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HomeWorldOpinion - Ross Douthat: Trump Is Confrontational, But His GOP Rivals Don't...

Opinion – Ross Douthat: Trump Is Confrontational, But His GOP Rivals Don’t Have To Be


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Just before Christmas, I wrote a column warning of the disappointment that many would feel if Donald Trump left the political stage with a single groan. —if you lose the Republican presidential primary to someone like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, and then fade away, as former presidents usually do, instead of going out with the spectacle of a supernova.

I wasn’t anticipating that this would necessarily happen; Trump may very well end up being the Republican nominee in 2024. Rather, I would predict that if Trump is defeated, we should expect it to be in a low-key fashion, leaving many of his former adversaries still strangely hungry for a fight.

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We can see this hunger in several articles published in the last week. The first is one in the Atlantic by McKay Coppins, reporting on the fatalism of Republicans who want Trump out but don’t want to actively fight him.

Coppins suggests that the core of the party is basically sleepwalking to yet another 2016 scenario, where Trump wins a divided field because no one figures out how to fight him directly, or else to a different disaster, where Trump loses the primary but emerges. strong enough to run as a third-party candidate, creating a lasting schism in the Republican Party.

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Then, for The Daily Beast, Matt Lewis picks up the theme of sleepwalking, warning would-be opponents against a 2016-style “faulty miscalculation” that the former president “will slowly disappear of itself” and urging them to “launch a constant attack on Trump” or otherwise expect defeat.

Meanwhile, The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell adds meat to the third-party picture, citing her own poll that shows 28% of Republican voters would support an independent Trump candidacy over a non-Trump Republican candidate and asserting that any effort Effective anti-Trump needs a plan to wear down this “Always Trump” bloc “before it’s too late”.

The desire for confrontation in all of these views makes perfect sense as a retrospective look at the Republican situation in 2016, when non-Trump candidates spent much of their time (and money) chasing each other until it was too late to halt the consolidation of Trump.

But the 2024 landscape looks very different. Trump’s consolidation has already happened; a majority of the Republican primary electorate will have already voted twice for him, found things to like about his policies or judicial choices, and identified with him against his Democratic foes in various controversies—meaning he’s much more likely than a rival Republican nominee. win them over through sheer exhaustion, the normal way a post-presidential succession plays out, rather than through some steadfast attempt to overthrow the Republican Party’s preference for Trump.

And the Longwell data shows that the burnout story is basically already happening: the same poll that shows the resilience of a Always Trump rearguard also shows DeSantis beating Trump in a potential head-to-head, 52% to 30%, and still winning. it easily, even in a crowded field. (And since DeSantis is doing so well in the polls, the field might not be as crowded.)

Relative to other recent polls, DeSantis’ lead in the Bulwark poll is exceptionally high. But there are enough high-quality polls showing Trump’s weakening to say that the Florida governor has become a plausible candidate, even a possible front-runner — and he has done so by staying in his lane and allowing voters who are weary of Trump to look for it on their own, without requiring them to actively reject the former president and all his pomp and works.

Of course, if DeSantis does run, he will eventually need to respond more firmly to Trump’s attacks and prepare for confrontations in the debate stage. And if the governor withers under national scrutiny, Trump’s core support is certainly enough for him to win a deeply fractured primary.

But there is no reason to think that DeSantis would benefit from trying to fend off key Trump supporters with attacks directed at their beloved leader now, when all of his success comes from letting Trump keep his core and he, DeSantis, make himself attractive. for the rest of the Republican electorate. And there is definitely no advantage if a bunch of donors, politicians or former Republican elected officials unite on a public front Stop Trump; nothing would help Trump more than reminding swing voters that they prefer him to the old establishment.

No: Trump can disappear before a consolidation of DeSantis, or he can score a victory when DeSantis himself disappears. But the scenario where there is a moment of truth, a knockout, a perfectly thrown brick that makes Trump stop floating and simply sink, seems overly optimistic. The groan, not the rumble, is the only plausible outcome.

Well, except for this one detail: Third-party betting, which is seen by confrontational seekers as the punishment awaiting the GOP if Trump is only defeated, not squashed, is the most likely thing to end Trump’s influence entirely. , to truly break its power once and for all.

On Twitter, I said that such a bet is unlikely. There are all sorts of reasons — from money to self-image to nonconformist loser laws designed to keep defeated primary candidates from participating in the general election — why it’s hard to see Trump running a protest campaign in a race between DeSantis and President Joe Biden.

But it is true that Trump would not need to get all, or even a majority, of Always Trump voters to skew a close race away from the GOP, to hand DeSantis a general election defeat as revenge for defeating him first.

Trump would be the Ralph Nader of 2000 in this scenario, albeit likely with a higher percentage of the vote.

But now imagine, in an environment considerably more polarized than that (in which every Democrat I knew cursed Nader), Republicans waking up to a second Biden term that would happen because of Trump in a more direct and undeniable way even than their 2022 midterm losses. Would they simply feel more exhaustion of the kind that currently benefits DeSantis? No: I think in that scenario most Republicans would ultimately become anti-Trump.

Which makes it a scenario that a publication like The Bulwark, largely committed to defeating not just Trump, but the current Republican Party, should consider practically ideal. But for Republicans who might rather see Trump defeated than simply see him disappear, it’s a reminder of the limits of his power after 2016. They probably can’t defeat him; he would have to defeat himself.

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