Will the Republicans reject Donald Trump? That is the great question that confronts the party, and really the republic.
I’m no Republican, but I do have a rooting interest here. The “responsible” position among non-Republicans is to hope Trump does not win the party’s nomination in 2024, for two reasons. The first and more obvious one is that if he’s the nominee, there’s a risk he may become president again, and we shouldn’t play with that kind of fire when it comes to our democracy. The second is a more broadly civic-minded one—simply, that the sooner our body politic rejects the pathogen that is Trump, the better.
I’m quite sympathetic to both arguments. But here’s the case for wanting Trump to win the Republican nomination. It’s pretty straightforward: He’s become the most beatable Republican out there. By far.
Trump, according to FiveThirtyEight, is 15 points underwater in approval, 40 to 55. Independents detest him. A poll came out around Labor Day showing that two-thirds of independents don’t want him to run for president. His loser candidates last month got clobbered among independents. Raphael Warnock carried them over Herschel Walker by 11 points. Mark Kelly won independents against Blake Masters by 16 points. And John Fetterman won the group by 20 points over Mehmet Oz.
These numbers spell political death. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton among independents by 48 to 42. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Trump among the group by 54 to 41. If Biden is the Democratic nominee and defeats Trump by a margin among independents that all these numbers suggest—say something like 60 to 40, or even a hair more—there is not only no chance Trump can win; there is no chance he can even keep it close enough to steal it.
I know—there are lots of things that can happen between now and election night in 2024. There could be a depression, a terrorist attack, or some other crisis. Putin could draw the United States into a war. A lot of events could take place to make a Trump win more possible. But I’ll roll those dice. I think most crisis scenarios might make voters sour on Biden—but they would make swing voters absolutely terrified at the prospect of Trump returning to the White House. Is he the man Americans will want to put in charge of, oh, another pandemic, or God forbid to be assigned by history the task of reining in Putin?
Of course, he is not. In fact, it’s pretty hard to conjure up a crisis scenario that would favor Trump. Even those who don’t find him dangerous find him exhausting, and no one outside his red-hot fan base wants to relive all that egocentric drama.
If the GOP nominates Trump, independents will flee in droves. Some corporate leaders—mostly Republicans but more to the point, cowards who constantly play C.Y.A. games when it comes to politics—will finally speak out against him. And many high-ranking elected Republicans will be turning moral and ethical somersaults for the whole campaign, embracing Trump here, distancing themselves there. He will fling insults at them. The master narrative will be Republicans in … “disarray” puts it too mildly. Think more like: anarchy, chaos, pandemonium.
Now: In contrast, imagine that the Republicans nominate Ron DeSantis or Glenn Youngkin. In that instance too there will be intraparty dissension, and it’s easy to imagine Trump trying to destroy a party that spurned him. But it’s not clear to me he can succeed in this. The party establishment will be largely united. There will be a rump Trump caucus in the House, but I’d imagine that even most Freedom Caucusers would say we love Donald Trump, but the voters have spoken and the important thing here is to defeat those loony socialists.
In other words, the master narrative will be: The Republican Party has returned to planet Earth. The Republican Party is normal again. That will be a lie. The Republican Party of the late pre-Trump years was, by definition, anything but normal; after all, it was the party that nominated Donald Trump in the first place! What was normal about a party that decided a fascist, racist, xenophobic con man and serial liar ought to be the leader of the free world? Trump merely foregrounded all the pathologies that were already there in the party.
But all that will be forgotten if the party nominates someone other than Trump. Party elders like Mitch McConnell will say we’ve definitively moved on from all that. Kevin McCarthy, who as we know is capable of saying anything, will say … anything. Fox News and the other propaganda outlets will gleefully hammer the nails into Trump’s political coffin. The Republicans, they will say, are the party of Reagan again. Oh, there will be tons of Reagan imagery! This party is as far to Ronald Reagan’s right—who raised taxes seven times, signed the Voting Rights Act, put relative moderates on the Supreme Court, and more—as Bob Avakian is to Joe Biden’s left. But that won’t matter. Today’s American right is expert at spinning out propaganda, and the mainstream media too often gullibly goes along.
And independent voters? They’ll vote for a DeSantis or a Youngkin over Biden. Or at least those two will play him to a draw among independents. And neither will cause the convulsions within the GOP that Trump will. Either of them, and possibly a couple others, are far, far more likely to beat Biden (or another Democrat) than Trump is.
All that addresses the first of the two reasons I cited above behind the responsible case for not wanting Trump to be the nominee. Now I’ll more briefly address the second reason—the civic one.
Yes, we want Trump out of public life as soon as possible. But there’s something else we need if the republic is to survive: a sane and reasonable conservative party. It’s hard to see that happening at all in the foreseeable future. But the most likely way for it to happen is that the GOP nominates Trump; he leads them to a defeat so operatic that the Democrats hold the Senate and take back the House; the Democrats ditch the filibuster and pass a lot of things for middle-class people that prove to be, as such things usually are, pretty popular; and Republicans finally begin to see that as a matter of mere survival, they’d better think about trying to do things besides cut taxes, troll the libs, and take away the rights of women and every minority group they can think of. Replacing this neofascist party with a reasonable conservative party is our country’s only hope for survival. In my estimation, Trump’s nomination would hasten that day’s arrival.
Is there risk? There’s risk every time you walk out the door. But remember: After he drew that one-in-a-million inside straight in 2016, Trump has put together a losing streak to rival the Washington Generals. One more will finish him off for good, reelect a decent and compassionate man president, and hopefully drive the intraparty recriminations and reckonings the GOP so desperately needs.