Can a Decent Republican Win in 2024?
Or is the choice between Trump and a Republican worse than Trump?
Cards on the table: I really, really don’t want Donald Trump to be the GOP nominee for president in 2024. If he’s the nominee he could win the presidency again, and I would rather not relive that experience. None of Trump’s immature leadership style has abated. Trump’s authoritarian impulses and personal depravities remain ever-present. His foreign policy would be a disaster and his sabotage of the executive branch would be worse. Oh, and there’s the disturbing precedent of rewarding the guy who fomented a violent attack on the Capitol with a major party nomination for a second term in office.
Unfortunately, as the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World has warned, Trump’s 2024 campaign is gaining strength while the Great GOP Hope has floundered. Things have gotten so bad that outlets like Politico are asking if the race is already over.
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The success of Donald Trump, an asshole who became president, created a fallacy: Americans want an asshole as their president. This misapprehension greatly appeals, of course, to assholes, especially those in public office, who seem happy to drop their traditional practice of pretending to be nicer than they really are in favor of doubling down on being dicks.
In truth, Trump’s appeal is, or was, probably based less on just being an asshole than in getting America’s large share of angry, aging, conservative, mostly white people to feel “this asshole is on my side,” plus occasionally being funny.
But that distinction seems lost on… 2024 candidates. These folks may be secretly nicer than they pretend, but all seem to hope that publicly playing up any boorish qualities they share with the former president is a ticket to national polling success.
This prompted an interesting exchange on social media about whether being an asshole was a necessary condition to securing the GOP nomination. The thing is, polarization has made it difficult for both sides to even agree on what this means. One partisan’s asshole is another partisan’s warrior for justice and speaker of difficult truths.
With that caveat, it sure seems like the latest CBS poll of Republican voters suggests that “being an asshole to others” is a desirable quality: “There's big demand for a candidate who says Trump won in 2020, who challenges woke ideas, who doesn't criticize Trump and, for good measure, makes liberals angry. Trump leads in all of these areas.” I mean, look at this graph:
Others, however, pointed to a different finding suggesting that maybe this race is not quite over:
This suggests that while Trump has a base within the GOP, it’s not quite as big as it everyone thinks.
Over at National Review, Noah Rothman and Jeffrey Blehar offer their own takes on whether and how another Republican can defeat Trump in the GOP primary. The good news is that they kinda sorta persuaded me that it is possible for a Republican to defeat Trump in the primary and not be an asshole while doing it. The bad news is that there are worse things than being an asshole.
Of the two Rothman is the more downbeat in his assessment:
The good news is that, with 27 percent of likely Republican primary voters “not considering Trump” and almost 50 percent more being at least open to the prospect of an alternative nominee, the non-Trump candidates in the race have a shot. But the bad news is that those non-Trump candidates must somehow win the nomination without campaigning against Trump, about whom the Republican primary electorate will not hear one bad word….
Rank-and-file Republican voters have invested a lot of psychological capital in Donald Trump. They defended him in bitter disagreements with loved ones. They supported him throughout a four-year lecture from political and cultural elites about their personal shortcomings. They stood by his side when it would have been far easier to acquiesce to the messages with which they were bombarded near daily from the commanding heights of American refinement. And now, they’re asked to abandon him in deference to mere practical concerns — the frankly debatable proposition that he cannot win a general election or the academic notion that he could serve only one more term in office. And give their critics the satisfaction by tacitly admitting that, through years replete with personal sacrifices and compromises, they were wrong all along? Get bent.
Blehar offers some realpolitik lessons in how to beat Trump. He agrees with Rothman on certain no-noes, like highlighting Trump’s myriad legal troubles and other political ballast: “I know how any non-Trump candidate will lose: by relitigating January 6. That’s a shame; it is far more important for the present purposes to note that it is also a reality.” But he also points out that no primary candidate will defeat Trump by merely aping his assholery:
Perhaps the single most important piece of advice I can offer to any candidate is that you cannot hope to defeat Trump either by sucking up to him (“dragging in his tailwind,” so to speak) or by trying to just be him, i.e. imitating his style. As to the former, all you are doing is auditioning for your eventual public humiliation once you are of no further use to Trump — you will not inherit his mantle, toadies never do — or for a cabinet appointment in a presidential administration that will only occur on Earth 2. As to the latter, everyone immediately can sense a fraud, and little repels voters more on a gut level.
This all makes sense. The problem is Blehar’s recommendation for how to attack Trump:
Trump must be hit on the failures of his administration that most obviously resonate with — and stick in the craws of — his own voters. Argue that Trump ran as a purported tribune of the forgotten man, a defender of the average Joe, and when the chips were really down and a leader with a spine was needed to make the tough calls, he turned his pandemic policy over to Anthony Fauci and his crime policy over to Kim Kardashian. (For the populists, one could also add “and his economic policy over to Paul Ryan.”) Trump stood meekly in a corner and let Fauci lead America down a primrose path to the hell of lockdowns, shuttered playgrounds, remote schooling, and massive social and learning loss for an entire generation of children. Instead of worrying about America’s increasing under-incarceration problem, Trump was so desperate for celebrity validation that he let himself be hornswoggled into signing Kardashian’s bill. Any skilled politician can draw a connection between that and the Floyd riots and continuing urban decay.
Blehar knows the GOP base way better than I do, but I wholeheartedly agree that the only way another Republican defeats Trump is by coming at him from his right. As previously noted in this space, however, this is not comforting news for those of us who live outside the GOP bubble. It demonstrates how far the GOP has drifted over the last eight years.
If the advice GOP pundits give to the not-Trumps is “don’t be an asshole, just be authentic and to the right of Trump,” I do not hold out much hope that any of them will acquire the necessary momentum to displace the former president. Which might explain the very early emergence of 2016 circular firing squad-style tactics among the not-Trumps.