Trump and Iowa Republicans imperil democracy

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

If you’re looking for something to quench your thirst for a measure of hope in our democracy, don’t turn to Iowa caucus news for a figurative drink. That well is polluted—to put it mildly—perhaps poisoned, to take a more worrisome view. Given the nature of the campaigns, it looks like the January 15 Iowa Republican caucuses will only make things worse. We may have to hope for redemption of democracy in the November 2024 election.

What’s at stake: the earth’s mightiest nation may have a major-party presidential nominee facing 91 federal or state criminal charges across five indictments. For Donald Trump’s supporters, that rap sheet is not only not disqualifying—it generates more sympathy for the candidate and boos for media coverage of his baggage.

If my assessment sounds like a Chicken Little, “The sky is falling” mentality, I have some prestigious coop-mates. They include: Marilynne Robinson, a retired University of Iowa and Writer’s Workshop professor who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead; the well-respected and somewhat conservative international magazine The Economist; and Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications for Free Press.

Marilynne Robinson’s essay in the November 2 issue of The New York Review of Books begins with a sentiment often heard in the Hawkeye state these days: “I once loved Iowa.” Like the rest of us, the author must still have some affection and hope for this state, otherwise she would not have written the essay, “Dismantling Iowa.”

Gerald Ott covered the thrust of Robinson’s essay in a recent Bleeding Heartland post. Robinson surveys the damage that Governor Kim Reynolds and her “legislative lemmings” (to borrow a phrase from Bruce Lear) have done to public education in Iowa. She notes,

Kim Reynolds became governor in 2017, having served as lieutenant governor under Terry Branstad. She was elected to a full term in 2018, then reelected in a landslide in 2022, bringing with her an overwhelming majority of Republican legislators. Since then, Iowa has become a theater and a laboratory for root-and-branch retrogression. I am glad for Iowa’s sake that nationally so few people know or care what its legislature does. At the same time, there is benefit to be had in watching how this important faction governs, given a free hand.

What do these people want? If it happens that their goal is to create a permanent underclass, they are doing many things right. This is not at all the objective they claim for themselves. They pose as champions of the people. But they are making a wholesale attack on the basic institutions of the country, by policy and by the spread of pernicious distrust that undercuts the authority of institutions they do not control. This has led to an important reconfiguring of society on the basis of nothing worthier of respect than anger and resentment.

While the New York Review of Books piece does not mention “Trump” or “caucus,” the presidential campaign provides important context for the political mentality of Iowa’s current ruling party. Our state’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Brenna Bird, has endorsed Trump and now leads the charge of eighteen state attorneys general against what they call “the unconstitutional gag order against President Trump” in the federal case related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 elections. In effect, the AGs argue that Trump is above the law and should not have to follow court orders while his legal cases proceed. (Prosecutors have said restrictions are needed to prevent Trump from intimidating witnesses in that case.)

Meanwhile, The Economist warned in its November 18-24 issue that “the fate of the world” is at stake in 2024.

A second Trump term would [not could] be a watershed in a way the first was not. Victory would confirm his most destructive instincts about power. His plans would encounter less resistance. And because America will have voted him in while knowing the worst, its moral authority would decline. The election will be decided by tens of thousands of voters in just a handful of states. In 2024 the fate of the world will depend on their ballots.

For his part, Tim Karr argued in a piece for Common Dreams that the news media have aided Trump, instead of holding Trump accountable for his histrionics and demagoguery. Karr echoes the 2016 assessment of then-CBS CEO Les Moonves that devoting so much airtime to then-candidate Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Karr observes,

At the time, Moonves was praising Trump for the bumper crop of political-ad dollars brought in during the contentious 2016 election, but he was not alone. Former media executive Jeff Zucker has arguably done more than any single person to burnish the 21st-century caricature of Donald Trump. While an executive at NBC, he greenlit The Apprentice, which remade Trump from a bankruptcy-spawning loser into a boardroom genius with impeccable business savvy.

He concludes, “The commercial U.S. media system needs to undergo deep reckoning for accommodating the rise of Trumpism. This atonement should be reflected in a shift in the ways large outlets report on Trump, but also by recognizing the commercial incentives that drive media to lead with the Trump Show… Without calling themselves to account for the damage they’ve done, media executives will never quit their Trump habit — not in 2024, nor at any point after.”

While there is plenty of blame to go around, there is also enough evidence to warrant a strong rejection of the Trump mentality. The New York Times provided a good example of the kind of news coverage the Republican front-runner deserves in a November 20 article by Michael C. Bender and Michael Gold: “Trump’s Dire Words Raise New Fears About His Authoritarian Bent; The former president is focusing his most vicious attacks on domestic political opponents, setting off fresh worries among autocracy experts.”

For diversion, frustration, or motivation for November 5, 2024, check out some compilations of Trump’s numerous lies, or his self-aggrandizing claims to be an expert on just about everything.

See you at the polls.

Top image of Brenna Bird with Donald Trump, cropped from a graphic touting her endorsement of the former president. Posted on the Facebook page Brenna Bird for Attorney General, October 16, 2023.

About the Author(s)

Herb Strentz

  • Not Trump or Biden

    I see Biden’s approval is at a whopping 37% as the sycophants continue to support him. I can’t stomach Biden or Trump. Trump cultists support him despite his 92 counts. Time to lookaneMat Kennedy, West, and hopefully a Manchin “No Labels” candidacy. America deserves better!

  • Not Trump or Biden

    I see Biden’s approval is at a whopping 37% as the sycophants continue to support him. I can’t stomach Biden or Trump. Trump cultists support him despite his 92 counts. Time to look at Kennedy, West, and hopefully a Manchin “No Labels” candidacy. America deserves better!

  • will we ever stop Whitewashing the past and take responsibility?

    very convenient not to mention our AG’s connection to Steve King, long time power player in Iowa politics (google him and the elected official of yer choice) and well known player in international White Christian Nationalist circles, not to mention Trump’s ambassador to China. And of course of current Gov and her pals at Family Leader and other homegrown Christian Nationalists have now found Trump to be too conservative preferring the candidate running to his right. Trump is an opportunist who cashes in on already existing trends and the anti-Liberal culture of his current campaign has long and deep roots here that we can continue to be in denial of at not just our expense but the nation’s and by extension the world’s. Chuck Grassley and his federalist pals have put us under the reign of their own version of Christian Nationalism with the current Supreme Court and unless Biden and company come to terms in their (godz willing) second term it’s going to be a long and grim 20-30 years of the kinds of horrors we see around the ongoing refusals of medical care for people needing abortions, mass shootings, and so on.

  • ps

    sorry didn’t mean to suggest that King was Trump’s ambassador was adding Branstad to the list of Iowa radicals not included in these all too conveniently potted histories.

  • A Binary Choice

    RFK Jr and Cornell West offer no tangible qualifications to be president.

    No third party candidate, including Joe Manchin or other No Labels candidate will be elected president.

    If anyone thinks differently, I’d like to see the analysis of how a third party winner could occur.

    I get some people struggle with it, but the likely outcome is that either Joe Biden or Donald Trump will be elected president in November 2024.

    It will be a binary choice.

    Biden or Trump. Democracy or authoritarianism.

  • agree - no biden or trump

    I can’t in good conscience vote for Biden again. Hell no! Will either not vote for president or quietly vote RFK Jr.

  • Biden for retirement home

    Its clear that our president isn’t up for the job and have to wonder who is really running the country? He’s not worth voting for again and don’t need the party or my union to tell me who to vote for – I can think for myself, thank you.

  • Autocracy or democratic republic..nothing less at stake.

    Any vote for a third party candidate is nothing less than a vote for Trump. A vote for Trump is a vote for autocracy. A vote for Biden is a vote for experience in managing our democratic economy, a vote for credible and trusted relationships with other world leaders. In a time of burgeoning wars in Europe and the Mideast, this validity with other world leaders is essential to our democracy and place in the world. Being knowledgeable of these relationships and their impact on our country is vital to our survival as a functioning democratic republic. It’s very simple, Biden preserves our democratic republic. Trump destroys it.

  • Informal focus group -threats to democracy are views shared by others

    Herb, thank you for your correct analysis; you were not exaggerating. I often use columns published here, or comments, to raise issues with my “informal focus group’ of a combination of friends who are conservative R’s, I’s who will not vote for Biden, or (for a few) dislike all politicians and have stopped reading news. I shared your column and asked about their views of threats to democracy, as you wrote about. As several explained to me, Biden and Democrats are the threat to Democracy. They explicitly say that when they supported my candidacy in the 80’s and 90’s, they split their tickets, but did not think D’s threatened democracy. Since Obama, their views have changed; several still cite Obamacare as a cause.

  • iowaralph, I admire your gumption...

    …for having and talking with such a diverse focus group. You have obviously marched right in where many fear to tread:-).