Trump’s Running, and Republicans Have Only Themselves to Blame

There is no coward’s way out of the dilemma facing the GOP.

An image of Donald Trump appearing in a speech bubble.
Getty; The Atlantic

So, Republicans, what will you do?

Donald Trump is not agreeing to vanish on his own. He has declared his candidacy for president in his familiar style: boastful, untruthful, sneering—but also charismatic and telegenic. In pursuit of power, he demonstrated in his announcement a rare degree of self-discipline, despite his Mar-a-Lago address devolving into rally-style riffing from which even Fox News cut away after about half an hour.

Trump focused his attack on the serving Democratic president rather than fellow Republicans and potential rivals. He remembered to speak somewhat respectfully about racial minorities and women, and to position himself as something more than an aggrieved “victim,” even as he claimed that title. He refrained from praising Vladimir Putin or any other of his pet dictators. He did not repeat the lies about the 2020 election that he’s been telling for the past two years—and that did so much harm this year to the party upon which he foisted those lies. He even broke precedent and paid tribute to his wife, family, and supporters. He even admitted, reluctantly, to being a politician.

Trump has been president before, and—viewing his performance last night—it’s not unimaginable that he could be president again.

So, again, Republicans, what will you do?

Trump ranks first in polls of Republican presidential preference. He has amassed a huge campaign-fund treasury: $100 million on hand. He has a still-powerful slogan in “America First,” and offers a clear and straightforward message: “Things were better when I was president. They can be better again.” He seems no less physically vigorous and mentally acute than when he entered presidential politics back in 2015.

If his announcement speech seemed meandering and boring to some, as it spilled into a second hour, well, so were his speeches as president. His supporters did not mind then; why would they start minding now?

Trump’s rivals for the Republican 2024 nomination predict, hope, or fantasize that Trump will be sidelined by his party’s disappointing performance in the 2022 midterms. They insist that rank-and-file Republicans will blame Trump for failures rather than any of them, even though they were as culpable as he. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also campaigned for Kari Lake and Blake Masters, as did Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin.

The extremists and weirdos who did so badly this year had won competitive primaries in which Republicans were free to choose other candidates, had they so wished. Why, then, is Trump more to blame for Republican Senate losses than Rick Scott, the head of the national Republican Senate campaign, who spent more than $180 million with so little to show for it?

Scott, not Trump, proposed a plan for huge cuts in Social Security and Medicare if Republicans won the Senate. Senator Lindsey Graham, not Trump, proposed a national abortion ban after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Trump did not enact brutally invasive and repressive abortion laws in the states; that was the state Republican parties themselves. Trump did not say that if Wisconsin elected a Republican governor, the state would never have a free election again. Trump didn’t pose for campaign ads looking like a serial killer on the way to a mass shooting.

Many in the Republican Party who already disapprove of Trump want to load all the blame for the 2022 result upon him. Whether Republican primary voters will agree—or why they should—is not at all obvious.

No. If the GOP is to stop Trump, then “Oh, Trump was great before, but it’s time for somebody new now” is not much of an argument. And the party would have to act to stop him. If Republicans believe that Trump truly was great before, and if he’s eligible to run again, why not support him? When he talks about his great record of political victory, either what he says is true or it’s pure fable. If true, then what Republican would not want more victories? And if mere fable, then somebody in-house has to be the first to say so.

That would involve some uncharacteristic truth-telling. DeSantis collects big checks. This past summer, he got $10 million from a single donor. The big donors trust him to use their money responsibly. They no longer trust Trump. But the little donors don’t know what the big donors know. They continue to give to Trump—and they will continue to give until the conservative media begin discussing openly how Trump is abusing their generosity. The detested liberal media have reported on Trump’s scam PACs. The scamming will not cease until the conservative media validate the reports for audiences schooled to disbelieve anything that does not come from an ideologically approved source.

The ancient Greeks told a story of a hero named Theseus, who ventured into the labyrinth to meet and defeat a terrible monster, the Minotaur. Theseus mustered his courage, grasped his weapon, fought, and won.

Theoretically, the hero could have waited for the monster to get bored and voluntarily retire from the monster business. But that is just an excuse for letting the monster win. Monsters don’t get bored; they don’t retire. Those who will not fight and defeat the monster suffer humiliation and destruction by the monster.

That is the fate now facing a Republican elite whose only idea is to hide, shirk, and mutter.

Over the months between now and voting day in 2024, Trump will likely face legal jeopardy, criminal and civil. Many in the Republican world hope that those jeopardies will eliminate Trump for them. But when the jeopardies arrive, will they rally to Trump’s defense? That’s what they did when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago for stolen government documents. Trump’s Republican allies endorsed his false claims to be a victim of state persecution then—and pushed their party to protect the ex-president from the law he had willfully violated. If they repeat that performance, they’ll make Trump a martyr all the way to the nomination.

If they yearn for Trump’s legal troubles to disqualify him, they will have to signal to their supporters that those legal troubles are fair and legitimate, not acts of political persecution by the Biden administration or the New York attorney general. And if Republican leaders won’t stand up for the law, against Trump, they will back themselves into standing up for Trump, against the law. They got a lot of practice siding with Trump against the law from 2015 to 2022, and that practice has brought them to their present predicament. If they want to escape their predicament, they must change their practice.

The choices are fight or yield. Those have been the choices all along, and those are the choices again. If Republicans want a different outcome this time, then this time they’ll have to change their behavior. There is no coward’s way out of the dilemma. Either take the fight to the Minotaur or be devoured by him.