Six years ago, during the interminable 2016 GOP presidential primary, Donald Trump stole Chris Christie’s brand. In the years leading up to their fateful encounter in the presidential race, Christie had, at least among Republicans, cultivated a breakout persona and gotten the media to swoon over his brash, no-nonsense ways. While he was nominally the governor of New Jersey, he was, in many ways, a classic New Yorker: which is to say a cartoonish jerk. Still, he filled a brusque and shouty space in the universe of political celebrities that wasn’t quite being filled—and which provided an intense contrast to the more regal and mannerly bearing of the previous GOP standard-bearer, Mitt Romney.
And then Donald Trump intruded into this world, and everything went south for Christie. Trump was so brazen and audacious—and so reckless—that he made even Christie seem uptight and buttoned up. Christie was transformed into just another politician saying what he thinks people want to hear; Trump was embodying it. Christie never quite recovered his brand or his dignity and spent much of the Trump era attempting to position himself as a Trump whisperer. Mostly, he just came off like Trump’s servant.
Now Christie is trying to claw that brand back. Last weekend, he told donors at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas that it was time for the party to stop obsessing over the 2020 election and move forward, a clear rebuke to Trump, who talks about little else. “We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections—no matter where you stand on that issue, no matter where you stand, it is over,” Christie said, before arguing that Trump’s reduced role in gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey led to Republican successes.
He got the attention of the former president, who issued a harsh statement saying that “everybody remembers” that Christie left his governorship with a 9 percent approval rating. But Christie hit back in an interview with Axios. “I’m not gonna get into a back-and-forth with Donald Trump,” he said, before doing exactly that. “But what I will say is this: When I ran for reelection in 2013, I got 60 percent of the vote. When he ran for reelection, he lost to Joe Biden.”
Christie isn’t the only Republican trying to pull the party out of Trump’s grip. But he is among the most prominent—and he might plausibly challenge Trump for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024. He probably doesn’t want to hear this, but it’s a doomed project. Even if Christie does salvage some dignity (or, at the very least, launder his reputation to such a degree that he can sell a few books and secure a few more lucrative media deals), the time to stop Trump was in 2016. Christie gleefully backed Trump when it really mattered. Now it’s simply too late.
While Christie has blustered against Trump’s conspiracy theorizing and hold on the GOP, the rest of the party has chosen a different path. Congressional Republicans have moved to strip committee assignments from 13 House members who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the chamber earlier this week. And as some Republicans aligned against their own for the crime of supporting a bill aimed at improving roads, internet, and public transit, other members of the House were engaged in far more nefarious acts. Paul Gosar, a bomb-throwing dentist from Arizona, posted an animated video showing, among other things, the murder of Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who may hold the coveted title of “looniest member of the House,” advocated for an alliance with Louis Farrakhan over his shared opposition to vaccines. They were not formally rebuked by their Republican colleagues. (Taylor Greene, to be fair, already had her committee assignments stripped.)
This is a fair summation of the Republican Party Christie is now trying to influence: one concerned far more with punishing minor acts of bipartisanship than it is with discouraging violent threats. Christie can pretend otherwise and lobby for the GOP to leave all that in the past. But he’s currently behind the curve, speaking to an increasingly small, powerless group within the party. And many might not be “in the party” for much longer.
Meanwhile, the Republican base is lapping up insane conspiracy theories about the election, insane conspiracy theories about vaccines, and insane conspiracy theories about what children are being taught in schools. Christie recognizes that he must cater to some of these trends. He’s made the case that the party should continue to push on issues like critical race theory—itself a pet issue of Trump’s—while also avoiding his most bombastic, anti-democratic claims.
But this is itself a halfway rebuke of Trumpism, one that has more to do with the person of Donald Trump than with the forces in American politics that he has unleashed. One might note that the backlash stoked by Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin—who was supposed to be a kinder and gentler Trump alternative himself—against the specter of critical race theory being taught in schools has moved predictably and seamlessly to calls for book burning. Simply disavowing the election conspiracy theories only goes so far. Given the current state of the Republican Party—its mainstream, not just the fringes—it isn’t nearly far enough.
Christie has long tried to have a foot in each camp. He has tried to be Donald Trump’s own Henry Higgins figure. He’s tried to relate to the former president as a fellow stubby-fingered loudmouth from the northeast. He’s tried to be a nuts-and-bolts mentor; the adult in the room. Nothing has clicked. Christie may be motivated to run against Trump in three years, but he still hasn’t learned the right lessons. Going toe-to-toe with Trump requires being an even bigger jerk—or at least responding in kind when Trump goes nuclear. Christie has never demonstrated the desire or the ability to hit those peaks; like other Republicans, he remains cowed by Trump’s hold on the party. He’s willing to speak up every now and then but has ultimately always ended up backing down. It will be no different this time out. It’s been Donald Trump’s party for years. It hasn’t been Christie’s in a very long time.