Taking Trump Apart
How can other Republican candidates do it when the base won't hold the former president to any standards?
There’s been a lot of complaining on the political right over the past couple weeks about the supposed legal double-standards Donald Trump has fallen victim to regarding his 37-charge criminal indictment. From the comparative treatment of other political figures who mishandled classified information (Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence, and Joe Biden), to the alleged “sweetheart” plea deal Hunter Biden just got, Trump just isn’t getting a fair shake.
That’s the word according to the former president and his supporters, anyway.
But as I’ve written and talked about on this website, there’s not much weight behind the narrative. On the documents issue, Trump effectively got the same legal pass as Clinton, Pence, and presumably Biden; he wasn’t charged with his mishandling of classified material, but rather in regard his extraordinary efforts to willfully retain it (including refusing to comply with a legal subpoena) after the documents were identified to be in his possession. Those lacking the huge political profiles those four individuals have, on the other hand, typically don’t receive such a pass.
The Hunter Biden deal is an even worse comparison, not just because the situations, crimes, and charges are very different, or that the type of deal Biden got isn’t all that out of the ordinary, but because Biden actually worked with prosecutors in the Justice Department and followed his lawyers’ advice. Conversely, Trump ignored and lied to his own attorneys, and allegedly obstructed the DOJ’s investigation into the matter for well over a year. Also, one can argue quite effectively that Trump received a far better deal than what Hunter got: the assurance of facing no charges at all if he had just returned the documents. The former president stupidly refused that deal.
But today, I want to talk about a different type of standard with Donald Trump, specifically in the arena of electoral politics, as he continues to dominate Republican polls in his quest to win his party’s presidential nomination. As of the time I’m writing this, the RCP average shows him at 52.2%, meaning that most Republicans prefer him to everyone else in the GOP field.
What continues to make him such an attractive candidate within his party, while remaining wildly unpopular with the general electorate? It has to do directly with standards.
Trump exhaustively complains (and has since the beginning of his political career) that he is treated unfairly. In some cases and by some people, he’s absolutely right. But with Republican voters en masse, the opposite has been true. Trump enjoys the astronomical, historically unparalleled advantage of not being held to seemingly any standards at all.
I’m not exactly breaking any news with that observation. I (along with a very long list of others) have been pointing this phenomenon out for years. But as we get deeper into the primary season, I think the topic is worth revisiting, both to illustrate the extraordinary challenges the rest of the field faces, and also whether or not the candidates can overcome those challenges.
Let’s start with a big one. When it comes to Donald Trump and perhaps most Republican voters…
Policies Don’t Matter
They did matter, once upon a time. Two thirds of Republicans who participated in the 2016 primary wanted someone other than Trump as their nominee, and though a lot of that rejection came from Trump’s vileness and ineptitude, people tend to forget just how much of a concern there was about the reality-show host’s acrobatic, often incoherent policy positions. Conservatism was unsurprisingly a foreign language to Trump (a lifelong Democrat), and his jumbled campaign rhetoric very much reflected that. His policy views amounted to a daily potpourri of statism, populism, progressivism, nationalism, and other “isms” including conservatism (though the latter was often parodic). Also, his positions were subject to change, on any given issue, at any given time.
But once Trump won the primary, there was indeed a valid policy argument for choosing him over Hillary Clinton. While Trump’s chronic dishonesty and unprincipled stances provided little reason to trust him to deliver even baseline Republican stuff like tax cuts and conservative judges, skeptical voters understood that with Clinton, there was no chance of getting those things. With Trump, there was at least a little hope that some GOP-establishment types in his administration and Congress would keep him focused, and nudge him in the right direction. And when he became president, that’s fortunately what happened… at least on those boilerplate issues.
That’s why, by the time 2020 rolled around, many Republicans were quite comfortable rationalizing their support for President Trump, even with all his daily chaos, pettiness, and unforced errors. Saying “I like his policies” was always a sufficient explanation in their view.
There was something always very surgical about that position, of course. Whenever you’d ask a Trumper exactly which policies of his they liked, their answer was reliably the same as that given by conservative Trump-critics like myself: the aforementioned tax reform and judges, which any Republican president would have gotten with the congressional majorities and judicial vacancies Trump enjoyed.
At times when Trump would deviate from traditional Republican orthodoxy, it was almost always to channel his inner Democrat, from sharply outpacing Obama-era spending, to implementing Bernie Sanders’ vision on trade and subsidies, to pursuing the Biden-approved Afghanistan withdrawal. Trump also assures us that he averted World War 3 by effectively blowing kisses at authoritarian regimes, though it’s still hard to connect the dots in that narrative to reality.
Regardless, the Trump base went along with all of it — no matter how self-defeating or embarrassing — not because they recognized wisdom or good results for America, but to demonstrate tribal servitude and harmony. Taxes and judges just gave them good cover.
But the twice-impeached former president has been out of office for almost two and a half years now. And as the 2024 presidential primary heats up (along with Trump’s legal troubles), those continuing to rationalize their support for Trump over the rest of the field by saying they “like his policies” are sounding more and more like a red-handed husband of yesteryear claiming he was reading the Playboy magazine stashed in his closet for the articles.
Trump was never much of a policy guy to begin with, but he’s even less so now. He’s spent most of his campaign still carrying on about the “rigged election,” reminiscing about the glory days of MAGA (which includes lots of revisionist history), settling personal scores, and whining about the deep state, RINOs, and whoever else is being “mean” to him at the moment. The policies popular from his presidency are supported by every Republican candidate (as they were by nearly every Republican politician before Trump ever entered politics), while the unique policies Trump occasionally talks about for his second term are increasingly authoritarian, progressive, and anti-Constitutional. As Bret Baier recently demonstrated, they also tend to fall apart under mild scrutiny.
But again, those who’ve stuck with him don’t care. Trump’s gains in the polls haven’t been tied to policy differences with his competitors, but rather the reliable attention he receives from the controversies he creates for himself (most recently his criminal indictment). If you don’t believe me, ask someone currently favoring Trump what they find superior about his policy platform over those of his Republican opponents. Let me know if they give you a coherent answer, or even try to. Also, try and figure out if they understand that the congressional majorities typically needed to enact a president’s policies have alluded the Republican party for three election-cycles in a row, thanks to Donald Trump.
Which brings me to another key point…
Electability Doesn’t Matter Either
Not all that long ago, Ron DeSantis talked about a “culture of losing” within the Republican party, a topic that would seem hugely important in the context of the GOP dramatically under-performing in every election cycle of the last seven years. DeSantis feels like someone worth listening to on this topic, being that he has proven himself a glaring exception to the rule, having won re-election in his swing-state last year by a whopping 20 points.
As a familiar saying goes, he “knows how to win.”
Yet, DeSantis is currently trailing in the polls by over 30 points to a guy who famously handed the GOP its worst political losses in almost 70 years, including the presidency, the House, and the Senate (twice).
What’s wrong with this picture?
Nothing, I suppose, if winning isn’t especially important.
“The political right has convinced itself that winning is a sign of failure,” conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg wrote the other day. “The system is so rigged against ‘us’ that if you win, it must be the result of some sinful capitulation. Losing is proof that you are pure, that you stuck to your principles. Winning is appeasement. Success is proof you sold out. These people are caught in a mobius strip of dysfunction, a non-falsifiable worldview that basks in the idea that they are heroes because they lose.”
Too harsh of an analysis? I might have thought so a couple years ago, but not anymore. I’ve seen a lot of the below sentiment from the right, especially in the last few months, and I think it speaks volumes about the role much of MAGA-world sees for itself.
On some level, I think Trump devotees have figured out that their tribe is really bad at coalition building — at least the type of coalition required to win general elections. They see themselves as righteous in their convictions, and therefore, as Goldberg described, helpless victims of our “rigged” system.
But they are not without very real political power. MAGA Republicans are highly influential within their party, and have demonstrated with remarkable ease their ability to eject Republican office-holders they’ve deemed insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump, or guilty of other anti-MAGA infractions. The result has been far fewer quality candidates surviving primaries, and thus far fewer Republican office-holders. This is an outcome a lot of Trump loyalists don’t seem to particularly mind, in the interest of tribal purity.
It’s “easier to nurture when electoral disappointments have piled up over time,” says conservative writer Nick Catoggio. “Losing hurts—unless losing is virtuous, sort of. The culture of losing is a coping mechanism… Losing elections is hard. For populists, having conquered the GOP with Trump seven years ago, it’s especially hard. The worse the Trump-era right performs, the stronger the case against populist stewardship of the party grows. And so losing becomes valorized, a fate reserved for MAGA heroes who threaten the establishment too much to be ‘allowed’ to win.”
Criminality? No on That Too
Commenting on a White House press conference early in Donald Trump’s presidency, Bernie Goldberg said on Fox News that Trump "could have pulled out a gun and shot a few reporters and his base would have cheered him on." He then added, "And I mean that literally."
“You meant figuratively,” host Bill Hemmer worked to clarify.
“No,” Bernie replied. “I meant literally.”
Social media blew up with outraged Trump supporters condemning Bernie over what he had said.
Sure, the quote wasn’t all that different than what Trump himself famously said about his supporters roughly a year earlier: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” But because it wasn’t Trump, and because the word “literally” was used, a lot of people felt the comment crossed the line.
I admit that even I thought at the time that it may have been excessive. If there was anything that would turn Trump’s loyalists against him, it would be murder. Right?
Well, six years later, I’m no longer convinced of that. Not after watching the base absolve him for causing a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, that he refused for three hours to try and put an end to, and whose criminal participants (some of whom beat the hell out of police officers that day) Trump now romanticizes, honors, and records music with. Not after watching his supporters shrug off his behind-the-scenes efforts to overturn U.S. democracy (and the votes of 81 million Americans), and his later calls to terminate the U.S. Constitution.
And look where we’re at right now… Trump stole top secret government documents on his way out of the White House, including on our nation’s defense and weapons capabilities, nuclear programs, and military attack plans. He cavalierly showed them off to random acquaintances, haphazardly stored them in bathrooms at his country club, lied about them and hid them from authorities, and refused every opportunity granted him, for well over a year, to return them without incident or legal consequences. And the real injustice — as outraged Trump supporters see it, and cite as evidence that we live in a “banana republic” — is that Trump is being charged for breaking the law?
Unless a law actually ends up disqualifying Trump from running for president (and no one seems to be making a serious argument that it will happen) there’s no reason to believe that the legal challenges he faces (nor those in the pipeline) will deter the Republican base from standing by him when it comes time to vote.
Then What’s a Challenger to Do?
That’s the big question. If a majority (or even a significant portion) of the Republican base is all-in for Trump — regardless of his policies, regardless if he’s electable, and regardless of whether he’s committed and/or endorsed serious crimes — how can any other Republican presidential candidate possibly hope to compete with him?
They may well not be able to. But they should at least try.
While the field should absolutely campaign on their policy differences, their appeal outside of the party base, and their respect and defense of the U.S. Constitution and rule of law (things us old-school righties still care about), there must be a serious, perhaps even coordinated strike at the heart of what now matters to most Republican voters, when it comes to Trump: his brand.
I’m not talking about his business brand, but his political one. Trump’s appeal with his base always goes back to one thing: him being a “fighter.” He has successfully sold himself as an equalizer or avenger — a common-man schoolyard bully that the rich, popular kids fear.
Most Americans have never bought into the act, of course, but for much of the political right, Trump’s a folk-hero. A force of nature. A symbol of strength.
Defeating him in the eyes of the modern right isn’t going to be done through strong policy proposals, promises to build winning coalitions, or reaffirming allegiance to the Constitution and vowing to play by the rules. But it can be done by making Trump look small, weak, and ineffectual.
Cutting him down to size is the only way another candidate is going to take away his title. The attacks by no means have to mirror Trump’s trademark style of vileness and dishonesty, nor should they; the Republican standard-bearer should be better than that. But the attacks do have to come, and they do have to sting. Chris Christie has been leading by example on this front, and other camps — after months of cowering in fear of upsetting the MAGA base — seem to be paying attention.
Let’s hope, for the sake of the party and more importantly the country, that more join in. Reverence to Trump will only guarantee failure.