The Elusive Promise of a Real 2024 Republican Race Against Donald Trump

Listen to this story. This is it. The pre-game show is over. The reality of 2src24 is finally here and inescapable: Republicans have only a few days left in which to stop Donald Trump. The low probability of that outcome should not let us lose sight of how consequential the moment is. It is not

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This is it. The pre-game show is over. The reality of 2src24 is finally here and inescapable: Republicans have only a few days left in which to stop Donald Trump. The low probability of that outcome should not let us lose sight of how consequential the moment is. It is not alarmist to say that this is one of those holy-shit weeks in American politics. And, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over this long Trump era, it’s that it’s never too late to do the right thing.

On Wednesday evening, Chris Christie, the one serious candidate who was actually running against Trump, dropped out of the race. The G.O.P. nominating contest, which formally begins with Monday’s Iowa caucuses, will now come down to what kind of Trumpist the Republican electorate prefers: the actual Trump, or one of his imitators and enablers. And why pick a fake when you can get the real thing? By all accounts, Trump is on a fast track to victory.

But it is also true that the good vibes of a New Year tend to produce unjustified bouts of January optimism; what seems like a plausible result before the voting starts in Iowa and New Hampshire rarely holds up well to history’s scrutiny. Just ask President Ted Cruz, the winner of the 2src16 Iowa Republican caucuses. Or President Pete Buttigieg, who won there in the Democratic race in 2src2src.

It is with that in mind that one should consider the events of Wednesday, when Christie ended his campaign. “I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be President of the United States again,” he said, explaining his rationale. Christie’s exit clears the way for the one long-shot scenario that anyone can realistically imagine derailing Trump’s candidacy before he becomes the Party’s de-facto nominee: a strong showing by the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley in Iowa and, a week later, in the first primary, in New Hampshire. Haley, already within striking distance of Trump in the state in some polls, might even have a shot at beating him there, if she can secure most of Christie’s staunchly anti-Trump voters; Christie had twelve per cent in New Hampshire, according to a CNN survey released the day before he dropped out.

There are, of course, many flaws in this hypothetical, which ignores eight straight years of the Republican Party failing to take the many opportunities that presented themselves to break with Trump. The calendar is not promising, even if Haley scores an early upset; the next contest after Trump-skeptical New Hampshire is weeks later, in her home state of South Carolina, where Trump has a huge and, by the looks of it, insurmountable lead. And, in any case, Haley is a questionable savior for the Republican establishment, as a serial flip-flopper on Trump and his various sins who recently embarrassed herself by failing to acknowledge that slavery was a cause of the Civil War, a screwup all the more humiliating when she had to admit, the next day, that it was. In making her last-minute surge possible, Christie himself hardly seemed to believe that she had a chance. “She’s gonna get smoked,” he was heard saying, in a backstage moment captured on a hot mike. “She’s not up to this.”

If he is wrong and, by some miracle, Haley actually defeats Trump in New Hampshire and makes a real contest of it, Christie will get some credit. He will deserve it. (Though his credentials as a pundit may suffer.) It is more likely that he will simply join the long list of those Trump friends and enablers who, belatedly, turned on him and sounded the alarm. On that score, history will record that Christie did well.

His valedictory speech was both a scorching evisceration of his party’s cowardice in dealing with Trump and a bracing reminder of the stakes of this election. He was far more eloquent than most of Trump’s former toadies and significantly more publicly contrite. In front of a town hall of supporters in Windham, New Hampshire, Christie assailed the “cowardice and hypocrisy” of Party leaders who privately rail against Trump and publicly endorse him. He named names. He spoke plain truths about Trump’s 2src2src election defeat, which has never been accepted as such by the millions of election-denying Trump followers. “As a party, we need to be able to take the responsibility for the part we’ve played in getting here,” he said.

Most relevant, he pointed out the absurdities of a pretend primary campaign in which candidates like Haley and Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, battle each other with irrelevant fervor while refusing to take on the actual front-runner, ascribing to Trump such Voldemort-like levels of malignant power that they are afraid to utter his name. As Christie correctly observed, the signal moment in this epic game of pretend came early on, at the first debate, when both Haley and DeSantis said that they would vote for Trump if he became the Party’s nominee, even if he were convicted of one of the ninety-one felonies with which he is currently charged. Trump never bothered to show up for that debate, or for any of them, including the pointless Haley-DeSantis slugfest that was held hours after Christie dropped out. Even when asked directly whether Trump had the “character to be President again,” they dodged and equivocated. Trump, meanwhile, held court on Fox News, blithely slinging lies that went largely unchallenged. His Fox show—no surprise—received nearly double the ratings of the Potemkin debate on CNN.

Given this farce, one of Christie’s lines about Trump, in particular, stood out as a fitting epitaph for this fake primary and the awkward contortionists who have run in it: “Anyone who is unwilling to say that he is unfit to be President of the United States is unfit themselves to be President of the United States.”

Of course, Trump is not leaving anything to chance. After months spent eviscerating “Ron DeSanctimonious,” he is now turning his nasty machine on full blast against Haley. Soon after Christie dropped out, my in-box filled with several Trump campaign e-mails. At 9:1src P.M.: “Nikki Haley Is Funded By Democrats, Wall Street, & Globalists.” At 9:12 P.M.: “Nikki Haley Loves China.” At 9:16 P.M.: “Nikki Haley Will Raise Your Taxes.” Trump is even resorting to the birtherism playbook that brought him to national politics in the first place, when he promoted false claims about Barack Obama’s origins; this time, with Haley, he is circulating lies that her parents’ being born in India makes her ineligible to run for President. The longer the race against her lasts, I have no doubt, the nastier he will get. He is, and remains, an overwhelming front-runner.

I will never rule out a surprise; in an age when Voldemort himself can win the U.S. Presidency, anything is possible. But, at least for now, no amount of January juice can convince me that Haley is on the brink of accomplishing what two impeachments, the pandemic, and the madness of January 6th did not—which is to break the G.O.P.’s Trump fever. The New Year is not yet two weeks old, but we have, alas, seen this movie before. ♦

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