Trump Needs a Confrontation. His G.O.P. Rivals Don’t Have to Give Him One.

Just before Christmas, I wrote a column warning about the disappointment many may feel if Donald Trump exits the political stage with a relative whimper — by losing a Republican presidential primary to a figure like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and then simply dimming, the way ex-presidents normally do, instead of going out with a supernova’s spectacle.

I wasn’t predicting that this would necessarily happen — Trump could very well wind up as the 2024 G.O.P. nominee. Rather, I was anticipating that if Trump goes, if he’s beaten, we should expect it to happen in a low-key way that leaves many of his longtime adversaries still oddly hungry for a fight.

You can see that hunger in several pieces that appeared in the last week. First is an Atlantic article by McKay Coppins, reporting on the fatalism of Republicans who want Trump to go away but don’t want to actively fight him. Coppins suggests that the party establishment is basically sleepwalking its way into another 2016 scenario, where Trump beats a divided field because nobody figures out how to take him on directly. Or else into a different disaster, where Trump loses the primary but emerges strong enough to run as a third-party candidate, creating a lasting schism in the G.O.P.

Then for The Daily Beast, Matt Lewis takes up the sleepwalking theme, cautioning prospective challengers against a 2016-style “flawed calculation” that the former president “will fade on his own” and urging them “to launch a sustained attack on Trump” or else expect defeat. Meanwhile, The Bulwark’s Sarah Longwell adds meat to the third-party scenario, citing her own polling showing that 28 percent of G.O.P. voters would back an independent Trump candidacy over a non-Trump Republican nominee and arguing that any effective anti-Trump effort needs a plan to chip away at this “Always Trump” bloc “before it’s too late.”

The desire for confrontation in all these takes absolutely makes sense as a retrospective analysis of the Republican situation in 2016, when the non-Trump candidates spent too much of their time (and money) going after one another until it was far too late to stop the Trump consolidation.

But the 2024 landscape seems very different. The Trump consolidation already happened; most voters in the Republican primary electorate will have cast presidential ballots for him twice, found things to like in his policies or his judicial picks and identified with him against his Democratic enemies in various controversies. Which means that a rival Republican candidate is much more likely to win them over through simple fatigue, the normal way that a post-presidential succession happens, than through some kind of sustained attempt to tear down Trump’s favorability within the G.O.P.

And Longwell’s data shows that the fatigue story is basically what’s already happening: The same polling showing the resilience of an Always Trump rump also shows DeSantis routing Trump in a potential head-to-head matchup, 52 percent to 30 percent, and still beating him handily, even in a crowded field. (And because DeSantis is polling so well, the field may not end up being all that crowded.) Relative to other recent polling, the DeSantis edge in the Bulwark poll is unusually high. But there are enough high quality polls showing Trump weakening to say that the Florida governor has become a plausible nominee, even a possible favorite — and he’s done so by staying in his lane and letting voters who are tired of Trump come to him on their own, without demanding that they actively reject the former president and all his pomp and works.

Of course, if he indeed runs, DeSantis will eventually need to respond more fully to Trumpian attacks and prepare for debate stage confrontations. And if the governor withers under national scrutiny, Trump’s core support is certainly enough for him to win a deeply fractured primary.

But there’s no reason to think that DeSantis stands to benefit from trying to peel away Trump’s core supporters with targeted attacks on their beloved leader right now, when all his success has come from letting Trump keep his core and making himself appealing to the rest of the Republican electorate. And there’s definitely no upside if a bunch of Republican donors or politicians or former elected officials come together and create a public Stop Trump front; nothing would help Trump more than reminding wavering voters that they prefer him to the old establishment.

No: Trump may fade before a DeSantis consolidation, or he may pull out a win when DeSantis himself fades. But the scenario where there’s a moment of truth, a knockout blow, a perfectly thrown brick that makes Trump stop floundering and simply sink — that just seems like wishful thinking. The whimper, not the bang, is the only plausible endgame.

Well, except with this one wrinkle: The third-party bid, the thing that’s seen by the confrontation-seekers as the punishment waiting for the G.O.P. if Trump is merely beaten without being crushed, is the thing most likely to finish Trumpian influence outright, to actually break his power once and for all.

On Twitter I said such a bid was unlikely. There are all kinds of reasons — from money to self-image to sore loser laws meant to bar failed primary candidates from the general election ballot — it’s hard to see Trump running a protest campaign in a race between DeSantis and President Biden. But it’s true that Trump wouldn’t need to hold all or even most of the Always Trump voters to tip a close race away from the G.O.P., to hand DeSantis a general election defeat as revenge for having first defeated him.

Trump would be the Ralph Nader of 2000 in this scenario, albeit probably with a larger vote share.

But now imagine, in an environment considerably more polarized than that one (in which every Democrat I knew cursed Nader), Republicans waking up to a second Biden term that’s happening because of Trump in a more direct and undeniable way even than their 2022 midterm losses. Would they just feel more of the kind of fatigue that’s currently elevating DeSantis? No: I think in that scenario most Republicans would become, at long last, anti-Trump.

Which makes it a scenario that a publication like The Bulwark, largely committed to defeating not just Trump but the current G.O.P., should consider pretty much ideal. But for Republicans who might prefer to have Trump broken than to simply have him fade, it’s a reminder of the post-2016 limits on their power. They probably can’t break him; he’d have to break himself.


Josh Barro on the Republicans’ optimism problem.

Matt Yglesias on the mystery of American weight gain.

Ed West on how Christianity created “social democracy for sex.”

Nigel Biggar on surviving cancellation.

A critical view of the press’s Trump-Russia coverage.

Tanner Greer watches the dream of globalization fade in Asia.

This Week in Anti-Decadence

“Their coolness factor always makes airships a comeback candidate. And maybe now they finally make sense again thanks to some recent technical advances that enable a new generation of flying machines to be something more than floating billboards. For example: Google co-founder Sergey Brin has been funding an electric airship project, Lighter Than Air Research. L.T.A.’s 600-foot Pathfinder airship, reports the Financial Times, will use 3-D printing and carbon-fiber tubing ‘to reduce costs and speed up production’ in an attempt to serve some niche markets such as humanitarian relief and a ‘green’ alternative to existing air- or sea-freight options. IEEE Spectrum reports that Pathfinder’s overcovering will be made from a three-layer laminate of synthetics that are similar to the sails in racing boats. Beyond the advances in materials and production, IEEE quotes L.T.A.’s chief technical officer, who points out that Pathfinder is a ‘fully electric fly-by-wire aircraft, which is not something that was possible 80 years ago.’ The same goes for the lidar units installed on top of each helium gas cell to help pilots better orient the airship, which will be able to carry with an expected capability to carry nearly 100 tons up to 10,000 miles.”

— James Pethokoukis, “Airships, hyperloops and intercity rocket travel”

“In my experience, once you start thinking about giant cargo airships, it’s hard to stop.

Try to actually picture it in your mind — an object the size of the Empire State Building floating across the sky a thousand feet above your head. They would be so common that you would see them daily, driving commerce and extending the gains from trade further than ever before. They would, of course, obey every law of physics, but to our minds trained on today’s mundane reality, they would appear to defy gravity.

For me, they would carry symbolic value. Every time I saw one, I’d remember that great things are possible.”

— Eli Dourado, “Cargo airships could be big”

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Next Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. I’ll be discussing the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI at Yale University’s Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel & Center with Christopher Ruddy, an associate professor at the Catholic University of America. The event is free and open to the public.

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