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Stop Indulging the Fantasy of a Trump Primary Challenge

The Never Trump viewpoint is popular in Washington, but nowhere else.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, and Tulsi Gabbard have all already announced plans to seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. By summer, they will be joined by as many as two dozen other prominent Democrats, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris. But is that enough to stop Donald Trump? Not if you’re one of the dwindling number of disaffected conservatives who believes that the Republican Party can be wrested back from the president’s iron grip.

In a Washington Post op-ed on Friday, former Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes called for a primary challenge of Trump. “If ever there were a time for a serious intraparty challenge, it’s now. He has strong support from elements of the Republican base, but he has alienated virtually everyone else, especially those segments of the electorate that are growing the fastest,” he wrote. “The 2018 midterm elections were a clear and unmistakable rebuke of the chaos of his first two years as president. And it’s getting worse. The final few weeks of this second year of his presidency are proving even more chaotic than the first hundred weeks.”

Hayes’s argument is the latest entry in a genre of opinion writing that began more than two and half years ago. The case has remained the same all along: that a sizable block of conservatives are distressed by the president’s policies and behavior, and are ready to defect to an anti-Trump Republican, if only one would emerge. But this is pure fantasy—almost entirely manufactured, perpetuated, and consumed by Beltway elites alone. There is no such mass opposition to Trump among conservatives, and there never was one.

In fact, contra Hayes, Trump is even less vulnerable to a Republican challenger today than when conservatives were agitating to thwart his nomination at the GOP convention in the summer of 2016. A primary challenge—whether from Never Trump dreamboat John Kasich or Hayes’s recommended picks, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse—would be not just a suicide mission, but likely counterproductive, mobilizing the Republican base in the president’s defense rather than delivering a mortal blow.

The Never Trump movement of disaffected conservatives emerged almost as soon as Trump became the presumptive nominee in 2016. George Will, the eminent conservative columnist, left the Republican Party that June, weeks before the Republican National Convention. The convention itself was raucous, with numerous challenges to Trump’s nomination. Later in the summer, former CIA officer Evan McMullin announced an independent presidential campaign, and was endorsed by a host of Never Trumpers, including Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg, and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance. He received 700,000 votes, finishing behind the Green Party’s Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson.

McMullin’s campaign played well in conservative media circles, in part because his campaign was geared toward voters who were fearful of Trump’s inexperience and ideological heresies, yet unwilling to vote for Hillary Clinton. But those susceptible to this appeal, then as now, are few. Despite abysmal polling numbers with voters broadly, Trump is, historically speaking, more popular with Republicans than any other president, including Ronald Reagan. (Only post-9/11 George W. Bush can compete with him.) Even in the midst of an unpopular government shutdown that he gleefully took credit for, his numbers remain strong among Republicans. Only 15 percent blame him for the shutdown, while 69 percent blame congressional Democrats.

Hayes’s argument, like many that preceded it, makes a moral and political case for challenging Trump: Republicans must stand up in opposition to the “steady stream of lies” emanating from Trump’s Twitter feed, his authoritarian desire to declare a national emergency to build a border wall, and his chaotic approach to foreign policy. Hayes concludes that a primary challenge is unlikely to “do more damage to Trump’s reelection effort than Trump has done himself,” and insists that such a challenge would not be hopeless. “And as Trump supporters should understand better than most, the volatility of the current political moment means that things ‘everyone knows’ cannot happen sometimes do,” he wrote. “For the good of the country, sometimes it’s vital that they do.”

Never Trump arguments like these have been amplified for a number of reasons, but not because they’re widely popular. Trump’s detractors are overrepresented in Washington media and regularly appear on mainstream media programs, particularly shows like Meet the Press, which attempt to present ideological balance. The thought of a primary challenge has a rich political history, most recently in Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ted Kennedy’s campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Finally, intraparty conflict is the kind of story that whets the appetite of any horse-race journalist.

But if moral case for challenging Trump is clear, the political case is anything but. His approval rating with his party has only climbed in recent months amid the very news that Hayes deems damaging: In late December, 89 percent of Republicans approved of his job performance. It’s difficult to imagine what else Trump could do that would suddenly change these supporters’ minds—especially not if the choice is between him and a “reasonable” alternative who is selling a watered-down alternative to Trump’s immigration policies, a comparable fiscal policy (minus the trade war, which Republican voters have embraced), and a hawkish foreign policy that is increasingly on the outs in both parties.

Given Trump’s performance in the 2016 primary, when he humiliated a slate of establishment challengers in part by pointing out just how unpopular their ideas were, there is also the risk that a challenge like this could benefit Trump. While he has governed as a bog standard Republican in many ways, the perception that he’s an anti-establishment outsider—independent of the orthodoxies governing both parties—undoubtedly gave him a boost in 2016. A challenge from Kasich or someone of his ilk would remind some voters why they voted for Trump in the first place.

This is not to say that a challenge to Trump wouldn’t be worth it—just not in the Republican primary. An independent challenge from a Republican in the general election would siphon off conservative votes in key states and possibly contribute to his defeat in 2020, much as Ross Perot did to George H. W. Bush in 1992. But there’s a reason op-ed writers like Hayes aren’t proposing this kind of insurgency. That would require acknowledging the extent of the Republican Party’s extremist drift and its devotion to Trump. It would also require sacrificing the next election, and thus the party’s control of the White House. Now that would be for the good of the country.