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Failure Theater
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Failure Theater

Three doomed approaches to the Trump restoration.

Former President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News town hall with moderators Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier on January 10, 2024 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Most Dispatch readers were presumably relieved, possibly even excited, when news broke Wednesday that Chris Christie would end his presidential candidacy. Nikki Haley’s obstacle to consolidating normie Republican voters in New Hampshire against Donald Trump had abruptly removed himself. She now stands a puncher’s chance at a momentous upset.

But you know me. My first thought, which I shared with the rest of the staff in our Slack channel, was that Christie may have spent so much time on the trail lately badmouthing Haley as a coward and closet Trump sycophant that his Trump-hating supporters won’t rally to her after all.

That was bleakly nihilistic under the circumstances even for yours truly, I admit. It prompted one of my colleagues to define my brand of pessimism as “finding a giant pile of manure on Christmas morning and being sure there’s a dead pony in there somewhere.”

I don’t always look for the pony. Tuesday’s newsletter was optimistic. Sort of.

We’re going to look for the pony today, though.

Wednesday evening should have been a good one for anti-Trump conservatives. Christie was out, instantly maximizing Haley’s chances of victory in the northeast. She and Ron DeSantis received two hours in prime time on CNN to make their closing arguments to Iowans. And Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum got a crack at making Trump squirm at a live televised town hall in Iowa.

In the end, it was not a good night. The manure pile was truly giant.

And there was a dead pony in there. Each of those three events showcased a different strategy toward Trump’s looming renomination. Denial, in the Haley/DeSantis debate. Resistance, in Chris Christie’s farewell speech. Accommodation, in Fox’s handling of its event with Trump.

All three strategies are failures.

If you and your opponent were 35 points behind in Iowa with 120 hours or so to go before the caucus begins, how would you use an opportunity like a nationally televised debate?

I’d probably train my fire on the guy who’s 35 points ahead. I might even reach out to my opponent beforehand and propose that we use the occasion to gang up on him in his absence, hoping to damage him in the eyes of late deciders to our mutual benefit.

That’s not what happened on Wednesday.

The debate had its moments. Watching Haley needle DeSantis for boasting about his primo leadership skills after months of campaign dysfunction and polling decline was amusing. And this seems noteworthy given suspicions that she’s angling to be Trump’s running mate:

Haley refuses to pledge publicly that she won’t join the ticket. But if there’s any political belief that seems guaranteed to disqualify someone from consideration, the idea that Biden won fair and square in 2020 is it. Maybe she finally realized that she won’t be the VP nominee regardless, seeing as how Trump now seems to think she’s constitutionally ineligible.

Either way, there was no alliance of convenience between Haley and DeSantis aimed at weakening Trump. The opposite: They spent their time alternating between attacking each other for minor betrayals of right-wing orthodoxy during their respective tenures as governor and complaining that the other’s attacks were lies. Haley even mentioned—and mentioned and mentioned, ad nauseam—a new website she had launched tracking DeSantis’ fibs about her policies.

Imagine trailing Donald Trump by 35 points and deciding it’s the other candidate’s falsehoods that urgently need exposing.

“The ceaseless, misleading, ticky-tack cherry-picking of each other’s records is as tedious as it is ineffectual. What are these two doing?” Mediaite writer Isaac Schorr tweeted during the debate. His exasperation was universal. It wasn’t just that Haley and DeSantis spent their time swinging at each other instead of at Trump; it was how often their disputes reduced to eye-crossing policy minutiae. Both candidates are exceptionally bright and well prepared, which are good qualities in a leader but less so in a television show aimed at an audience that tends to treat politics like pro wrestling.

As the event limped into hour two, one of my Dispatch colleagues grumbled that, “You have to have a 135 IQ and a subscription to The Economist to understand even 20 percent of what they’re saying.” A few days ago Politico reasoned that Haley is doomed in the primary because she appeals chiefly to college graduates, a shrinking minority in Trump’s Republican Party. That thesis struck me at the time as oversold: DeSantis, after all, has worked hard to exploit working-class grievances against COVID restrictions, vaccine mandates (and vaccines!), and “woke” indoctrination in higher education, and he’s now running third behind Haley in Iowa.

But watching the two runners-up in the primary go full metal egghead last night while Trump had ‘em rolling in the aisles over on Fox News made me wonder if Politico didn’t have a point. Republican populism is an insurrection against Washington, and it’s hard to lead a movement like that if you sound like Washington. Wonking out for two hours made Haley and DeSantis sound like Washington.

But what else could they have done?

A frontal attack on Trump’s fitness for office has never been in the offing. Each candidate gleaned early on that most Republican voters won’t stand for it, deeming it evidence of Democratic sympathies and complicity in the liberal “plot” to render him ineligible for office. Highlighting his failures on policy hasn’t done much to weaken him either, as DeSantis would unhappily tell you.

That’s left him and Haley competing in a weird pseudo-primary in which the goal isn’t to defeat Trump (yet) but to largely ignore him and try to overtake the other instead. It’s a domino strategy: Finishing second in Iowa will supposedly make you competitive in New Hampshire, and being competitive there will make you competitive in South Carolina, and being competitive there will, uh—well, eventually it somehow wins you the nomination. In theory.

To watch that strategy play out is to watch two candidates behave as if they’re in outright denial about the magnitude of Trump’s lead, about the long odds of parlaying a strong finish in an early-state primary into ultimate victory, and even about what sort of politics and political rhetoric their party now expects in a nominee. At times on Wednesday evening you might have been forgiven for wondering if they were in denial about the fact that Donald Trump is in the race at all.

That approach has left them 35 points behind. It’s failed.

Chris Christie’s farewell speech preceded the debate by a few hours, but it played like a preemptive rebuttal in hindsight. No one in the party this side of Liz Cheney has shown more righteous contempt for the right’s denial about Trump lately than the former governor of New Jersey.

His candidacy played out under a cloud of suspicion that a guy who’d done as much for Trump as he had over the past eight years couldn’t possibly be on the level. Christie gave Trump’s gonzo upstart candidacy a dose of legitimacy by endorsing him in 2016. He went on advising Trump informally throughout his presidency and was still chummy enough with him to have helped him with debate preparation in the fall of 2020. If he’s to be believed, Trump offered him no less than two different Cabinet positions and three different senior roles in his administration.

So his turn toward Never Trumpism seemed improbable. His 2024 campaign could only be understood in terms of vanity and delusion, some of us thought, the last gasp of a washed-up egomaniac who craved one more taste of national media attention before political oblivion. When Haley began to surge in New Hampshire and Christie refused to clear a path for her by dropping out, it looked like proof that he didn’t care about stopping Trump after all. He was poised to play spoiler on behalf of his alleged archenemy in the only primary in which Trump was struggling.

And then, with New Hampshire set to vote in less than two weeks, he dropped out. Chris Christie turned out to be an earnest Never Trumper after all.

Every day in this column I argue for why Trump can never again be trusted with power. Christie’s formulation of the case in his speech on Wednesday was as concise and elegant as anything I’ve written:

He’s said a lot of things like that over the course of the campaign.

In the end, he preferred to sacrifice his own ambition than risk inadvertently abetting Trump’s return to office. (I think.) He’ll never receive total absolution from people like me for the political sins he committed in 2016, but he went a long way with this campaign toward restoring his honor. I’m not sure anyone as close to Trump as he was has done as much to redeem himself. He has my respect. Sort of.

And I’ll repeat what I said a few days ago: By influencing a small but significant share of Republican voters to treat preventing another Trump presidency as their highest political duty, he may end up having done more to block Trump’s return to power come November than anyone else in the Republican Party. Certainly more than Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley did.

Still, it must be said: Christie’s strategy this cycle was a failure.

He did attempt the frontal attack on Trump that DeSantis and Haley have avoided but which so many Never Trumpers craved. What he got for it was 12 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, far behind Haley and only slightly better than DeSantis, who neglected the state and focused on Iowa. His favorability among Republican voters isn’t just terrible—it’s comically terrible. Imagine trying to win the nomination of a party in which 20 percent of the electorate likes you and 60 percent doesn’t.

There’s more to his unpopularity than just his antagonism of Trump, surely. But just as surely, that antagonism explains most of it. The candidate himself was caught on a hot mic before his speech complaining that “people don’t want to hear” his message. He did exactly what traditional conservatives wanted everyone in the field to do, rushing headlong at Trump, and … marginalized himself so thoroughly that he risked becoming nothing more than a spoiler for the very candidate he despised.

He was the candidate of unapologetic resistance—and ended up underperforming the two candidates of denial, Haley and DeSantis. The experiment to see how Republican voters might respond if a gifted retail politician threw caution to the wind and started truthbombing them about Trump ended miserably.

Perhaps it would have been more successful if a figure better liked by the populist base had tried that strategy. What if Ron DeSantis, say, had positioned himself as the candidate of unapologetic resistance, telling it like it is about Trump’s unfitness for office at every campaign stop? He might have had enough credibility banked with Republican voters to make some headway with them …

… But I doubt it. Presumably DeSantis would never have sunk to a favorable rating as gory as 20/60, but the sizable populist wing of his fan base would have been furious with him. And normie Republicans, many of whom still like Trump even if they’re not wedded to renominating him, might have preferred Haley’s denialist approach toward the frontrunner than DeSantis’ uncomfortable attacks on his character.

The Christie experiment was worth trying. It helped a bunch to restore Chris Christie’s personal image, but it failed. He told the truth, relentlessly and remorselessly. It didn’t matter.

There isn’t terribly much to say about Fox News’ town hall with Trump. Fox is Fox.

And it’ll always be Fox, it seems.

Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum didn’t spare the frontrunner entirely from difficult questions. He was asked about his autocratic ambitions, for instance, and denied that he had any—except on day one. He was also pressed about his legacy on abortion and took credit for overturning Roe v. Wade. Joe Biden’s campaign was circulating clips of that exchange on social media before the night was out.

But, bolstered by the predictably enthusiastic audience Fox had assembled, there was a distinct we’re-all-friends-here vibe to the event. More than friends, even: At The Bulwark, Tim Miller compared the atmosphere to “friends who had once been lovers beginning to lightly touch each other’s shoulders after a third cocktail.”

If you’re keen to have a new Republican nominee this cycle, as Fox News’ supremo once was, this was not how you hoped America’s most influential right-wing media outlet would behave four days out from the Iowa caucus. A New York Times headline captured the split screen on Wednesday evening efficiently: “DeSantis and Haley Tear Into Each Other. Trump Enjoys Himself.” Politico was more blunt: “Trump coasts in Iowa, as GOP debate turns into a ‘dumpster fire.’”

Fox isn’t in denial, feigned or otherwise, about the likelihood of a third Trump nomination. They can read the polls as well as you and I can. And Fox certainly isn’t going to resist his nomination the way Chris Christie has. Last year the network proved just how far it’s willing to go to avoid challenging its viewers’ belief in their hero’s invincibility.

They’ve reached the accommodation stage. Or, if you prefer the lingo of Kubler-Ross’ psychological model of grief, the acceptance stage.

Which makes sense. Unlike the three Republican candidates mentioned above, there are ultimately no considerations for Fox in how to handle Trump beyond its own bottom line. Haley and DeSantis still have a kinda sorta hypothetical chance of defeating him in the primary, so they can’t fully accommodate him—yet. Christie has come around to viewing Trump’s candidacy as a moral crisis for the party and the country and so he simply won’t accommodate him.

But good ol’ Fox? The writing in the primary is on the wall. Its audience wants Trump. Why shouldn’t the network dive headfirst into accommodation right now?

All the folks at Fox are doing is what most populist right-wing online media has already done—and what the remaining holdouts will quickly do once Trump rampages through Iowa and knocks their favored alternative, DeSantis, out of the race. It’ll be an easy transition for them: Accommodating Trump by defending the indefensible as his political needs require is the entire story of this party since 2016. Fox has as much practice at it as anyone.

And so defending—or at least minimizing—the indefensible is what they’ll spend the next 10 months doing. With any luck, their reward will be having to do it for another four years on top of that, producing God-knows-how-many defamation settlements along the way before the dust clears in 2029. Accommodating Trump is a more superficially successful strategy than denying his power or resisting it, but whatever little is left of right-wing media’s credibility will eventually be consumed by the process.

That smells like failure to me. Certainly morally, potentially legally—although not financially. In this movement, as always, business is business.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.