The Preemptive Republican Surrender to Trump

In the 2016 primary, Trump defeated a divided GOP opposition. It’s happening again.

Illustration of tiny Trump faces orbiting around an elephant face
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Donald Trump inspires an uncommon devotion among his most ardent followers, which can obscure a surprising fact about his present political position: Many, if not most, Republicans do not want him to be their party’s next nominee for president. As of today, according to the polling averages of both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics, Trump has consolidated only half of the Republican primary vote, with the rest split among Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and a handful of other alternatives. The numbers suggest that despite the former president’s best efforts, half of his own party’s voters want to move on. What they can’t agree on is who should displace Trump as their standard-bearer.

If this sounds familiar, it should. In 2016, Trump was repeatedly outpolled by the field of Republican candidates, and hovered around 35 percent on the eve of the Iowa caucuses in February, which he then lost to Senator Ted Cruz. But as the campaign wore on, Trump’s devoted following of a third of GOP primary voters was enough to propel him to victory over a divided group of opponents. He was greatly helped by their tactics—or lack thereof. Instead of attacking Trump as the front-runner, his rivals assailed one another, hoping that Trump would collapse of his own accord and they would inherit his supporters. Rather than consolidate behind a single alternative to Trump, the other contenders fought onward in state after state. This infighting enabled Trump to scoop up the most delegates, even though he never won a state with more than 50 percent of the vote until New York’s primary, on April 19. Soon, Trump’s opponents were out of money and he was the presumptive nominee.

The primary worked out poorly for the GOP establishment and its professional politicians, who found themselves on the losing end of a hostile takeover by an outsider. Yet in the run-up to the 2024 election, the Republican Party looks set to repeat this pattern, with Trump cruising to renomination amid a splintered field. The question is why.

A week ago, conservatives gathered at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s spring kickoff, a prelude to the presidential campaign. For Trump’s challengers, the event offered the opportunity to introduce themselves to an influential electorate and explain why they should succeed the former president as the Republican nominee. But that is not exactly what happened. “The candidates who bothered to make the trip barely bothered to try to knock the front-runner from his perch,” The New York Times reported. “Their strategy appeared straightforward: Avoid confrontation with the better-known, better-funded front-runners, hope Mr. Trump’s attacks take out—or at least take down—Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is second in most Republican polls, and hope outside forces, namely indictments, take out Mr. Trump.” Indeed, the only candidate who drew any fire at all was DeSantis, who did not attend the gathering, and ended up serving less as an alternative to Trump than as his human shield.

Trump enters the 2024 campaign with an array of new vulnerabilities that could be readily exploited by an ambitious opponent eager to appeal to the Republican primary electorate. You got rolled by Dr. Fauci and locked down the country, then lost to a doddering old man in an election you claimed was stolen but whose heist you proved powerless to prevent, they might say. Challengers like DeSantis might also point to national polls that show the Florida governor outperforming Trump in a matchup with President Joe Biden (who himself once rode an air of electability to the nomination). While you and your handpicked candidates in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania have been losing elections, I’ve been winning them by historic margins in Florida.

So far, none of this has happened. The arguments may be there, but no one of consequence is making them. Instead, history seems poised to repeat, with Trump primed to win renomination against a divided field of opponents who refuse to take him on until it’s too late. This may appear baffling, but there are actually good reasons no challenger has been willing to take the fight to Trump.

To begin with, it’s easy to propose that Trump-skeptical Republicans should unite behind a single theoretical candidate. It’s a lot harder to find an actual candidate who can unite them. Ron DeSantis voters want something different than Nikki Haley voters, who want something different than voters for Senator Tim Scott. Back in 2020, the Democratic Party solved a similar problem by turning to Biden to defeat the surging socialist Bernie Sanders. But Biden was a popular former vice president whom most factions found acceptable, if not ideal. No candidate in today’s Republican Party has Biden’s broad shoulders and innocuous appeal.

Similarly, Biden’s success was made possible by his lock on a core constituency of the Democratic primary electorate: Black voters. He lost badly in the early primary states, but took 49 percent in South Carolina, buoyed by then–House Whip Jim Clyburn’s fulsome endorsement. In the 2024 Republican primary, only one candidate has the demonstrated devotion of a key constituency, and that’s Trump with his base.

This is also why tearing into Trump is such an imposing prospect. While it’s true that there are new lines of attack that might work on today’s Trump, whoever is the first to unleash them will likely bear the brunt of the backlash from his supporters. No candidate wants to be the first into the fray, because turning on Trump may doom their prospects, even if it opens up political space for others.

This is the reason Republican contenders have once again fallen back on the hope that Trump will collapse on his own, and that outside forces—the justice system, the media, even old age—will swoop in and take care of the former president for them. But Trump’s indictments won’t sway Republican primary voters who have already dismissed them, and the mainstream media’s critical coverage won’t persuade GOP loyalists who don’t read or trust it.

The hard truth that Republican challengers have yet to absorb is that if their strategy to beat Trump is to hope that someone else beats Trump for them, they are not serious alternatives to Trump. Likewise, expecting people outside the Republican Party to police the Republican Party is not a strategy; it’s a surrender. The only actors who have any chance of altering the primary’s trajectory are those with credibility in Republican politics, whether they are politicians or popular commentators. There’s no guarantee that taking on Trump will yield a different outcome, but refusing to do so guarantees him a glide path to the nomination.