When it comes to moments that define the Republican Party, one in particular has kept ringing in my mind for the past few years. A week after the 2020 presidential election, with Trump making loud noises about contesting the results, an anonymous “senior Republican official” offered this shrug to a reporter from The Washington Post: “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? … He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20.”
It didn’t take long for this quote to age poorly; certainly by the time the sun set on January 6, 2021, it had gone fully rancid. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that there’s no one member of the Republican Party that cocked this up. That quote appeared in a story headlined “Top Republicans back Trump’s efforts to challenge election results,” which described precisely that: the party’s elite going all in on a campaign to support Trump’s plan to overturn the election. The notion that Trump was the deserved winner has remained a canonical belief among Republicans—the first purity test any member of the party must pass. But now it’s hanging over the Republican presidential race like a dark shadow.
As Alex Shephard recently noted, the race has barely begun and yet feels like it’s already over. Trump is blasting ahead in the polls. His presumed main-stage combatant, Ron DeSantis, is looking and acting like a spent force. The rest of the field seems destined for single-digit polling and an asterisk on Ballotpedia’s recap of the election year. All in all, it’s a strange repeat of the last open Republican primary—following the “First as tragedy, then as farce” maxim.
In some cases, the historical repetition is literal, not metaphoric. In recent weeks, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie somehow got some political reporters to listen to the sounds emanating from his mouth, and they recorded noises that sounded awfully like an intention to jump into the race. Along the way, Christie elucidated what he thought was the necessary skill set to beat Trump, which amounted to trenchant stuff like “Be fearless” and “Have guts.”
In fairness to Christie, I do not think he’s that far off the mark. In 2016, the Republicans in the field allowed Trump to seize a surfeit of unearned alpha mystique by largely failing to retaliate—not with equal force, anyway—when he landed his crude and sometimes shocking blows. They treated him on the debate stage like an interloper with poor manners, and begged whatever referee happened to be standing by to please enforce the Marquess of Queensbury rules tout de suite, like a gang of gilded fops from some forgotten Molière comedy.
But I’d take Christie more seriously if he had actually deployed these secret weapons when he had a chance. Instead, Christie ended up a supplicant, slaving for Trump’s transition team before finally getting murked by a Jared Kushner bent on settling family business. Such was the fate of Ted Cruz too. At the 2016 convention, Cruz asked delegates to “vote their conscience,” but by the fall was urging Republicans to vote Trump. This week, we learned just how much his own conscience had withered: He had a leading role in a collaborative effort with Fox News to overturn the election for Trump. Within the current GOP, it’s submission all the way down.
And this might be the reason that Trump—who’s not done much campaigning, doesn’t have a market-moving social media presence anymore, and demonstrated little kingmaking ability during the midterm elections—is somehow cleaning everyone’s clocks in the shadow primary. There’s hardly anyone left in the GOP willing to speak some plain truths: Trump lost the 2020 election; his attempt to hijack democracy makes him unfit to serve. This party is filled, stem to stern, with people who believe Trump is the rightful president. They have allowed a defeated president to take on the sheen of an incumbent, and the base—so far—is following these cues.
In Thank You for Your Servitude, which for my money is the only truly interesting book about the Trump presidency, author Mark Leibovich goes into harrowing detail about how the modern GOP readily turned itself into a gaggle of mendicants to serve Trump on bended knee. It’s a sumptuous and unsparing read about a party that hitched their wagon to a walking disaster and lost their spines in the exchange. But Leibovich didn’t get to write the next chapter, about how the GOP would behave in the 2024 presidential primary.
Well, we’re getting a look now, and the scene is grim. Instead of capitalizing on Trump’s indictment by going in for the kill, Trump’s competitors are defending him. The only person in the field with the gumption to tell Trump to his face that he lost the 2020 election fair and square is Asa Hutchinson, a guy no one who’s not a blood relative or on his payroll remembers is even running. None of the rest of the field look like they’ll successfully reconcile their support for Trump’s stolen-election claims with their desire to supplant him. And so the most likely person to defeat Trump will, once again, be a Democrat.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.