Two Theories for Beating Trump in the Primary
There are two basic theories for how Donald J. Trump might be defeated in a Republican primary. It’s possible that neither, both or some combination of the two can actually work in practice. But by considering them in depth, it becomes easier to think about and judge the various efforts to beat him—and why so many haven’t pulled it off.
In our next article, we’ll consider whether and how Ron DeSantis fits into the picture — and why his campaign has struggled to meet the very real challenge of defeating a former president.
Theory One: Trumpism Without Trump
This type of candidacy assumes that Mr. Trump’s populist conservatism reoriented the Republican Party in irreversible and advantageous ways, but that his personal conduct has been a disaster for conservatives.
In this view, his poor hires and lack of experience and focus prevented him from being an effective president. His coarse remarks, tweets, election denialism and ultimately Jan. 6 not only cost Republicans the White House and the Senate, but also the opportunity for a truly decisive victory — like the one Mr. DeSantis would win in 2022 in Florida.
According to this theory, these same personal weaknesses are his vulnerability in a Republican primary in 2024. A challenger to Mr. Trump, therefore, ought to hew as close as possible to him on the issues, while distinguishing himself or herself on electability, competence and character.
If you imagine yourself in a hypothetical brainstorming session for the Trumpism Without Trump campaign, you can imagine the kinds of attacks that might add up to a critique of a hapless, weak president who wasn’t up to the job of making America great again. In this view, Mr. Trump presided over rising crime, a strengthening China, growing trade deficits, rising drug overdose deaths and a stronger Democratic Party. He talked a big game, but didn’t accomplish much. He failed to build a wall. He lost to sleepy Joe Biden. He’s old. The election was stolen from under his nose. He let the Deep State drag him down and did nothing to dismantle it. He let dr. Fauci into our lives, and the vaccine into our bodies. He didn’t command the respect of the military and hired countless people he now considers disloyal. Not every one of these attacks is ready for prime time, but some combination could work, and you could undoubtedly come up with other examples.
The logic of Trumpism Without Trump has merit, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Indeed, it suffers from an obvious and fundamental problem: It doesn’t work if Republicans still want Mr. Trump.
There’s another, less obvious issue: It’s hard for this type of candidate to unite the various skeptical-of-Trump factions. After all, many of the most vocal opponents of Mr. Trump opposes both Trumpism and the man himself. This sets up routine clashes between a Trumpism Without Trump candidate and his or her most likely own supporters. It could even lead many of those supporters to seek an explicitly anti-Trump candidate.
Theory Two: An alternative to Trumpism
This theory is a little more complicated. It describes something that doesn’t yet exist. But the case for this theory picks up with the last critique of Trumpism Without Trump.
An anti-Trump candidate will probably need to be something more than Trumpism Without Trump: A reinvigorated brand of conservatism would be needed to pull off the challenging task of unifying everyone from the Trumpist types to the supporters of Mitt Romney’s Reaganism to the Ted Cruz Tea To install Partiers.
Needless to say, this would be challenging. To do this, a conservative would need to find a message that at once checks the boxes and wins the hearts of various factions — without alienating the rest. This is not easy, given the many disagreements between the different factions of the Republican Party. But something like this has happened before under circumstances that in some ways resemble today’s.
Recall the conditions that brought about the last great renewal of conservatism, in the 1970s. The parallels to today are striking. In both 1979 and 2023, conservatives could say inflation and crime were high; the Kremlin had decided to invade a neighbor; and a new class of young, highly educated activists was at once driving some old-school liberals to the right and sparking a full-blown conservative reaction. In each case, it was 15 years after an epochal breakthrough for Black Americans (the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008).
As with today, the right was fractured. The politicians who embodied the different wings of a possible Republican coalition — Barry Goldwater, George Wallace and Gerald Ford — were every bit as ideologically diverse as Mr. Cruz, Mr. Trump and Mr. Romney. But the events of the 1960s and 1970s created conditions that allowed these groups to come together around a reinvigorated conservatism that dominated the Republican Party for the next 30 years.
The reaction against the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s was strong enough to bring some once-liberal intellectuals and the religious right together against the excesses of the counterculture. The backlash against the civil rights era, rising crime and the failings of the Great Society brought blue-collar, urban, white ethnic Reagan Democrats together with Sun Belt suburbanites. High inflation and a growing tax burden offered a way for neoliberal economics to align big business, working-class economic interests and white resentment.
The conditions for a rejuvenated conservatism today aren’t nearly as favorable as they were in 1979. They don’t even seem as favorable as they were in 2021. But it’s not 2015 anymore, either. Many of the conditions that helped lead to Trumpian populism are gone. Fear of economic stagnation, high unemployment and low interest rates have been replaced by inflation and high interest rates. Globalization is unequivocally in retreat. The Forever Wars are gone, and Great Power politics is back. Meanwhile, the rise of a new “woke” left and lingering resentment over coronavirus restrictions have brought a new set of issues that didn’t exist a decade ago.
If you look in the right corners of the internet, you can see these changes congealing into new kinds of conservatives. You can spot neo-neo-cons on Substack, where Obama-era liberals who insist they aren’t conservatives rail against “woke” and forge unusual alliances with longtime conservatives. There’s even a neo-neoliberalism of sorts, as a small corner of the right mulls deregulation to contain costs, and even progressives find themselves mulling “supply side” policies. Many of the people dabbling in these ideas were also skeptics of coronavirus restrictions, especially school closings. Rising concern about Russia and China needs no explanation.
If you put all of these various strands together, you can imagine the outlines of a reinvigorated conservatism tied to the challenges of 2023, not 2015 or 1979. Compared with 2015, it would be distinguished by anti-woke cultural politics, a stronger approach to Russia or China, and deregulation aiming to tackle inflation and promote “freedom.” It also fulfills the most important element for the Alternative to Trumpism theory: Moderate elites and Obama-era Tea Partiers can find common ground on all of these issues or at least tolerate the other side.
But like Trumpism Without Trump, this approach faces a fundamental problem: It’s not obvious whether these new issues are strong enough to hold the disparate elements of the anti-Trump coalition together through a primary campaign.
Over the last year or so, new developments have tended to weaken the punch of the new issues. The pandemic is past, at least politically. “Wokeness” may be fading somewhat as an issue. Meanwhile, the old issues are making a comeback. Inflation is edging down, but the end of pandemic-era restrictions has renewed focus on the border. The end of Roe v. Wade has pushed abortion back to the center of American life. Nothing similar could be said in 1979, when older divisive battles over civil rights or Medicare had plainly given way to a new set of more acute challenges. Imagine how much harder it would have been for Ronald Reagan to balance winning the South and the rest of the country in the Republican primary if Brown v. Board had been overturned by conservative judges in 1978.
There’s another reason the new issues might not be enough: They don’t always offer easy avenues for attack against Mr. Trump. There are a few obvious but fundamentally limited opportunities, like Russia and China. But after that, it gets tougher. Inflation could be a plausible path: The argument would go that Mr. Trump’s tariffs, push for lower interest rates, immigration restrictions, government spending, stimulus checks and big tax cuts all contributed to supply chain issues, labor shortages and excess demand. This would even allow for a natural comparison lumping him in with Mr. Biden. But this attack is complicated to pull off, and it doesn’t seem to be political gold.
Importantly, it is difficult to attack Mr. Trump on “woke,” which is probably still the single new issue with the most resonance across the Republican Party, even if it isn’t quite as salient as it was a year or two ago. The attack on woke does offer some opportunity for a contrast with Mr. Trump, by embracing American Greatness as an explicit critique of woke anti-Americanism and an implicit critique of dystopian MAGA-ism. Nikki Haley has taken this tack. But it is not at all obvious whether this sunnier brand has any resonance with conservative voters.
Realistically, a successful campaign will need the traits of both Trumpism Without Trump and an Alternative to Trumpism. Alone, neither quite seems like enough. The strongest candidacy will benefit a bit from some aspects of the other. Done right, perhaps no one would be quite sure which category it falls into.
Next, we’ll consider why Mr. DeSantis is a distinct candidate who comes close to pulling off both, but so far hasn’t done either — with poll numbers to show for it.