Democrats often talk about Donald Trump as though he’s Bowser in the Super Mario games. Once he is defeated, the game is over. Good vanquished evil, the princess is saved, and peace restored to the Mushroom Kingdom. Yet, as in the Mario franchise, there is always a sequel. Bowser never goes away. He either comes back or a new villain - Wario, say, or the Koopa kids - takes his place.
Here in Tennessee, we’re seeing the first rumblings of that succession. The Republican primary for US Senate has become one of the most contentious battles this side of a Nintendo console. Manny Sethi, a surgeon from Nashville, is taking on Trump-anointed frontrunner and former US ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty in what Politico dubbed “the nastiest Republican primary in the country.”
The last Democrat to be elected to the US Senate from Tennessee was Al Gore in 1990, so whoever wins is likely to become the Volunteer State’s next senator. And while watching the right cannibalise itself is always a good time, the truth is for Democrats like me it doesn’t matter who wins this primary. It is, however, worth looking at what it tells us about the state of the Republican Party and American politics more broadly.
Sethi is the son of Indian immigrants. In a Trumpian power (and racist) move, Hagerty refuses to pronounce his surname correctly (calling it an honest mistake, though one he’s been corrected on) He has accused Sethi of such dastardly deeds as promoting gun control in middle schools and being a millionaire who did not donate to Trump's 2016 campaign. He even ran a controversial - and deliberately misleading - advert claiming Sethi donated to an organisation bankrolling riots.
Not content to let Hagerty claim the Red Hat for himself, Sethi has railed against Hagerty for also being a millionaire, comparing him to the insufferably wealthy Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island and labelling him as the dreaded “establishment.” In the same advert, Sethi speciously claims Hagerty is endorsed by Republicans’ liberal archnemesis and fellow Republican Mitt Romney. Yes, Mitt Romney. You read that right. (Romney has not endorsed Hagerty.)
That Mitt Romney, who only eight years ago was the GOP presidential nominee and is currently himself a US Senator, is now a four-letter word in conservative politics and is a harbinger of dark days to come. Donald Trump, however, ought to be toxic right now. Indeed, the most telling - and frightening - aspect of this race is that neither man is fighting to save the soul of the Republican Party from Trumpism. More than 150,000 Americans have died while the president stood idly by, and the two men most likely to become our next senator are competing to see who can lick his boots cleaner.
I can think of no surer sign that, even if Trump loses re-election, Trumpism is here to stay. The incendiary rhetoric could have been lifted from the worst of Trump’s fascistic Twitter ramblings. Sethi is running an advert claiming progressives “destroy our churches” and “hate America.” Hagerty resigned his position on a board of an investment firm after its CEO spoke out in favour of Black Lives Matter, calling the movement “a Marxist organisation that seeks to destroy the America that I know and long to support.”
This kind of dangerous fear mongering is not exclusive to the primary, either. Not content to be left out of the degrading of American discourse, on Tuesday, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn - whom either Sethi or Hagerty will serve alongside should they be elected - published an op-ed at FoxNews.com warning that the country is “under siege by the left’s political mob” and that “the spoils of this brewing war will be the right to re-mould the American identity.” Referring to peaceful protests as portent of a “brewing war” is as Trumpian, even outright fascist, as it comes.
Democrats in blue states might be tempted to dismiss this as the provincial bigotry of their country cousins, but the future trajectory of the Republican Party matters to all Americans. Clearly, these candidates still see an electoral benefit in running to Donald Trump’s orange embrace. If they are proven right – and there’s no reason to think they won’t be – that means there are still plenty of Americans to whom Trumpism appeals.
In a nation that elects its presidents not by popular vote but by the Electoral College, that means another Trump (or worse) winning the presidency in the near future is not only possible, but likely. Nevermind that Blackburn is already making public policy in Washington. Soon, either Sethi or Hagerty is likely to join her.
Even if the Democrats take both Houses of Congress and the White House in November, we won’t hold them forever. Republicans will one day govern again, and it will be sooner than Democrats hope. Whoever wins this Senate seat will serve until at least 2027.
Regardless of what happens in November, by then we very well may have a new Republican president. Blackburn is thought to harbour executive ambitions, but she won’t be the only one. If the race between Sethi and Hagerty is any indication, the next Republican presidential primary will be a contest to see who can out-Trump Donald Trump.
As Mario would say, “Mamma mia!”