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The Defectors

How many Republicans will withhold their endorsements from Trump?

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks onstage at the 2023 TIME100 Summit at Lincoln Center on April 25, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME)

On Wednesday, No Labels announced that it won’t hold its presidential convention next April as planned.

That’s not to say the centrist group won’t end up nominating a candidate, but “canceling its Dallas convention will give No Labels more flexibility—and more time—to make that determination,” per Axios. As I read that, the organization wants to leave itself a path to back out of the race in case it becomes clear that their candidate would divide the Democratic vote and end up reelecting you-know-who.

Not reelecting you-know-who should be the highest priority of every freedom-loving American next year, for increasingly obvious reasons.

Because they enjoy special influence to shape opinion, I think public officials have a special duty to make that point. And because hearing GOP officials make that argument—stripped as it is of normal partisan interests—might hold special power for swing voters, those Republicans have a particularly special duty to make it.

How many do we think will do so?

One prime candidate to take the plunge is Chris Sununu. The governor of New Hampshire has half-joked about Donald Trump being “f—ing crazy” (true), has pronounced him unelectable (false), and opted not to run for president himself in hopes of uniting the party behind a single alternative. (“Beating Trump is more important,” he declared in an op-ed.) Although his criticisms of the frontrunner tend to focus on his alleged weakness in a general election, lately Sununu has begun to complain about Trump’s, er, eccentricities. “Did you see his last visit to New Hampshire?” he asked reporters this month. “He was comparing himself to Nelson Mandela and talking about Jesus Christ being speaker of the House—it was kooky talk.”

Then came the supreme condemnation. “He sounds almost as bad as Joe Biden,” Sununu said, seemingly bothered more by that than by Trump’s overtly autocratic ambitions.

If any Republican public official is primed to conclude that he can’t support Trump for president a third time, it’s him. Sununu doesn’t even have a primary on the horizon to make him reconsider: He announced in July that he won’t seek reelection as governor.

So when he was asked recently in an interview with Puck whom he’ll support in a race between Trump and Biden, he said … Trump, of course.

In a podcast interview released Tuesday, Puck’s Tara Palmeri asked Sununu about next November’s vote. “If it comes down to Trump or Biden, which it most likely will, you’re going to vote for Trump then?”

“I’m a Republican,” Sununu replied.

It’s the same answer Sununu gave in 2020 when he won reelection by more than 30 points the same day then-President Trump lost to Joe Biden by eight. Sununu has been open about his low opinion of Trump, but he has been just as open about his loyalty to the GOP.

“I just want Republicans to win; that’s all I care about.”

When the history of this era is written, “I just want Republicans to win; that’s all I care about” should be its epigraph.

Does Sununu even mean it, though?

It’s possible that many more Republican officials than we think are preparing to come off the sidelines next year against Trump if he’s the nominee.

Not likely, but possible. A political leadership class dominated by cowards, grifters, and the odd earnest fascist here and there is unlikely to develop a sense of honor in the thick of a winner-take-all presidential death match. But the story you’d need to tell yourself to believe it isn’t that complicated.

It’s as simple as this: Arguably, GOP officeholders have no reason to rule out supporting Trump in the general election unless and until he becomes the nominee.

Because he might not, you know. The odds of him losing to Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley must be 500 to 1 at this point, but why take the momentous step of declaring him unfit for office when there remains a chance, however slight, that the party will nominate someone else? Why make enemies of the Trump diehards in your district before you absolutely have to?

You can burn that bridge next year by refusing to endorse him if Republican voters choose to nominate him again. But so long as there’s a possibility that DeSantis or Haley will solve your Trump dilemma for you by beating him in the primary, why not sit back, stay on the good side of populists, and hope for the best?

Right, Mike Lawler?

Chris Sununu has more strategic reasons than the average Republican to not rule out supporting Trump—for now.

He’s a popular governor in a hugely influential early state. He’s hinting at making an endorsement sometime in December. So long as he remains an ally of Republican voters—i.e. someone who’ll support the GOP nominee, no matter who—that endorsement might carry some weight with undecideds. Whereas if he turns around and declares Trump unfit for office, he’ll be discredited instantly as a liberal in disguise who prefers a second term for Joe Biden. Any influence he might have in nudging Republicans to support DeSantis or Haley over Trump would evaporate.

That is to say, the anti-Trump cause is arguably best served at the moment by Sununu posturing as a loyal partisan. The interests of that cause will change once Trump becomes the nominee and so perhaps will Sununu’s mind, and the minds of many other Republicans.

The question is this: If the highest priority in this election is defeating Trump, is partisan posturing by Sununu and others at this stage doing more harm than good?

Imagine if dozens of officeholders from the traditionally conservative wing of the party came out and said, “We can’t support Trump again. We want to elect a Republican president next year and will happily vote for Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley in a general election. But Trump is nutty, demagogic, and corrupt; a party that backs him is a party that no longer honors our values. If you nominate him, conservatives will stay home.”

Imagine if they’d said that six months ago, in fact.

It takes a lot of imagination. Any officeholder who issued that ultimatum would be teed up for a serious Trump-backed primary challenge. And there’s no reason to believe Trump-weary conservative voters would follow their lead by boycotting the general election if the GOP insisted on nominating Trump again. The defining characteristic of modern conservatives is that they’re partisan zombies who’ll support the foulest Republican over any Democrat; they won’t even bluff to try to get their way in a primary by issuing empty threats to stay home if their preferred candidates aren’t nominated.

Which, of course, is why populists who hate Republicans more than they hate Democrats now control the party. The side willing to take hostages calls the tune.

So asking someone to imagine prominent conservatives taking a bold stand for their values at the expense of Republican victory is like asking them to imagine what Earth would be like if gravity suddenly worked in reverse. It’s an interesting thought experiment yet so outlandish as to be pointless.

But on Earth 2, where there is a critical mass of conservatives willing to make clear that nominating Trump again would sever their loyalty to the party, Republican primary voters might be forced to reconsider the path they’re on. We’ve talked endlessly in this newsletter about whether DeSantis or Haley would be truly viable in a general election if the 20 percent of the GOP that’s loyal only to Trump chose to stay home next November. There’s nothing stopping grassroots conservatives from making that dynamic work the other way, where nominating Trump means a different 20 percent of the party stays home.

Had Sununu, Lawler, and others been willing to risk their long-term viability in the party by declaring that they won’t support Trump again, perhaps that would have normalized the prospect of a general-election boycott among traditional conservatives. And that prospect would have raised the price of renominating Trump to primary voters, steering them toward DeSantis or Haley instead.

“Permission structures” matter. By framing his objections to Trump in terms of electability rather than fitness, the governor of New Hampshire has given conservatives permission to lay aside any qualms they might have about the frontrunner’s illiberalism and to vote for him again. Instead of weakening the gravitational pull of toxic partisanship, Sununu has strengthened it.

Might that permission be withdrawn next summer?

At the risk of sounding embarrassingly naive and uncharacteristically optimistic, I think so.

“Might” is an unsatisfying prediction, but there’s no way to be more certain given the variables at play. One such variable is how “kooky,” to borrow Sununu’s term, Trump ends up sounding on the campaign trail next year. All signs right now point to kookier than you can possibly imagine.

He’s already reached the stage of describing his political enemies as “vermin.” Eleven more months of age, campaign stress, legal strain, and radicalization by the online populist media he consumes will only make him nuttier. I think the odds of him calling for violence explicitly at some point are no worse than 50/50, particularly if he ends up convicted of a crime before Election Day.

I’m not telling you that Chris Sununu and others in the “Conservatives Who Know Better” caucus would rescind their endorsements of Trump if he did something like that. We’re all far too jaded by now to assume that the average Republican officeholder has any moral breaking point.

But I am telling you that it’s possible. Once upon a time, Liz Cheney was a Trump voter. So was Adam Kinzinger. Mitt Romney considered serving as Trump’s secretary of state. Some people don’t know where their moral breaking point is until it’s broken.

Granted, the low-hanging fruit among Republican officeholders with a conscience has already been picked. Those like Sununu who can still publicly entertain supporting him after January 6 will be reluctant converts to the “never again” position. The tree will need to be shaken violently for some of that higher-hanging fruit to break loose and tumble off.

But violence and agitation are what Trump is all about. He could very plausibly cut such an ugly figure on the trail in six months that even normie conservative officeholders will get exasperated with having to defend him and decide, well, not to.

The other variable is the near-term prospect that the GOP might turn the corner on Trumpism. Tom Nichols sees Sununu and others deluding themselves into believing that this, at long last, is the final chapter. A glorious conservative restoration awaits if only they can ride out one last storm … 

Numbed by opportunism, many Republicans will simply hunker down and try to survive the next five years. They’re all sure that, after that, it’ll be their time, and they will triumphantly cobble together a new GOP coalition out of independents, moderate Republicans, and what’s left of the MAGA vote, gaining that last group by assuring Trump’s base that no matter what they may have said about their idol, at least they never went over the fence and voted for a Democrat.

This dream narrative ends with the normal Republicans emerging from their tornado shelters, surveying some limited and reparable damage, and restoring the center-right, conservative kingdom. President Haley or Senator [Peter] Meijer will get the GOP back to cutting taxes and erasing government regulations, all while mending fences with millions of people who were horrified by the violence and madness of Trumpism.

None of that is going to happen.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Conservatives Who Know Better followed the same reasoning to try to outlast Trump through his first term in office—and now here we are. As the calendar turns to December 2023, he leads in national primary polling by a cool 48.4 points. If he loses again next year and wants to run again in 2028, only a fool wouldn’t have him as a favorite for the nomination at the start of the campaign.

Were Biden leading Trump by double digits in head-to-head polling, I could imagine Sununu and other conservative officeholders convincing themselves to be patient and stay the course. A trouncing in 2024 would be too difficult to spin away as another “rigged election,” that card having been played already. A resounding defeat would be discrediting for Trump personally and for Trumpism more broadly. With the right-wing rank-and-file suddenly in need of direction, traditional conservatives would be positioned to step in and provide it.

But the odds of Trump being crushed by an enfeebled Biden already approach zero. Biden doesn’t lead him by double digits; he doesn’t lead at all. The best-case scenario for conservatives realistically is that Trump loses again but only narrowly, which would confirm that post-liberalism is viable as an electoral strategy for the GOP. (More viable than conservatism in some respects, in fact.) The lesson for the right from a closely run 2024 defeat won’t be that the party needs a new ideology, only that it needs a somewhat less unpopular demagogue to promote it.

Faced with that realization next summer, Conservatives Who Know Better like Sununu might reasonably conclude that the storm on the right won’t end soon after all and thus there’s no point continuing to try riding it out. They might as well declare Trump unfit for office and plot a new political course, like a third party, where they don’t have to be hideously ashamed of their nominee and the people who reliably vote for him every four years.

Or they could become post-liberals themselves, of course, and get with the new Republican program.

Is that where Chris Sununu is headed?

A few days ago I claimed that no one is in denial anymore about what Trump is and what he’d try to do in a second term. Perhaps I was wrong. Per Chris Cillizza, Sununu gave an astonishingly sanguine take on the potential for havoc from Trump 2.0 in an interview with the New York Times in October.

“Trump walked out the door. As much of a stink as he made that the election fraud in Jan. 6 and all this stuff, he still walked out the door,” he told the paper. “Democracy at its core is solid. Our institutions at their core are solid. They really are. We’re not falling apart just because you have a couple idiots on top of the ticket on both sides, saying ridiculous things.”

The whole point of Trump’s second term is to hollow out those institutions and fill them with lackeys who’ll abuse federal power at their master’s direction. There are elaborate plans in place to make it happen; the project involves far, far more than a “couple idiots.” Read Robert Kagan’s analysis in the Washington Post of what a second Trump presidency plausibly would look like. Sununu can’t be so ignorant of the risk that he’s comfortable hand-waving it away with a glib “It can’t happen here.”

And he can’t possibly be unaware of the civil unrest it would provoke if authoritarian stooges tried to commandeer the federal government.

Maybe he isn’t. Maybe the point of his glibness is to whitewash the threat so that undecided voters feel more comfortable giving Trump a second chance. Maybe Sununu and other Conservatives Who Know Better really do mean it when they say, “I just want Republicans to win; that’s all I care about.” Trump is a Republican. QED.

Chris Sununu wouldn’t be the first Republican to convert from conservatism to paranoid post-liberalism, and he won’t be the last. His time for choosing is coming soon. Everyone’s is.

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.