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The Never Trump Temptation
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The Never Trump Temptation

Suckers and fighters, GOP primary edition.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the New Hampshire GOP annual meeting on January 28, 2023, in Salem, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

The thing to understand about the coming Republican presidential primary is that it’s a referendum, not a choice.

Superficially it’s a choice. There’s Trump, soon there’ll be Nikki Haley, eventually there’ll be Ron DeSantis and a few others, each offering a different blend of conservatism and populism. Trump might go full metal nationalist next time while Haley reverts to her center-right roots; DeSantis and figures like Mike Pence will steer somewhere in between. That’s a complex choice for voters, no?

Nah. Not really.

A “choice” election is one in which the electorate weighs the strengths and weaknesses of multiple candidates before settling on one. A referendum is one in which the strengths and weaknesses of a single candidate drive their decision. Between the time Ronald Reagan left politics and the time Donald Trump entered, I’d argue that the only true referendum Republican voters experienced in a primary was 1992. That was the year Pat Buchanan forced a right-wing gut check on the success of George H.W. Bush’s first term as president.

The 2016 contest had the makings of one of the purest “choice” elections in modern political history. The field was huge, it included formidable young stars like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and it featured centrists like Jeb Bush and John Kasich and libertarians like Rand Paul for a bit of ideological variety. It was a big menu with something to suit every palate. Then Trump got in. And once he did, the primary began to turn into a referendum: Why not something different this time?

I’ve come to believe that any election in which Trump is a candidate is destined to be a referendum.

In 2016 that dynamic worked for him. He was mega-famous, lapped the field in charisma, felt unburdened by conservative dogma, and radiated contempt for the Republican establishment. Grassroots conservatives who lost with McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 came to view their choice among a 16-candidate field as a question about a single candidate. Why not something different this time?

In 2024 they’ll ask the same question. But when they do, the dynamic will work against Trump.

I’ve written about all of this before, but I’m writing about it again because some of my Never Trump comrades have grown exasperated by tactical decisions being made in the primary and I’m exasperated by their exasperation. The tactics in question might be foolish for a “choice” election. But for a referendum? To the contrary.

Last week McKay Coppins reported with palpable scorn that Republican leaders prefer to let Father Time solve their Trump problem instead of organizing against him in the primary. Charlie Sykes complained that DeSantis wasn’t punching back after Trump called him, among other things, a “RINO globalist.” Matt Lewis agreed, looping Haley into the criticism. And Sarah Longwell wondered why respectable Republicans like Chris Sununu and Larry Hogan, each of whom might enter the race, would commit publicly to supporting the party’s eventual nominee when Trump himself has given no such assurances. (Hogan later clarified that he isn’t committing to it.)

Why is the anti-Trump wing so timid and passive? Why won’t they fight?

The sentiment is understandable. All political factions want a champion who’ll assert their priorities aggressively and unapologetically. And it’s particularly true of a faction that’s spent eight years aghast at the remorseless moral cowardice of the Republican establishment. My first newsletter for The Dispatch was an essay on how right-wing populists came to view conservative politics as a battle between suckers and fighters. Never Trumpers aren’t immune from that temptation.

In a “choice” election, where numerous candidates compete for attention, their complaint would have merit. To distinguish himself and impress voters, a candidate would need to hit hard. In this case, though, I agree with Ross Douthat: “Trump Needs a Confrontation. His GOP Rivals Don’t Have to Give Him One.” When you accept that the election is a referendum on Trump, you’re apt to agree too.

Of course, there will be confrontations.

Haley isn’t in the race yet but has begun laying the groundwork to claim that Trump is too old for office. DeSantis’ pivot to vaccine skepticism last year was an obvious prelude to accusing Trump of listening too much to Anthony Fauci during the pandemic. It’s likely that someone at the debates will bring up the fact that Trump’s clamor for a debt-ceiling standoff this summer doesn’t jibe with his habit of running deficits in the trillions while president. If you’re itching to see Republican rivals make him play defense for once, your itch will be scratched.

But that’s not what Never Trumpers have in mind when they demand that their candidates “fight.” What they crave is catharsis. They want a Liz Cheney type to stand onstage and make the moral case against Trump. “He was weak on lockdowns” is neither here nor there; “he’s a coup-plotting authoritarian degenerate and an affront to America’s civic heritage” is the sweet spot. Cheney would say it because she’s a fighter, unlike that lily-livered sucker Ron DeSantis.

I share the urge for catharsis. But if the goal is to defeat Trump, not to enjoy moral catharsis at his expense, “he was weak on lockdowns” is clearly the superior line of attack. The Republican base has been corrupted by populism far too much to respond to a moral argument against its leader. If DeSantis were to make a Cheneyesque case for new leadership, it would hurt him more than it would hurt his target—and, ironically, Never Trumpers typically understand that better than anyone. We’ve always been clear-eyed as a constituency, I think, that the party’s “Trump problem” is ultimately a “Trump-voter problem.”

So why are anti-Trump conservatives complaining when candidates decline to pursue counterproductive lines of attack against him? It’s strange.

There’s no way to successfully fight Trump from the center in a primary. Any move a candidate makes in that direction will see them disqualified by voters as a “sucker.” If you’re desperate to see Trump retired, make reluctant peace with the fact that a winning strategy will require attacks on his populist bona fides from the right and only from the right.

I’m not asking you to be happy that Ron DeSantis can slay the dragon only by convincing Republican voters that Trump is too pro-vaccine or insufficiently anti-immigrant or anti-media. I’m asking you to curse what the right has become, accept that this is the fallen world in which we live, and tailor your tactical expectations accordingly. Find hope in the fact that, by hook or by crook, the dragon might finally be slain.

I’m also asking you to understand that reacting with Brian-Kemp-ian stoicism in the teeth of Trump’s attempts at ridicule is a shrewder play for DeSantis than trying to win a war of insults with the Don Rickles of American politics.

That’s why it matters that this primary will be a referendum, not a choice. In a “choice” election, with Trump pressing his case against DeSantis insistently, DeSantis would be obliged to respond. He’d look timid if he didn’t, very much a sucker in a party that craves a fighter. If it were 2016 again, the choice for Republicans would be clear.

But in a referendum, after eight exhausting years of his antics, watching Trump resort to his usual smears and juvenilia to try to weaken DeSantis won’t wear well (especially with much of conservative media on Team Ron this time). DeSantis is at no risk of looking timid by ignoring his jabs; he’s proved his pugnacity repeatedly in his culture-war battles with the left. Instead, by taking the high road while Trump flails, he’s letting Trump fatigue on the right do his dirty work for him. DeSantis has built an early lead in primary polling, Douthat argues, by “letting voters who are tired of Trump come to him on their own, without demanding that they actively reject the former president and all his pomp and works.” That’s correct, and that’s the referendum dynamic at work. DeSantis doesn’t need to attack and risk alienating Trump voters. All he needs to do is let weary Republicans soak in the prospect of four more years of conspiracy theories, policy by tweet, and endless institutional chaos and think … Why not something different this time?

DeSantis is that “something different,” at least until someone else shows some life in primary polling. And he’s behaving accordingly. Consider how he reacted when Trump began insulting him in the days following his reelection. Namely, he didn’t.

No antics. No insults. Just victory. Why not something different this time?

A few days ago, after the latest round of Trump attacks, he again declined to criticize Trump harshly—although this time he included a not very subtle allusion to the presidential results in 2020.

That’s just how I would have advised him to respond to Trump. Criticize him on policy from the right wherever possible but otherwise follow Brian Kemp’s strategy of laughing off his insults, pointing to your strong conservative record as governor, and trusting that MAGA voters won’t view you as an enemy so long as you don’t ask them to treat their hero as one. Frankly, I suspect DeSantis’ refusal to get in the mud and wrestle with the pig will appeal to many in the Trump-fatigued majority by demonstrating that the tone at the top of the party truly will change once he’s in charge.

More broadly, if I were sketching out a general messaging strategy for DeSantis, I’d focus on three themes and none would be informed by the priorities of Never Trumpers. First, effectiveness. He should (and will) tout his achievements in Florida, particularly his success in having kept schools and businesses open during COVID, the better to contrast himself with the Trump administration’s Fauci-led policies.

Second, electability. DeSantis couldn’t have asked for a better result in November when he was reelected in a landslide while Trump’s brigade of election deniers fumbled away winnable seats everywhere they ran. The only thing that might pry cultists away from Trump is convincing them that nominating him would make it harder rather than easier to own the libs in 2024. The outcome of the midterms made that case more compellingly than DeSantis himself could. Anecdotal evidence suggests many are already en route to being persuaded.

Third, unity. This one is strategically important and why I think it makes sense for Sununu and Hogan to claim for now that they’ll support the Republican nominee no matter what. The surest way to make Trump’s insults backfire on him is to promote the idea that it’s destructive and even disloyal for the party’s 2024 candidates to attack each other viciously. The political stakes are too high to let hard feelings on the right divide the GOP and hand four more years in power to Democrats, Team DeSantis might say. Anyone selfish enough to try to tear down a rival who might end up leading the ticket is playing for the other team.

A “unity” plea won’t stop him from getting nasty but it would reframe DeSantis’ refusal to respond in kind as less a matter of timidity than evidence of his commitment to seeing Democrats defeated. And it might avert the Republican worst-case scenario that everyone expects if DeSantis goes on to win the primary, a dogged effort by Trump in the fall of 2024 to convince fans that they should refuse to turn out for the party’s new nominee. Plant the seed early in Republican voters’ minds that Trump would rather see Joe Biden back in the White House than Ron DeSantis—which he would—and it will lead some to regard his bitter attacks on the governor as selfishness, not strategy. Which should make them less willing to follow his boycott of the general election.

I’m skeptical that many would boycott anyway, polls to the contrary notwithstanding. MAGA voters are fanatically anti-left even more than they’re fanatically pro-Trump, and so as they come to view the 2024 election as less a choice between Biden and DeSantis than a referendum on four more years of Democratic rule, nearly all will come around and fall in line. (Especially with right-wing media bringing everything it can to bear on convincing them to do so.) But the more DeSantis promotes the idea in the primaries that Republicans should confront Democrats, not each other, the more questionable Trump’s priorities in going scorched-earth on him will look to right-wing voters. It would be sweet poetic justice if his undoing among the populist right was his perceived lack of loyalty to the sacred cause of owning the libs.

“They probably can’t break him,” Douthat concluded about Trump and the Republican field in the next primary. “He’d have to break himself.” That’s a bitter pill for Never Trumpers to swallow but no less correct for being bitter. The good news is that he’s perfectly willing to break himself and more than capable of doing so. Just get out of his way, try not to offend any of his voters whose support you’ll need in the general election, and let Trump do the rest. DeSantis knows.

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.