Skip to content
You’re Only Prolonging This
Go to my account

You’re Only Prolonging This

The GOP’s Brian Kemp problem.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during his primary night election party on May 24, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Who is the most prominent member of Donald Trump’s party to have ruled out supporting him in the general election next year?

I put that question to the Dispatch Slack channel this morning because I couldn’t come up with a compelling answer. There’s Chris Christie and, of course, good ol’ Mitt Romney. But if by “prominent” we mean “popular with Republican voters” then neither qualifies. To put it mildly.

One colleague suggested George W. Bush, who declined to support Trump in 2020 and doubtless will do so again. But Dubya fails the same test of “prominence.” He hasn’t wielded influence over the GOP base in 15 years.

Another colleague proposed Bill Barr, who amassed populist cred as a loyal servant of the former president until, like Mike Pence, he squandered it by refusing to abet the “rigged election” nonsense. Barr has of late become an official Enemy of the People after he criticized Trump’s misconduct with classified material. He’s probably still marginally better liked by MAGA voters than Christie or Romney, but … boy, that’s a low bar.

And for all of Barr’s righteous outrage over Documents-gate, it’s not clear that he’ll withhold his vote from Trump next fall. In March 2022 he told reporters that, notwithstanding the former president’s manifest flaws, “the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party.” The former AG declared it “inconceivable” that he wouldn’t support the Republican nominee.

We could tweak the definition of “prominent” by shifting it away from popularity with the base and toward power over the government. Who’s the most powerful Republican to have ruled out supporting Trump next year? But that’s also a stumper.

Kevin McCarthy? Er, no.

Mitch McConnell? He’s promising. It was Mitch who lambasted Trump for inciting the insurrection in a floor speech following the Senate’s impeachment trial in February 2021. Trump has since repaid him with countless tweets attacking the Broken Old Crow’s leadership and the foibles of his wife, “Coco Chow”—who, I remind you, served in Trump’s cabinet for years.

But McConnell hasn’t hopped off the Trump train either. Less than two weeks after delivering his coruscating post-trial critique, the Senate minority leader affirmed that he’ll “absolutely” support the Republican nominee in 2024. Even if it’s you-know-who.

Until yesterday my considered answer to the question posed at the start of this piece would have been Brian Kemp. Kemp is the twice-elected governor of a dynamic swing state; he’s sure to be a top-tier presidential contender in 2028; and he’s sufficiently good at politics to have not just survived a political war with Trump but to have routed him. No other Republican in the MAGA era has managed that.

And unlike most “prominent” Republicans nowadays, Kemp’s civic compass points true north. He surely has enough moral sense to loathe what a second Trump term would look like and enough political capital to let him stand his ground on the subject. That makes him the most prominent Republican who won’t be voting for Trump next fall.

Or so I assumed.

Don’t make heroes of politicians. They always disappoint.

Brian Kemp isn’t a hero but he passes for one by modern standards of honorable behavior. He deserves our admiration for having certified Georgia’s election results in 2020 despite immense pressure from Republicans, the then-president foremost among them, to refuse. He did his duty. 

Yet in the nearly three years since the last presidential election, you’ll search in vain for any sonorous Cheney-esque statements of civic principle from the governor explaining why Trump must never be returned to power. On the contrary, one of Kemp’s favorite lines when asked about Trump during his reelection campaign was “he’s mad at me, I’m not mad at him.” Which was clever: By disclaiming the “anti-Trump” label, Kemp made it easier for MAGA voters to justify supporting him in the Republican primary.

But the campaign is long over and Kemp is still rolling out his pet line. Yesterday he used it again, this time during an interview with CNN when he was asked whether he’ll support Trump in the general election. Why not, the governor replied? He’s mad at me, I’m not mad at him.

Maybe it’s time to be mad at him, Brian.

Trump’s “Stop the Steal” demagoguery inspired multitudinous death threats against Georgia officials, major and minor, including Kemp. Trump will probably be indicted soon in Fulton County for interfering in the 2020 election, guaranteeing a wrenching ordeal for the state and another black eye for the party. His authoritarian example is a cancer on America’s civic culture and a horrendous influence on young right-wingers in particular, many of whom seem to prefer Trump’s nationalist model to Kemp’s conservatism. If he were to regain the presidency in 2025, the country will almost certainly face multiple constitutional crises.

If that’s not enough, Trump implied recently that there must have been something crooked about Kemp’s victory in last year’s primary over his own candidate, David Perdue.

Be a little mad, governor.

I’m sure he is. You can tell Kemp’s heart wasn’t in his answer to CNN by how lazy and passé his reasoning for supporting Trump was. We need a Republican president to fill seats on the Supreme Court, he insisted, a compelling point in 2016 when the majority hung on Antonin Scalia’s vacancy but less so a year after a solidly conservative 6-3 Court overturned Roe.

We need a Republican president to stand up to our adversaries around the world, Kemp says. That was plausible in 2016, when no one knew how a President Trump might reconcile his isolationist instincts with his tough-guy “strength” obsession. In 2023 it’s clear that America is more likely to stand up to an adversary like Russia with a Democrat in the White House. And maybe an adversary like China too.

Why Kemp would half-heartedly endorse such nonsense is a product of ambition and altruism, I suspect, a cocktail Trump-era Republicans have learned to mix expertly. How do you chase higher office with a clean conscience when advancement requires pandering to an unfit leader and his unfit base? You tell yourself that you’re doing it for the greater good. The GOP will need civic-minded leaders to steer it back toward classical liberalism long-term; if Brian Kemp declines to support Trump next year, he’ll have forfeited his chance at a Senate seat in 2026 or the presidency in 2028. Even a politician as deft as him couldn’t overcome a betrayal so momentous. Certifying Georgia’s election results in 2020 was a matter of duty; refusing to support Trump against a Democrat would be a choice, an unforgivable one.

So by doing the ambitious thing, you see, he’s doing the altruistic thing. Neat.

I doubt there’s a normie Republican in office at any level, state or federal, who hasn’t used that logic to reassure themselves that they’re doing something essentially selfless by reconciling themselves to Trump and his bloc. If they opposed him they’d be thrown out of office, replaced by insurrectionist miscreants who’d set the GOP back even further. The quickest way out of this mess is for the “adults” in the party to humor MAGA, wait for the populist storm to blow over, then use the influence they’ve maintained within the party to restore a measure of traditional conservatism in the aftermath.

That too was an intriguing bit of logic circa 2016. How’s it working out in 2023? The Hill reports:

GOP senators are saying they’re being increasingly confronted by constituents who buy into discredited conspiracy theories such as the claim that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election or that federal agents incited the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.  

“We should be concerned about this as Republicans. I’m having more ‘rational Republicans’ coming up to me and saying, ‘I just don’t know how long I can stay in this party,’” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “Now our party is becoming known as a group of kind of extremist, populist over-the-top [people] where no one is taking us seriously anymore. 

“There are people who surprise me — I’m surprised they have those views. It’s amazing to me the number of people, the kind of people who think the election was stolen,” [a Senate Republican] said. “I don’t want to use this word but it’s not just a ‘red-neck’ thing. It’s people in business, the president of a bank, a doctor.”

The populist storm that was supposed to blow over is about to deliver a third Trump nomination, this time with a coup attempt, two impeachments, and God knows how many criminal indictments under his belt. The second-place candidate in the race is running as Trump except more ruthless, more anti-vax, and more anti-gay. The candidate with the most momentum gave an interview yesterday in which he warned that January 6 was “a friendly preview of what’s to come” if the right continues to feel “censored” by American institutions. It’s quite conceivable that Candace Owens would catch on with more Republican voters in a 2028 run for president than the very accomplished Republican governor of Georgia would.

We’re long overdue for Brian Kemp and the rest of the GOP establishment to consider the possibility that, by insisting on riding out the populist storm, they’re prolonging it.

America’s pundits recently entered their ninth year of playing a game called “This is the thing that finally finishes Trump.”

My earliest memory of it was when he denigrated John McCain in 2015 for having been taken prisoner as a young airman during the Vietnam War, a conflict Trump avoided by obtaining no fewer than five deferments. Appalling. This is the thing that would finish him!

It did not. Neither did the Access Hollywood tape, firing James Comey, the Helsinki press conference with Putin, a disastrous midterm, buddying up to Kim Jong Un, impeachment No. 1, pandemic lunacy, the Lafayette Square spectacle, losing the presidency, “Stop the Steal,” the insurrection, impeachment No. 2, another disastrous midterm, a growing stack of federal and state felony charges, too many sexual misconduct allegations to count, and petty corruption various and sundry.

If you can believe it, I caught a few political analysts on social media this morning speculating that Trump being indicted for January 6, as seems imminent, might be the thing that—deep breath—finally finishes him.

The difficult truth is that nothing will finish him in 2023 except perhaps age. In fact, if providence spares us a Candace Owens presidency in the next cycle, it’ll likely only be because Trump opted to run again at the age of 82 and landed his fourth nomination as a two-time loser with little difficulty.

In their desperation to move past him, many traditional conservatives have tried to meet populists halfway—more than halfway, really—by rallying behind a figure in Ron DeSantis who is far more post-liberal than he is classical liberal. For the sake of finding the thing that finally finishes Trump, normie Republicans are offering to sign off on Trumpism without Trump. Yet the base is having none of it.

And who can blame them? Hyperpartisan conservative chumps will end up voting for their guy anyway. The pitiful belief articulated by Brian Kemp that even the most twisted Republican autocrat is preferable to a generic Democrat keeps bringing them back home.

There is one thing conservatives haven’t tried in the name of finishing Trump, though. They haven’t tried withholding their votes from him en masse in the general election. 

Until populist voters are convinced that Trump is a truly disastrous liability in the general election, they have no reason to look elsewhere for a nominee. He won in 2016, nearly won in 2020, and wasn’t on the ballot in 2022. Trump-backed candidates like Kari Lake and Herschel Walker may have underperformed in the last midterm but even they lost only very narrowly. Trump has yet to be repudiated at the polls so forcefully that even election conspiracy theorists will struggle to spin the result.

Until he is, this will go on. Supporting him prolongs the storm.

It might go on even if he does get crushed in 2024, as only a devout optimist would trust populist voters to finally gain some education from the next kick of the electoral mule. I suspect many MAGA voters would go on supporting populist rabblerousers after an electoral rout, not because they failed to get the message from the results but because their investment in politics isn’t fundamentally about governing or policy. It’s about identity and community. A Republican Party led by, say, Nikki Haley won’t provide them with a sense of fulfillment. All it can offer them is—shrug—victory.

There may also be long-term strategic logic in sticking with unelectable populists. Over time, a party that’s been in power for a long stretch will overreach and alienate enough voters to assure an out-party victory in the next election. If you’re a Republican populist who sees no meaningful difference between Democrats and traditional conservatives, you might continue to nominate populist candidates in the certain knowledge that eventually your party will win and when it does those populists will get to govern. “Eventually” might mean 2024 or 2028 or later, but patience is a virtue. Better to lose each cycle to Democrats and wait for Americans to naturally tire of left-wing rule than to cede control of the GOP to classical liberals and start winning.

Needless to say, that’s ironic for a cohort that frames each election nowadays as a “Flight 93” emergency, treating the prospect of Democratic government as an existential threat to America. Patience wasn’t a virtue on Flight 93.

A landslide defeat for Trump next year isn’t guaranteed to send populists back to the drawing board, in other words. But it’s the only thing that stands a chance of doing so, particularly after the disappointment of the 2022 midterms. Not all Republicans are willing to endure government by Democrats for years to come. Some want to win now. Losing badly might sober them up and encourage them to nominate more traditionally conservative—or at least less feral—candidates.

Traditional conservatives might finally be figuring this out.

Twenty percent of America’s “conservative” bloc crossing the aisle is a good start but not enough for a repudiation, especially given the degree of “labor” support for Trump. Republican officials like Brian Kemp who’ve convinced themselves that they’re doing something altruistic for the party by sticking with MAGA should consider that. If their endgame really is what they claim it is, bettering the GOP long-term, they ought to recognize the near-term opportunity that a Trump landslide defeat presents. Withholding their support from their party’s nominee to facilitate that landslide might accelerate the process considerably.

If, on the other hand, their endgame is simply to advance up the ranks of Trump’s GOP while pretending that their motives are nobler than raw ambition, they should keep doing what they’re doing.

Either way, this will not end until it has ended. Until populists get a hard electoral lesson on the viability of post-liberalism, they’ll remain committed to it. Conservatives have spent eight years in a hostage crisis, negotiating over the fate of the GOP with a bloc of proto-fascist captors whose ringleader seems to get more popular with each new crime he’s accused of. Shoot the hostage already. Do something good for conservatism and the American right more broadly: Be a little mad and walk away.

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.