For a long time now, the Republican party establishment has been hoping for the appearance of a candidate who would be able to wrest the party’s presidential nomination from the grasp of serial sex abuser Donald Trump (SSAT) and rescue the party from the clutches of a narcissist who cares nothing for the party or even policies but simply seeks to be president so that he can soothe the pain of being seen as a loser and wreak vengeance on all his perceived enemies, a list that is long and growing longer by the day. But who will bell the cat? Who will be the person who takes down SSAT by attacking him for his multitude of faults as a candidate and a person?
The most vigorous attempt to do so is by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie who seems to have decided that he is the one to bring down SSAT. But Christie himself is a highly flawed vessel. He has long and close ties with SSAT, worked on his transition team in 2016, and even tried to get a cabinet position as attorney general and is still probably smarting from the humiliation of that rejection. His chances are slim.
Before Christie was one of his most ardent critics, after all, he was one of his most essential supporters — a pre-politics pal and periodic dinner companion, his first major endorser. He not only didn’t take any of the many available opportunities to break with him — Access Hollywood, Charlottesville, Helsinki and so on — Christie at the outset of Trump’s ascent was instrumental in making it OK for his party to be with him. So one end of the spectrum of the Republican electorate doesn’t like what he was doing then, and the other, larger end doesn’t like what he’s doing now, adding up to his historic unpopularity within his own party. And the people in what’s left of the middle? “The persuadables,” as his campaign staff optimistically calls them? They seem not sure how to feel about Christie — because they’re not sure which Christie to believe. The truth-teller has a trust problem.
Christie has a habit of tying himself to those who he felt could advance his own interests. and his role now as an SSAT critic may simply be a sign that he now sees SSAT as a loser of no value to him. Perhaps he thinks that if he can bring SSAT down, then even if he does not become the nominee, he may get the reward he seeks from a grateful future Republican president who will appoint him as attorney general.
So what are the possibilities? Various candidates have sought to fill that role of SSAT alternaive, starting most notably Florida governor Rod DeSantis. After an initial burst of energy that garnered him much attention, his star has faded due to running a lackluster campaign, having a grating personality, and not making much progress in denting SSAT’s lead in the polls. Even the media have started to no longer speak of him as a plausible candidate and so the party establishment and their big-money backers have shifted their hopes to others. After flirting with possibilities like Nikki Haley and Tim Scott but not seeing much life in those two candidacies either, they have started looking at people who are not even running, such as Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin and Georgia governor Brian Kemp. These two embody the kind of qualities that the traditional Republican party likes, people who are very pro-business and have sufficiently conservative social policies but are not nuts.
The problem for them, of course, is that SSAT is now identified with the party but has broken that Republican brand and taken the party into territory that they do not like but they are helpless to do anything about it. This article quotes McKay Coppins describing the despair of the party establishment about their inability to do anything.
In his recent book Thank You for Your Servitude, my colleague Mark Leibovich quoted a former Republican representative who bluntly summarized his party’s plan for dealing with Trump: “We’re just waiting for him to die.” As it turns out, this is not an uncommon sentiment. In my conversations with Republicans, I heard repeatedly that the least disruptive path to getting rid of Trump, grim as it sounds, might be to wait for his expiration.
But hope is not a plan and time is running out for the anti-Trumpers in the party to find an alternative to SSAT and they are becoming glumly aware of that fact.
A few days ago, I called the conservative impresario Bill Kristol, who has been trying to organize an anti-Trump coalition within the Republican Party for about as long as Trump has been angling to lead the G.O.P. (Among other endeavors, Kristol is affiliated with the Republican Accountability Project.) He sounded pretty depressed about the Stop Trump project generally. “This is where the donors are now: ‘I don’t know, it sort of looks like he’s going to be the nominee, and it looks like he could win,’ and that’s sort of correct. And then now they’re busy talking themselves into ‘You know what? Maybe I’ll just kind of get along with Trump O.K. Why kill myself to, you know, recruit Glenn Youngkin, who’s probably not going to make it? Why don’t I just keep quiet, maybe write a polite check to Trump so I’m not on his bad side, or just stay out of it?’ ”
The big change, Kristol went on, wasn’t just that the polls had made the donors uncertain but that they had realized the difficulty in persuading voters who had pulled the lever for Trump twice that doing so a third time was beyond the pale. Kristol said, “We probably underestimated the degree to which Trump is an incumbent, basically.” He listed the kinds of “real conversations” that Republican donors should be having: Will Youngkin enter the race? If Nikki Haley is the best hope, does Scott have to drop out? If so, how can donors get twenty million dollars to Haley to give her the kind of visibility in Iowa that no one has had this year? “That’s what it would look like if there was a visible and serious effort,” he told me. “I don’t think it would work, but it would be serious.” He contemplated the situation for a moment. “Maybe it’s a little too early,” Kristol said, “but it’s starting to get not too early, right?”
The only thing that I can see that will prevent SSAT from getting the Republican nomination is his death. Even if he suffers some serious physical setback between now and the Republican convention next year, I think his adoring cult followers will overlook it (or claim that he is pretending to be sick as part of some devious ingenious plan to thwart his enemies) and still vote him in.
There are no unicorns to be found.