In the halcyon days of 2016, when something like the conventional and pundit-sanctioned laws of politics still seemed to apply, the official gatekeepers of American conservatism mounted a multipronged strategy designed to neutralize Donald Trump. In a trial run of the tactic that would so badly fail Hillary Clinton that November, some fixated on his indecency and inexperience.
“Both parties have been infested by candidates who have treated the presidency as an entry-level position,” bleated a January editorial in the National Review. “The burdens and intricacies of leadership are special; experience in other fields is not transferable.” Elsewhere, the same tract attempted to situate Trump as an unreliable tribune of conservatism, darkly intoning that his past comments on abortion, gun control, health care policy, and “punitive taxes on the wealthy” suggested “he and Bernie Sanders . . . shared more than funky outer-borough accents.”
In light of what happened next, these lines of attack now feel quaint. Having strong-armed his way past a cadre of donor-vetted suits like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush en route to the presidency, Trump quickly made his bizarre demagogic style the lingua franca of the American right. For reasons of ideology, opportunism, or some combination of both, many erstwhile opponents obligingly hopped aboard the Trump train, leaving the handful who maintained a critical posture firmly on the margins of Republican politics. Appeals to decency, honor, and Trump’s unreliable conservative bona fides fell on deaf ears.
With all of this in mind, it was somewhat surreal to witness the respective campaign launches of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (incidentally a minor character in the Republican crackup of 2016) and former vice president Mike Pence this week. Where Ron DeSantis has hitherto done his best to triangulate on the question of Donald Trump, both Pence and Christie are evidently planning to run more directly against him.
“Different times call for different leadership,” declared Pence in a three-minute launch video yesterday that also channeled the typical grievances of the evangelical right. “Today our party and our country need a leader that will appeal, as Lincoln said, to ‘the better angels of our nature.’” Though Pence did not mention Trump by name or allude to the events of January 6, 2021, the mere fact of his candidacy makes having to do both inevitable — and there’s no reason to think the Republican primary electorate will be receptive.
If Pence’s launch resembled a Republican version of Bidenism with an evangelical twist, Christie’s was more like a garbled transmission beamed across time from a distant galaxy where the name “Dick Cheney” still commands respect. Unlike Pence, Christie seized the occasion on Tuesday to aim his tired tough-guy routine squarely at Trump.
Opening with a roughly twenty-minute spiel that mentioned the Greeks, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln, the former governor made a series of cliched appeals to “character” and compared Trump to “Lord Voldemort.” “Governing is about compromise. . . . When did ‘compromise’ become such a dirty word?” asked Christie, who apparently suffers from a rare form of amnesia in which the events of 2016 have been entirely erased.
Barring some completely unexpected turn of events, both these men are going to lose. Their respective campaigns’ animating premise — that the same messaging and tactics that have failed to dethrone Trump in the past will suddenly work on the thousandth try — is absurd on its face.
Christie quite literally sold his soul to Trump in 2016, becoming one of his most prominent establishment endorsers upon leaving the race, while Pence served as his vice president. Much as it’s already done with Ron DeSantis, the Trump campaign will be able to pull from a vast arsenal of clips and sound bites showing Christie and Pence praising the man they now deem unsuitable to lead the Republican Party.
Why would anyone buy it? And what in God’s name makes either of these men believe the same playbook that failed to stop Trump in 2016 will somehow be effective seven years later?
One possible explanation, certainly applicable to numerous primary candidates in 2020, is that neither is actually trying to win. For many a presidential also-ran, a plush media gig, a book deal, or a perch in an administration can make even a quixotic campaign an attractive prospect. This, however, seems unlikely. Pence and Christie are already known quantities, and it’s clear neither is auditioning for another job in the administration. Some of the motivation might be personal: after dropping out in 2016, Christie repeatedly kissed the ring to no avail, while Pence became the target of MAGA ire for not falling into line on January 6. In the latter case, a former vice president would normally be a de facto front-runner for the top job, and Pence may be under the impression that the same will apply in 2024.
The most plausible explanation, though, is that the machinery of traditional Republican politics has yet to fully accommodate itself to the realities of the post-2016 world. After Trump’s defeat in 2020, many institutional conservatives apparently concluded the fever dream would pass and that something like normalcy would soon reassert itself. The electoral anticlimax of last November’s midterms, albeit momentarily, again made this idea almost believable. Never having dropped below any of his rivals to begin with, Trump’s poll numbers have since gone up and entrenched him as the race’s clear front-runner.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that Trumpism is less a passing fancy than a structural shift in the politics of the Right. More than any other figure in modern history, Trump has fused his personality and affectations with the grievances and prejudices of his party’s base. Unable to process this reality, more traditional Republican politicians are intent on clinging to the idea that the Trumpian albatross can still be cast off through conventional means. Over the next several months, that premise will be tested. And if 2016’s debates are any indication, the likes of Pence and Christie will live to regret having believed it.