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Take the Fight to Donald Trump
Without it, the Republican primary might as well be over.
Conservative writer and political historian Matthew Continetti recently wrote an interesting piece about the 2024 Republican presidential primary. He described it as “invisible,” being that despite a number of experienced, very capable candidates entering the race and laying out their visions for the country, former president Donald Trump maintains (and continues to build on) an enormous lead.
By any objective measure, Trump’s political strength within the Republican party defies logic.
“Donald Trump won the presidency by the seat of his pants in 2016,” Continetti reminds us. “Republicans have lost the House, the White House, the Senate, and governor's mansions in the years since. He has been impeached twice. In the past month he has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury and found liable, in a separate civil suit, for sexual assault and defamation. He remains in legal jeopardy, with prosecutors in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, mulling charges in cases related to the 2020 election and to his transfer of classified documents to his Florida home. He has the highest unfavorable rating of any politician in the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of polls and less than zero interest in changing his public image.”
Yet, those same polls show that a majority of Republican voters want Trump to represent their party again in the general election.
Sure, those folks have time to change their minds. We’re fairly early in the primary process, there haven’t been any debates yet, and it will be a while before any votes are cast. Still, there’s a growing sense of inevitability in a Trump nomination. Much of the Republican base is part of the Trump cult that shrugged off an attempted coup and deadly insurrection, still doesn’t believe Trump lost last time, is willing to sign on to any policy shift he mounts, and doesn’t even mind that he lost a ton of congressional seats and multiple majorities for the party.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s not as if Trump is some impenetrable force, like Thanos effortlessly working his way through a line of attacking Avengers who stand between him and the last Infinity Stone.
On the contrary. “There haven't been attacks to repel,” Continetti laments. “Trump is advancing toward the GOP nomination and looks competitive against Biden for a simple reason: He faces no resistance.”
Continetti argues that this isn’t how primaries are supposed to work:
“Historically, the frontrunner comes under attack from his or her rivals. Think Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2016, or Joe Biden in 2020. The rivals make the case that they, not the frontrunner, should lead their party in the next election. They base their arguments on policy differences. They share their concerns about the frontrunner's character. They draw specific contrasts between candidacies, and they are not afraid to say that the frontrunner is wrong or incompetent or unelectable. Republican primaries since 2008 have been especially raucous. Candidates all but fling themselves at each other.”
“Not this year,” Continetti adds. “It's as if we have two incumbent presidents in this race, and neither faces a serious internal threat.”
In the quickly growing Republican field, there are a couple of exceptions (which Continetti acknowledges): Asa Hutchinson (who few have heard of) and Chris Christie (who has yet to enter the race).
But everyone else has, at best, come at Trump with kid gloves — usually mixing their mild critiques (often without mentioning Trump’s name) with praise of the former president. Those who are running not to win, but rather to earn a spot in a second Trump administration, have spent the early part of their campaigns fawning over Trump’s greatness, while attacking fellow candidates who could potentially threaten his nomination. Whenever asked point-blank about Trump’s greatest (many would say disqualifying) liabilities as a candidate, both subsets reliably take a pass.
It’s no mystery why even the serious primary hopefuls are so gun-shy when it comes to Trump. They fear being buried by the man and upsetting his loyal supporters, whose votes they believe they’ll ultimately need to win the nomination (and later the general election). It makes sense, but unfortunately the strategy is self-defeating.
Simply hoping that Trump will implode on his own, or that someone else running will do the dirty work of cutting him down to size, is the same fatal mistake the 2016 field made. Trump, despite everything, has only grown stronger within the party since then. And unlike in 2016, today’s Republicans — a majority of them — hold Trump to virtually no standards.
When you exempt an individual from your principles and the standards you continue to apply to everyone else, that individual can never personally disappoint you. Candidates serious about winning need to change the dynamic. Tiptoeing around Trump, rather than making a strong, compelling case against him, is a formula for handing him the nomination on a silver platter.
A political donnybrook needs to happen. Those challenging Trump by no means need to act as petty and cruel as he routinely does (nor should they), but they need to put up a fight. They need to take chances, and unapologetically call out Trump’s glaring shortcomings. It would be especially effective if it was done in concert, to help contend with those in the field running inteference for Trump.
Could the strategy turn off the MAGA die-hards? Of course. But those people will always choose Trump over anyone else anyway. Continetti thinks there’s an opening elsewhere:
“It's at least plausible that a Republican could consolidate college-educated GOP voters and make inroads into Trump's non-college coalition, especially if that Republican narrows the field to two candidates. First, though, that Republican would have to explain why he or she should be the nominee instead of Trump.”
“This primary may end up an exercise in obeisance,” Continetti admits, “but the general won't be. Contrasts will be drawn. Memories will be jogged. Fears will be revived. If Republican challengers won't say why Donald Trump should be denied the presidency, Democrats will.”
By the end of this week, more Republican primary candidates will have officially entered the race. Republican and conservative observers who believed that a small field was key to dethroning Trump did not get their wish, but in my view, the situation isn’t hopeless.
It just requires some nerve.