The Joy of Anti-Trumpism

Former New Jersey Governor and presidential candidate, Chris Christie visits "The Story with Martha MacCallum" at Fox News Studios on June 20, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Barbecue, beer, backyard fireworks, trips to the ER: America loves its Independence Day traditions.

I have my own tradition, of recent vintage. Each year I cue up my favorite conservative podcasts knowing that they’ll reliably deliver “greatest country in the world” sermons for the occasion. Then I reproach myself for not sharing their exuberance.

It’s embarrassing, and not just because I spend most of my time on this newsletter carping about nationalists. Nationalists are fickle about patriotism; conservatives aren’t supposed to be.

What’s embarrassing is that our very comfortable era is much more plausibly the best time it has ever been to be an American than the worst. Under the circumstances, pessimism can’t help but sound silly and myopic. Imagine complaining to an African American who grew up in the 1940s or ‘50s (or ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s …) that this country ain’t what it used to be.

There’s a strong case to be made that pride in the U.S. has never been more justified than it is now. There’s also a case to the contrary.

For all of the darkness in our collective past, America had never seen a coup attempt until two years ago. That’s new. And most of the American right—the home of patriots and flag-wavers, “constitutional conservatives”—wants the person responsible for that coup attempt back in charge of the government. That’s also new.

The character of a country is the character of its people. When half the people are prepared to vote for autocracy, conservative tributes to the greatest country in the world carry a whiff of insistence, as if to reassure themselves as much as their audience that nothing truly meaningful has changed. Hasn’t it? What to the small-D democrat is the Fourth of July in 2023?

One would think that a presidential campaign, ostensibly concerned with grand questions about the nation’s future, might concern itself with this one. Is it or is it not a civic crisis that Republicans’ satisfaction with democracy is collapsing, crushed under tons of lies about rigged elections? Should we worry that the leader of the party has nurtured a culture in which anyone who tries to hold him accountable comes under threat of death?

The second-highest polling politician in the Republican primary betrays no anxiety about any of this. His problem with the frontrunner is that he’s not antagonistic enough toward gays and vaccines.

But there is one candidate who has his priorities in order.

Several candidates, actually. Asa Hutchinson and Will Hurd are each running as truthtellers about Trump and his movement. But neither is charismatic or well-known, even to devotees of conservative media, and each seems to be acting out of a sense of civic obligation. They feel a duty to try to steer Republicans in a different direction. They’re not doing this for fun. 

Chris Christie is different, and not just in terms of charisma and media profile. He’s not running as a matter of patriotic duty, I infer, or to assuage any guilt he might (and should) feel for having spent six years as a loathsome Trump toady. He’s running, it appears, because he immensely enjoys calling B.S. on his former friend’s corruption when none of the other top-tier candidates will. He’s having fun out there. A lot.

I’ve begun to wonder if the pleasure he’s obviously taking in pressing the moral case against Trump will prove infectious to the 20 or so percent of Republican voters who say they’ve had enough.

On Thursday our friend David French paid some attention to an underappreciated aspect of Trump’s rallies. They’re fun.

And not just fun the way pro wrestling is fun, the many similarities between the two notwithstanding. For fans, French surmised, the rallies deliver real joy in the form of community: “They see a country that’s changing around them and they are uncertain about their place in it. But they know they have a place at a Trump rally, surrounded by others—overwhelmingly white, many evangelical—who feel the same way they do.”

Joy is an underrated virtue in politics. Barack Obama’s charisma and the historic nature of his candidacy made for a joyous spectacle at his rallies in 2008. You didn’t get that from Hillary Clinton’s events, God knows. And you’re certainly not getting it from Ron DeSantis.

The dirty little secret about being an anti-Trump conservative is that it too is often joyous.

In this case the joy derives not from belonging but from not belonging. Many times I’ve heard Jonah Goldberg say on The Remnant how his position on Trump has cost him friendships on the right, and I always sympathize—but cannot empathize. My contempt for those who traded their commitment to classical liberalism to protect their status within a Trumpifying right is so boundless that I’ve never stopped feeling grateful to be rid of them. If ever I should return to their good graces somehow, they’ll discover that they haven’t returned to mine.

It’s an almost spiritual pleasure to find yourself surrounded by people without dignity and to know that you don’t belong. 

The other joy of opposing Trump from the right is the satisfaction one gets from speaking one’s mind when others fear speaking their own. The happiest character in literature must be the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes who shouted the truth about the sovereign’s attire as the adults around him bit their tongues and kept up a silly pretense so as not to cause themselves trouble.

The emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Trump is a criminal reprobate who’s morally and intellectually unfit to wield any sort of power. These are simple truths, acknowledged privately by all but the most devout loyalists. But to say them aloud, in public, when others don’t dare is liberating in a way that’s difficult to describe. If you know, you know. Dispatch readers know.

Chris Christie, very much a latecomer to the practice, knows too.

He’s an interesting contrast to another harsh Republican critic of Trump’s, Liz Cheney. She acutely understands the point I made earlier about dignity—honor, in her words—and seems to be enjoying her freedom of candor more as time goes on. But her mien, true to family form, is almost always solemn and stern when discussing Trump. She radiates a sense of dour civic-minded reproach. All is duty.

That’s not the feeling one gets from Christie. He’s not attacking Trump because loyalty to the Constitution compels him, and certainly not because he thinks doing so will win him the nomination. He’s doing it, one senses, for the sheer satisfaction of bringing the pain to a guy who has it coming, an instinct one would expect in a former U.S. attorney. He’s speaking truth to power, to borrow a phrase.

Which is another enjoyable aspect of being an anti-Trump conservative, needless to say.

Here’s a stark bit from an interview he gave recently to the Financial Times.

Do you think Trump would be different as president a second time round, I interrupt. “Oh, he’d be much worse,” says Christie. “When he first got in, he was scared. He would bluster a lot, he didn’t know what government was like and didn’t know how to manoeuvre it. He would be a lot more of a problem as president this time. He’s about increasing his own power and lashing out at those people and institutions that he’s felt wronged by.”

Does he think Trump means it when he says he would end the Ukraine war within 24 hours? “He’d give Ukraine to the Russians. He wouldn’t care less,” says Christie. “Trump is someone who believes: fill the moat, pull up the drawbridge.” Is that because Putin has some kind of a hold over him? “No, he just admires strongmen,” Christie replies. “I think we see a pretty consistent pattern of him wishing he was a dictator, wishing he could be Putin in America. That’s what’s dark to me about it. That’s what he really wants. He wants to be a dictator.”

On Thursday he told CNN that there wouldn’t have been an insurrection if not for the two months Trump spent inflaming his fans over phantom election fraud, then accused him of irresponsibly facilitating threats on Barack Obama’s life by posting the former president’s address on his Truth Social account. He also stood up for a fellow prosecutor against Trump’s intimidation tactics:

All of what he said is so plainly true as to border on banal yet so unusual for a prominent Republican to admit as to feel wildly transgressive. It’s not what you’d say to win votes in a national GOP primary. It’s what you’d say when you’ve undertaken to knock down a wall of silence for the righteous fun of it.

Knocking down that wall has at times led Christie to attack other candidates. If you’re desperate for a new nominee in 2024, there’s no way to watch this clip without having mixed feelings.

Here we find him disparaging the only Trump alternative with a meaningful chance to win the nomination—entirely justifiably. One cringes to see Ron DeSantis, the Great Never Trump Hope, shamed for his strategic cowardice in refusing to frankly condemn Trump’s coup plot and its aftermath. The only consolation is that he deserves it.

It’s impossible for someone like me (and you, in all likelihood) not to find that moral clarity compelling even when it’s hurting the wider anti-Trump cause. Which raises the question: What effect might six more months of it have on the right’s Trump skeptics?

“There aren’t enough Trump skeptics on the right to affect the outcome,” you might say.

Well, yes. But there are more of us than you think. Look around at the polling following Trump’s indictment for concealing classified information and you’ll find a consistent bloc of 20 percent, give or take, that may feel serious moral qualms about supporting Trump next year in the general election. That’s no rounding error; it’s about as many Republicans as are currently supporting Ron DeSantis.

On Thursday Politico published the results of a new survey checking in with Americans on the documents matter. Asked if Trump is guilty of what he’s been accused of, 25 percent of Republicans said yes and 16 percent said he deserves imprisonment as a result. Almost 30 percent said they’d be less likely to support him if he were convicted before the election. (Which, granted, is unlikely.)

The week before that, the Associated Press polled adults on a number of different legal allegations against Trump. Again, almost 25 percent of Republicans believe the documents fiasco at Mar-a-Lago was illegal. Some 17 percent say the same about his attempt to interfere in Georgia’s certification of the election results in 2020.

Earlier in June, CBS News asked Republican voters who they’re thinking of supporting in the primary. Twenty-four percent said they had ruled out Trump.

The “20 percent” benchmark shows up in other metrics too. Combine the share of the vote in the RealClearPolitics average that’s currently going to non-populist candidates—Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Christie, and Hutchinson—and you have 16.6 percent. Throw in a few traditional conservatives from DeSantis’ column (ahem) who are reluctantly supporting the governor solely because he’s the only viable Trump alternative and that’s around 20 percent of the party overall who object strongly to Trump.

Oh, and care to guess what percentage of Republicans viewed newly minted anti-Trumper Chris Christie favorably when surveyed by Monmouth in May? Right: 21 percent.

Twenty percent isn’t enough to wrest the Republican nomination from Trump. It isn’t even enough to put DeSantis over the top unless he starts wooing away improbably large numbers of populist voters from Trump’s base.

But if a small share of that 20 percent declines to vote Republican next November, that may be enough to tip our next frighteningly close general election.

Christie has begun to mainstream the idea. “Look, I just can’t,” he told Axios in March when asked if he’d support Trump again. “When you have the Jan. 6 choir at a rally and you show video of it—I just don’t think that person is appropriate for the presidency.” Last week he affirmed on Fox News of all places that he won’t endorse his former friend, believing him to be unelectable (an odd, self-fulfilling reason not to support a candidate) and unfit due to his conduct in concealing classified material and lying about it. When asked elsewhere about pledging to support the eventual nominee as a condition of participating in the debates, Christie all but laughed it off. “I’ll take the pledge as seriously as Donald Trump took it in ’16,” he told the Dispatch Politics team last month. 

We shouldn’t be naive about how many of the Trump-skeptical 20 percent of Republicans will skip the 2024 election. Some will persuade themselves to turn out for Trump in the end for reasons of raw partisanship, believing that a twice-indicted sociopath with an “R” after his name remains preferable to any Democrat. Others might judge him harshly for his handling of classified documents only for the moment, because they prefer a different Republican candidate in the primary. If you’re Ready for Ron, it’s in your interest right now to say that what the frontrunner did was illegal. Next fall, with Trump as your last hope of reclaiming power for the right, you’ll say differently.

Still, if only a fraction of the 20 percent of Trump-skeptical Republicans remain serious about their moral objections, that’s enough potentially to swing the outcome in states like Georgia and Arizona. There’s evidence that the “moderate” anti-MAGA right has already decided two elections in Democrats’ favor. That bloc was destined to grow organically post-insurrection and post-indictment, I suspect. But it might grow at a faster rate if a candidate like Christie spends the rest of the campaign repeatedly affirming those Republican moderates in their suspicions that Trump can’t morally be supported. 

It’s not a matter of him granting them “permission” to vote or not vote a certain way. He’s not an influential enough figure to do that, as Trump is among the populist right. It’s a simpler matter of him demonstrating, in contrast with the more timid competition, how appealing and even liberating it is to embrace candor about Trump’s unfitness unabashedly. Who seems closer to the truth, the guy who speaks confidently and forthrightly in criticizing January 6 or the guy who looks constipated whenever the subject is mentioned and ends up croaking out feeble nonsense like “Obviously, I didn’t enjoy seeing what happened”?

We won’t get a meaningful debate on the direction of the American right from this primary, as there aren’t enough righties who oppose the current direction to sustain one. But we might get a critical mass of conscientious objectors, encouraged by the example of Christie and others, sufficient to finish off Trump once and for all next fall. “Where’s the outrage?” a famous Republican once famously asked; we appear at last to have found some. That’s enough to make even me feel exuberantly patriotic.

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