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Kamikaze Chris

Would a Christie candidacy be good or bad for Trump?

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on November 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What if I told you that, apart from Ron DeSantis and you-know-who, no candidate will have more influence over the outcome of the 2024 Republican primary than Chris Christie?

I’m not saying I believe it. In a career filled with hot takes, it’s among my hottest. But get a drink or two—or six—into me and … I think I can make myself believe it.

Christie hasn’t held office since January 2018. When he left that job his approval rating had collapsed, eroded by scandal. He washed out of the 2016 campaign after failing to crack double digits in New Hampshire, then gave Donald Trump his biggest shot of mainstream political credibility to that point by endorsing him. Never Trumpers will bear him an eternal grudge for it. Since January 6, 2021, when Christie finally saw the light about the man whom he helped make president, he’s become a strident Trump critic. Trumpers will bear him an eternal grudge for that.

He has no constituency in a post-Trump GOP. I’d expect him to underperform his 2016 benchmark of 7.4 percent in New Hampshire if he ran again in 2024, perhaps significantly.

This does not have the obvious makings of an influential candidacy.

But after my sixth shot of Jack I’d remind you that Christie did influence the 2016 race in a profound way, even before he lent his stature as governor to a Trump endorsement. Remember?

He’s gotten too much credit for that moment. It was Marco Rubio’s “robotic” inability to adapt during the exchange more so than anything Christie said that killed Rubio’s momentum in New Hampshire and cleared Trump’s path to a resounding, campaign-launching victory.

But Christie’s gifts as a retail politician are evident there. His mockery of the “25-second memorized speech” was laser-sharp in exposing Rubio’s weakness in the moment. And the contrast between Rubio’s canned answer and Christie’s plain-spoken scoffing that the emperor had no clothes had a Trumpy quality to it, breaking the fourth wall and puncturing the pretensions of the political class. Christie was saying to Republican viewers, in so many words, “Can you believe how lame these Washington stiffs are when someone snatches away their script?”

He’s not a populist, but watching that exchange reminded me of how he became a phenomenon in populist conservative media during his early days as governor. He would riff colorfully, acidically, and seemingly extemporaneously during press conferences about his enemies in the media and the teachers union to the delight of grassroots Republicans. He was, for a while, Ann Coulter’s choice for president. One of the great what-ifs of modern American politics is how another (at the time) overly scripted establishmentarian, Mitt Romney, might have fared in 2012 had Christie entered that year’s primary at the height of his popularity and confronted Romney the way he did Rubio.

Chris Christie can be quite nimble and effective when he’s calling an opponent on their BS. What happens if he enters the race this summer and starts calling Trump on his BS?

And what happens if he starts calling Ron DeSantis on his?

The former governor visited New Hampshire on Monday to relive his finest hour, when he helped finish off the most electable normie in the race in 2016 and set the Republican Party on track to become the dystopian populist personality cult we know and loathe.

His remarks weren’t ultimately about Marco Rubio, though. They were about Trump.

Quote: “You better have somebody on that stage who can do to him what I did to Marco because that’s the only thing that’s going to defeat Donald Trump. And that means you’ve got to have the skill to do it. And that means you have to be fearless because he will come right back at you.”

I’m choosing to take that seriously, not literally, to borrow a phrase. No one’s going to short-circuit Trump’s candidacy in a single 60-second exchange, Christie included. We’re talking about a guy who continues to lead handily in Republican primary polls despite warning of “death and destruction” if he’s indicted in Manhattan. The rules of politics are different for him, as they always have been. His base will forgive him anything, up to and including trying to overthrow the government.

What Christie meant, I thought, is that if he runs he’ll confront Trump frankly and fearlessly about his many flaws, to a degree no other Republican would dare. And you know what? I believe him.

He’s been walking the walk for a while.

Yesterday in New Hampshire he scoffed at the most infamous line from Trump’s recent speech to CPAC. “Donald Trump said a couple of weeks ago, ‘I am your retribution.’ Guess what everybody? No thanks. No dice,” Christie told his audience. “He doesn’t want to be my retribution. That’s baloney. The only person he cares about is him.” That’s correct. And it’s something Ron DeSantis, say, would be unwilling to admit.

Increasingly Christie seems to revel in occupying that frank-and-fearless niche. Late last year he sneered at the timidity of other 2024 hopefuls like Mike Pompeo who criticize Trump only in oblique terms. “They say, ‘Leaders who do this or that.’ But they won’t say the name. I think that fails the leadership test,” Christie said to my colleague, David Drucker. “You’re going to run against him? Say his name. You think he did something wrong? Say his name.”

He’s also prone to uttering the grandest heresy in Republican politics. Trump’s “ego is so badly bruised from what he knows is true—he knows he lost to Joe Biden. He doesn’t believe the stuff that he’s saying. He knows he lost to him. And his ego has not been able to withstand it,” he told Drucker in November. More recently he’s complained that he’s fed up with the party’s electoral disappointments and blames them squarely on Trump’s stewardship, insisting that “that argument needs to be made and made directly to the people of our party.”

All of this should leave a Never Trumper feeling conflicted.

After all, Chris Christie is a weasel who stuck with Trump long after it became clear that his buddy was a menace to American democracy. A member of the audience called him on that yesterday in New Hampshire, in fact:

“I’m glad to hear you standing up against Trump,” the person said, but “when the results came in, you jumped ship on us.”

“Let me explain. Let me explain 2016 to you,” Christie responded. “I’ll be honest with you. We all made a strategic error … I stayed with him in 2016 because I didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president.”

“None of us knew what kind of president he really would be or not,” Christie added.

“I did,” the attendee replied.

So did I. You, being a Dispatch member, probably did as well. Why didn’t Christie?

Anti-Trumpers will never fully forgive him for 2016. But there is a scenario in which Christie might atone somewhat for his role in bringing us Trump’s madness:

Do you want someone onstage with Trump this summer throwing rhetorical roundhouses at him? Well, unless and until Liz Cheney decides to reenter politics, Chris Christie is probably the only game in town.

He’s a man without anything to lose. Unlike DeSantis and Nikki Haley, he has no future in Republican politics. The only thing he might plausibly achieve by running for president again is legacy-building by distinguishing himself as the rare member of Trump’s party brave enough to criticize the cult leader in unsparing terms and the only member of the party skilled enough to inflict real damage by doing so. If Christie is sufficiently in touch with reality to know that he has no chance of winning, and if he intends to treat his candidacy as a sort of kamikaze mission to diminish Trump in the eyes of persuadable Republican voters, then his campaign could influence the outcome of this race beneficially.

DeSantis can’t call Trump a sore loser, the insurrection a national disgrace, and the party a stumbling electoral disaster intoxicated by Trumpism. He’d be dead on arrival in the primary if he did. But Christie can say it. And he can say it with authority: “I’ve known Trump for decades, I worked for his campaign, I can tell you what a rolling catastrophe he is behind the scenes.” If he attacks consistently, he might weaken the taboo—a bit—within the GOP of criticizing Trump in general. Right-wingers are so siloed off by the media from dissenting viewpoints about their hero that some may never before have considered some of the points Christie intends to make. 

The more comfortable Republican voters get with hearing that the emperor has no clothes, the more willing they might be to choose a new emperor.

That emperor won’t be Chris Christie. But he can do some good for his country by pressing his case and taking a rhetorical wrecking ball to Trump’s campaign even if he’s doomed to wash out before Iowa.

“Kamikaze Chris,” stalking horse for the anti-Trump bloc, is the best-case scenario. There’s a worst-case scenario too.

I’m not sure Christie knows that he has no chance of winning. In fact, I’m quite sure that he hopes to defeat the rest of the anti-Trump bloc, not to volunteer to act as a battering ram for it against their common enemy.

He’s gone after DeSantis lately, including at yesterday’s event:

Christie also took swipes at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, mocking his description of the Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute” and arguing that the party won’t succeed with candidates who are trying “to be Trump-like.”

“Let me tell you, everybody, what a territorial dispute is. It’s when you get your property survey, and you find out that your neighbor’s fence is six inches on your property. That’s a territorial dispute. When you roll tanks and artillery into a free country in an attempt to take their land and their lives by force: That is authoritarian aggression,” Christie said. “Someone please place a wake up call to Tallahassee.”

He mocked the governor for worrying that supporting Ukraine against Russia might lead to a proxy war with China. We’re already in a proxy war with China, Christie insisted, pointing to the number of American deaths every year from Chinese-made fentanyl. In an interview with this publication last month, he scoffed that no one outside Florida knows who DeSantis really is and compared the hype around his looming candidacy to the hype around Scott Walker and Jeb Bush before they entered the race in 2016.

He also made this contemptuous comment in New Hampshire about Trump’s Republican challengers, not naming DeSantis specifically but clear enough in his intent: “They’re going to wriggle right up next to [Trump] and say ‘I’m almost like him, but I’m not quite as bad.’ Let me tell you something, everybody. That’s going to lose as certain as he lost in ‘20, as we lost the House in ‘18, as we lost the Senate in ‘21, as we underperformed in ‘22.”

Watching this guy go about nuking Trump’s most formidable opponent in a presidential primary in a quixotic bid to replace that opponent as the One True Alternative feels … familiar.

He told Fox News recently that he’ll run for president only if he sees a path to victory. There is no path to victory, of course, but I can imagine how Christie might talk himself into believing that there is. It goes like this: He jumps in, camps out in New Hampshire, and distinguishes himself by brawling with Trump unapologetically. That piques the interest of Trump-skeptical Republican voters who currently favor DeSantis and Haley. Meanwhile, DeSantis is spread thin, distracted by battling Trump in Iowa and caught between the populist and conservative wings of his base on tricky issues like Ukraine. His mini-me shtick with respect to Trump starts to grate on the traditional Republicans supporting him.

Christie impresses at the debates this summer by clashing with Trump while DeSantis underperforms. Come fall, the governor’s polling begins to dip. A panicked Republican establishment, seeing its best chance of defeating Trump fading as the primaries approach, scrambles to unite behind Christie and showers him with endorsements and cash. Christie’s New-Hampshire-heavy approach ultimately pays off with a victory there, eliminating DeSantis and turning the primary into a death match between Trump and MAGA on the one hand and Christie and “Anyone But Trump” on the other.

It’s not going to happen, but that’s not the point. The point is that so long as Chris Christie believes it could happen, he has a reason to attack DeSantis, Haley, and Mike Pence. And because voters’ opinions about DeSantis, Haley, and Pence are soft, Christie’s criticism of them will almost certainly do them more damage than his criticism of Trump will do to Trump.

In this scenario, “Kamikaze Chris” ends up in his old role as a stalking horse for you-know-who.

His candidacy could hurt anti-Trumpers even if he holds his fire against DeSantis and the rest. The spectacle of the former governor of New Jersey going on offense against Trump while the current governor of Florida ducks and covers will make for an unflattering comparison for DeSantis in a party that fetishizes “fighters.” Ducking confrontation is a smart move for a candidate who’s trying to stay on the good side of Trump’s voters, but one can imagine Trump turning it against him: “Chris Christie may be a RINO who’d be terrible for America but at least he hits back when attacked. Can’t trust Retreatin’ Ron to stand strong for our country!”

And of course, the more admirers Christie gains by battling Trump while DeSantis lies low, the more the anti-Trump vote will risk splintering to Trump’s benefit. Trump wants a big field in 2024, knowing that each new alternative who enters the race is destined to carve off a bigger chunk of DeSantis’ support than of Trump’s base of diehards. A new poll of New Hampshire bears that out: DeSantis ties Trump at 39 in a head-to-head race, but when Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy are included in the poll, Trump’s lead balloons to 12 points.

Savor, then, the irony of a Christie candidacy. Even if he goes full “Kamikaze Chris” against Trump and attacks him effectively, he might end up siphoning off more votes from DeSantis’ anti-Trump base than from the man he’s attacking. Imagine a Trump 45, DeSantis 40, Christie 10 outcome in New Hampshire.

Maybe the best argument for a Christie candidacy is that he’ll help keep DeSantis honest, a little, about his populist pandering. If the governor knows he’ll be battered by Kamikaze Chris if he sounds too Lindberghian on Ukraine or too authoritarian on domestic matters, he’ll have to work harder to mollify traditional Republicans. 

But whether that’s good or bad to a Never Trumper depends on the outcome. If Christie helps drag DeSantis toward a more hawkish stance on Russia that stance ends up costing DeSantis thousands of otherwise persuadable MAGA votes and ultimately the nomination, how “helpful” was he really?

In the end, as is my wont, I suspect I’m overthinking the whole thing. Christie will probably run, and he may well follow through by throwing roundhouses at Trump. But who among us would be surprised to see DeSantis and Haley and the rest rally to Trump’s side against the RINO Christie in the name of trying to buy goodwill on the cheap with populists? One can imagine Christie, a former U.S. attorney, arguing that criminal charges against Trump are an insurmountable and disqualifying electoral liability only to have DeSantis or one of the also-rans chastise him for daring to side with the “deep state.”

We’re doomed, I think. But what else is new?

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.