None of Donald Trump’s Republican challengers stand a chance of getting the GOP presidential nomination if they keep treating him with respect. The scolding they’ve recently offered up is only barbed if measured against the tongue bath of adulation he gets from his supporters. To understand how pointless their attacks thus far have been, imagine what Trump would do if he was losing to a twice-indicted retiree who can’t keep his own excuses straight.
In the wake of Trump’s indictment on 37 federal charges and his awkward attempts to explain himself, his GOP rivals have thrown up their collective hands. The prospect of a presidential race unfolding from behind bars or the inside of a courtroom has not, suffice it to say, “shaken up the race.” Recent polling shows Trump doing as well as or better than he was before the charges. One anonymous adviser told The New York Times he was “depressed” by Republican voters’ lack of response to what he considered “devastating” news.
To understand how pointless their attacks thus far have been, imagine what Trump would do if he was losing to a twice-indicted retiree who can’t keep his own excuses straight.
Observers have some theories as to why Trump hasn’t been brought down by what most consultants consider a weakness in a candidate: open criminal charges. Maybe it’s the media (“Trump always gets all the coverage,” one rival’s staffer whined to Politico.) Maybe, one pollster told Politico, it’s that the GOP base believes the “big lie” and thus sees other candidates as attempting to usurp “a sitting president.” Maybe, the former president’s own campaign argues, it’s his ineffable Trumpiness. Said a Trump staffer granted anonymity for that same Politico piece: “Trump just has this knack for understanding the moment.”
Maybe. But I think the inability of his competitors to leave a mark on Trump is their own fault. They continue to fight him on his own terms, rather than using his own tools against him. Their reactions to his indictment are still the ones of normal politicians trying to run normal campaigns.
Sure, some of them tried to land a punch. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley called him “reckless” while South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott noted it is a “serious case with serious allegations.” Former Vice President Mike Pence “cannot defend what is alleged.” But the GOP 2024 field keeps tempering its snark by declaring what emerged as core belief for the former “law and order” party: the Justice Department that brought the charges is illegitimate to some degree. “Politicized,” according to Pence. Guilty of “targeting and hunting Republicans,” according to Scott. Put itself in a position, said Haley, of having “lost all credibility with the American people.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, perhaps wisely, didn’t comment on the indictment directly. But two days after it, he proclaimed the DOJ had been “weaponized” and asked whether it had a “different standard for a Democrat secretary of state versus a former Republican president?”
Clearly, this careless subversion of the Justice Department is a sop to Trump’s supporters, an attempt to puncture his popularity without challenging the modern conservative fixation with persecution that the former president has shared, kindled and exploited. But you can’t do both.
You cannot delegitimize an investigation and then expect people to take it seriously.
At least one of his rival’s advisers has the right diagnosis. “There’s such enormous distrust of the Department of Justice and the FBI after the Hillary years and the Russiagate investigation,” the anonymous staffer told The New York Times, “that it appears that no other fact set will persuade Republican voters otherwise.” I guess if you spend years telling people they can’t trust the government, they won’t trust the government. Who knew?
That cultivated sense of persecution that Trump has both enacted and encouraged isn’t based on facts.
This willful confirmation bias is why if the roles were reversed, Trump wouldn’t use facts to take down a rival in the DOJ’s crosshairs. Why should facts matter, anyway? That cultivated sense of persecution that Trump has both enacted and encouraged isn’t based on facts. He’s just focused on the personal failings of the dimwit that got caught.
Imagine the insinuations and bigoted references Trump would reach for if he was the one trailing in the polls and Haley and Scott were the ones with federal prosecutors breathing down their necks. I can’t envision a scenario in which Trump the competitor would see a Black man indicted for stealing, or a woman of color charged with betraying the country, and tell a crowd that the real crime was that they were being accused at all.
Only former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has the kind of attitude that could be considered even vaguely Trumpian: He called Trump a “petulant child, ” “three-time loser,” and “a lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog.“ And we know at least one of those stung, because Trump responded by making fun of Christie for being fat. Infantile, yes, but exactly the kind of repartee GOP voters expect from their candidates these days.
So, here is my mostly sincere advice: Go low, Republican presidential hopefuls! Go very low! Mock Trump’s desperate, Norma Desmond-like refusal to part with the accumulated memorabilia of his fleeting fame, but double down on basic schoolyard taunting. Campaign on the way Trump looks, the way Trump sounds, the way Trump walks, the way Trump eats, his physical fitness. Basically, say the things about him that he says about other people.
To be clear, such insults are rude and unacceptable. I am not even going to indulge in examples, as much as I want to. I don’t think the majority of Americans find that sort of humor appealing in a leader. But depressingly, it’s part of what Republicans are looking for.
I am aware of the cautionary tale presented by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s attempt to out-Trump Trump in 2016. The conventional wisdom is that Trump was just better at that game. Maybe. But Trump wasn’t just meaner than Rubio in that primary, he was also a lot more racist. Trump’s ability to zero in on his competitor’s foibles is impressive to the point of historic, but what history will remember is how the cruelty of his insults was just the prelude to his cruelty, full stop.
And while we’re saying the unsayable, the bigotry that sunk Rubio has become essentially the GOP’s modus operandi today. Republicans are happy to dehumanize queer people as groomers and deny the right of trans people to exist. (Haley — the moderate one! — has said DeSantis’ “don’t say gay” bill “doesn’t go far enough.”) They cheer a Supreme Court that has eliminated one of the few reliable pathways to diversifying the halls of power. They co-sign barbarity at the borders. The policies that the GOP (including Rubio) used to at least try to mask or sugarcoat are now being advertised with the cruelty featured front and center.
If only they would take that attitude with Trump.
Ana Marie Cox is a political journalist and author. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Beast and The Washington Post, among other places.