Opinion

The fantasy of a Trump-slaying Republican

Why no one will stand up to Trump in the 2024 GOP primary

I have no idea if Donald Trump will actually run for president again in 2024. No one does. He could be feigning an intention to mount a campaign in order to maximize his power and fundraising among Republicans between now and the fall of 2023. He might be holding open the possibility of running in case the interminable criminal investigation into his business practices finally comes to head, with New York's attorney general moving forward with an indictment. The overweight 75-year-old former president could have every intention of running and yet die or become incapacitated by a heart attack or stroke between now and Election Day.

As I said, I don't know whether Trump is going to run.

But I do know this: If he does run, none of the serious GOP contenders in whom so many conservative intellectuals and Republican apparatchiks are placing their hopes will challenge him. Yes, a spoiler candidate with no chance of prevailing and little chance of winning a single delegate — think Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — may jump into the ring for a few rounds. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis? Former Vice President Mike Pence? Texas Sen. Ted Cruz? Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley? Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton? It's not going to happen.

Why will none of them dare to take him on? Because they aren't political fools. They can read the polls showing Trump beating them by more than 30 points and understand that they can only change this dynamic by successfully taking him down — something no Republican has come close to doing.

We've been here before, multiple times. During the 2016 Republican primaries. After Trump attacked a Gold Star family. After he insinuated Cruz's father had a hand in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After the Access Hollywood tape dropped. After the endless string of outrages that punctuated Trump's four years in the Oval Office. And, of course, after the insurrectionary violence against Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.

At each of those moments, a few Republican officeholders and officials rose up and took a stand against Trump. And each and every time, the people who did so either eventually backed down and explicitly or tacitly recanted — or they faced Trump's wrath and saw their political careers (if not their cable news bookings) crumble to dust. Say what you will about DeSantis, Pence, Cruz, Haley, and Cotton, but I don't get the sense any one of them longs for political martyrdom or ending their careers with a gig on MSNBC. All of them are relatively young. They can afford to wait out the Orange Beast.

But wait, say the inveterate anti-Trump optimists. What about a recent NBC poll of Republican voters showing that when asked to choose between supporting the GOP or Trump, just 36 percent name the former president while 56 percent choose the party? That's the lowest number for Trump on record!

Yes, it is. But note: The GOP has never been more Trumpified than it is right now, rendering the polling question somewhat nonsensical. (To choose the GOP over Trump in the winter of 2022 is to choose a party Trump has already remade in his own image.) It's also important to note that Trump himself has a much lower public profile now than he did from the summer of 2015 through to the end of his presidency. Not only is he out of office, but the still-extant social-media ban keeps him effectively muzzled. If he announces a run for the Republican nomination in the summer of 2023, that ban will almost certainly be lifted, allowing him to inject himself once again into the very center of the news cycle. If leading members of the party begin attacking him at that point, those polling results will likely shift back to where they were at earlier stages of Trump's career.

The only significant thing that has changed since Trump left office is that he's succeeded in convincing an overwhelming majority of his party's voters to embrace the Big Lie about the 2020 election. (Recent polls show something like 71 percent of Republicans think the 2020 election was "definitely not" or "probably not" legitimate.) This development, though civically appalling and extremely dangerous, will actually help Trump immeasurably in the 2024 primaries. 

To see why, let's imagine how the early stages of the contest would unfold. Trump, DeSantis, Pence, and the others are standing together on a debate stage in the fall of 2023. The moderator opens by addressing DeSantis: Donald Trump says the 2020 election was stolen from him and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. Do you agree?

What exactly is DeSantis supposed to say in response? One option would be to answer truthfully — which is to say, in the negative: No, the election wasn't stolen, and Biden won fair and square. But this would automatically place DeSantis on the opposite side of that 71 percent of Republicans and open him up to an onslaught of abuse from Trump himself. DeSantis would be labeled a cuck and a weakling who refuses to fight and would let the Democrats get away with murder from Day One of a DeSantis administration.

If, instead, DeSantis offered a tepid endorsement of the election fraud conspiracy, voters will be left to wonder why they should favor that second-best alternative over the man who was personally stabbed in the back and craves vengeance for himself and his party.

Then there's the most standard-issue-politician thing DeSantis could do, which is attempt to skirt the question and pivot to another, less politically perilous topic. But there is zero chance Trump would let him get away with that. He'd merely treat it as a different kind of confirmation that DeSantis is too weak to fight the ruthless Democrats to the death.

Cruz, Cotton, Haley, and most of the others would confront precisely the same politically impossible dilemma, though Mike Pence would face his own distinctly unappealing version of it. Mr. Vice President, President Trump pressured you to stop the electoral vote certification process in Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. When you refused, some of his supporters went to Capitol Hill with a mock guillotine to convince you to change your mind. President Trump is here on this stage right now. What would you like to say to say to him about those events?

Can you imagine Pence responding in any way other than fleeing from the stage as quickly as possible?

No politician with an ounce of political self-awareness would put himself in such a situation. And that's why the much-hoped-for anti-Trump melee isn't going to happen.

Donald Trump may not end up as the Republican nominee in 2024, but it won't be because some righteous Trump-slaying alternative has risen up to vanquish him from the party.

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