Republican Party remains hostage to the extremism on display in the House over these past few months.
That assessment isn’t Trump derangement syndrome. It’s straightforward observation, consistent with Liz Cheney’s new memoir, “Oath and Honor,” at which my Times colleague Peter Baker got an advance peek. Cheney describes House Republicans’ enduring surrender to Trump as cowardly and cynical, and she’s cleareyed on what his nomination in 2024 would mean. “We will be voting on whether to preserve our republic,” she writes. “As a nation, we can endure damaging policies for a four-year term. But we cannot survive a president willing to terminate our Constitution.”
Trump has been saying, doing and contemplating some especially terrifying things lately, and while many of them wash over a populace exhausted by and inured to his puerile rants, outlandish provocations and petty-dictator diatribes, they’re not just the same old same old.
They’re not just theater, either. Long gone are the days when Trump’s darkest comments and direst vows could be dismissed as perverse performance art — as huffing and puffing that wouldn’t and couldn’t amount to all that much. That soothing myth died once and for all during the final months of his presidency, when he layered the Big Lie atop the heaving mountain of little and medium-size ones and cheered on a mob making its way to the Capitol.
And the notion that he’d at some point be contained by fellow Republicans who would put up with only so much? What a quaint hope that was. Most of those Republicans cowered before him. Most still do. The two current runners-up for the Republican presidential nomination, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, raised their hands when they were asked, during a debate in August, about whether they’d support Trump as the party’s nominee even if he was convicted of felonies. That’s why the stakes of this election are titanic even without Trump on the ballot. The stain of him is deep and wide.
The fact of him is scarier and scarier. Last week he sent out his Thanksgiving message, a social media post whose eccentric punctuation and erratic capitalization were the typographical equivalent of spittle, at 2 a.m., and he didn’t use it to wish supporters and other Americans well. He roasted his perceived enemies, presenting a platter of slurs with all the semantic trimmings: “Radical Left Lunatics,” “Psycho,” “Marxists,” “Communists.”
Just two weeks earlier, for Veterans Day, he traded inspiration for fulmination in a speech in New Hampshire, promising to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” Like vermin! And the month before that, he said that undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.” He’s like some unhinged lounge singer doing bad covers of the Nazis’ greatest hits.
His bastard music is consequential because it’s paired with a “series of plans by Mr. Trump and his allies that would upend core elements of American governance, democracy, foreign policy and the rule of law if he regained the White House,” as Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman and Charlie Savage wrote in a recent Times article that all voters should read once, then read again, then commit to memory so they can refer to it constantly. Those plans include the use of military funds for huge detention camps for undocumented immigrants, a Justice Department turned into a personal revenge force and ideological litmus tests for federal employees to ensure maximal sycophancy.
Have Haley and DeSantis grabbed hold of this potent ammunition to make a more forceful case for themselves? Hardly. They’re no more eager to take on Trump the budding fascist than they are to take on Trump the practiced fantasist, because they prioritize coddling his supporters and gaining power over standing up for the rule of law and the integrity of democracy. And DeSantis, in any case, is styling himself as the efficient version of Trump — more bang for your contemptuous buck.
It’s in that context that a focus on the prices of eggs and gas seems, well, like a luxury.

Image Credits: Tom Brenner/Reuters