Let’s assume Donald Trump runs again for president in 2024. Yes, I know, caveats, caveats. Republicans say it’s too early to discuss ’24. A lot can change between now and then. Maybe Trump won’t actually run. Maybe he’s just teasing the possibility to milk the attention. Apparently, he likes attention.
But if Trump does decide to inflict himself on another race, he will enter as the clear Republican favorite, enjoying a presumption of invincibility inside the GOP. This has engendered a belief that anyone who challenges Trump must tread lightly, or end up like the roadkill that his primary opponents became in 2016.
That notion is outdated.
Trump’s bizarre and enduring hold over his party has made it verboten for many Republicans to even utter publicly the unpleasant fact of his defeat—something they will readily acknowledge in private. I caught up recently with several Trump-opposing Republican strategists and former associates of the president who argued this restraint should end. The best way for a Republican to depose Trump in 2024, they said, will be to call Trump a loser, as early and as brutally as possible—and keep pointing out the absurdity of treating a one-term, twice-impeached, 75-year-old former president like a kingmaker and heir apparent. In other words, don’t worry about hurting Special Boy’s feelings.
“Why on earth would we hitch our wagons again to a crybaby sore loser who lost the popular vote twice, lost the House, lost the Senate, and lost the White House, and so on?” said Barbara Comstock, a longtime political consultant and former Republican congresswoman from Virginia. “For Republicans, whether they embrace the Big Lie or not, Trump is vulnerable to having the stench of disaster on him.”
Trump’s wasn’t an ordinary election defeat, either. Some nervy Republican challenger needs to remind everyone how rare it is for an incumbent president to lose reelection, and also that Trump was perhaps the most graceless loser and insufferable whiner in presidential history—the first outgoing commander in chief in 152 years to skip his successor’s swearing-in. And that he dragged a lot of Republicans down with him. As Comstock hinted, Trump was the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over his party’s loss of the House, Senate, and White House in a single term. Said nervy Republican challenger could even (just for fun) remind the former president that he once called the person he lost to “the worst presidential candidate in the history of presidential politics.”
“So what does that make you, sir? At least Jimmy Carter lost to, you know, Ronald Reagan.”
This is a devastating point of attack against Trump. He knows it, too, which is why he has taken such pains to loser-proof himself and scrub his MAGA universe of any doubt that he was in fact reelected “in a landslide.” Don’t let him get away with that, the cabinet of critics urged. Abandon all deference, and don’t forget to troll the troller.
“It is erroneous to think there’s a benefit to being the adult in the room against Donald Trump,” said Michael Cohen, the former president’s fixer turned antagonist, who clearly knows him and all of his trigger points.
“There’s a way of going after Trump that I would call intelligent mockery,” continued Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges for lying to Congress on behalf of his former client and paying hush money to Trump’s porn-actor paramour, Stormy Daniels. “If you can make your criticism personal to him, he will become flustered. And when he gets flustered, his level of stupidity rises and then morphs into complete idiocy.”
If it was true in 2016 that other Republicans couldn’t touch Trump, it’s not necessarily so now, given the win-loss record he has since accumulated.
“The problem with 2016 is that people waited ’til they were at their politically weakest point before they started pounding Trump,” said Tim Miller, a former top campaign aide to Jeb Bush who now writes for The Bulwark. “Could that have worked for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz if they started in September? I don’t know, but it helps not to be on your deathbed.”
Miller and others point out that Trump’s defeats in office go well beyond the loss of just his job. Despite Trump’s repeated claims of “promises made, promises kept,” most of his big-ticket promises from 2016 never came to fruition.
The attack riff practically writes itself: “Remember how Trump kept saying how easy it would be to balance the federal budget (‘very quickly’), repeal Obamacare and replace it (‘with something terrific’), and sign a massive infrastructure bill? None of those things actually happened, except the infrastructure bill—which was signed by Joe Biden.”
Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” along the southern border? Only about 80 miles of new barrier were built where no structure was in place previously. Trump mostly presided over repairs and enhancements to the existing wall. And Mexico paid for none of it.
Another inconvenient data point for Trump is that he left office with a 34 percent approval rating, the worst of his presidency. The average throughout his term—41 percent—was four points lower than that of any other president in Gallup’s history of polling. (President Biden’s approval numbers haven’t exactly been gangbusters either—stuck in the low 40s since the fall.) “Voters can be practical,” Miller said. “They want to win, and they need to be reminded that you can’t win with a big fat loser.”
We’re already seeing contours of some early strategies for running against Trump. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is mostly ignoring the former president while establishing his own cachet of lib-owning, base-arousing, culture-splitting bona fides. Former Vice President Mike Pence is pursuing a loyal-deputy and next-man-up course, despite his refusal to go along with Trump’s January 6 caper, which rendered him dead to his old boss and sentenced to hanging by Trump’s “Stop the steal” brigades.
Both of these are Trump-adjacent approaches predicated on keeping the faith with “the base” while asserting that, in many ways, Trump was still a great president. Essentially, DeSantis and Pence are positioning themselves as more competent and disciplined versions of Trump, without the baggage.
I doubt that this Trump-but-different tactic would work, especially with Trump himself in the race. Plus, why waste so much good material? A “He’s a loser” strategy would be way more direct and satisfying, and would have the added benefit of driving Trump nuts.
Who could make this work? Perhaps a popular Republican governor such as Maryland’s Larry Hogan or New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, neither of whom has much use for Trump. “You know, he’s probably going to be the next president,” Sununu said of Trump earlier this month in a comedic speech at Washington’s annual Gridiron Club dinner. “Nah, I’m just kidding; he’s fucking crazy.”
The line killed, according to Comstock, who was at the dinner. It underscored how effective humor—or ridicule—can be in the airing of unspoken and commonly understood truths. “This will be an important weapon for some Republicans to use against Trump at some point,” Comstock told me.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, also could serve as a useful nuisance against Trump. Christie used to brag in Trenton that he knew how to deal with bullies: “You can either sidle up to them, or you can punch them in the face. I like to punch them in the face.”
Christie dropped out of the 2016 presidential race after New Hampshire and promptly sidled up to Trump, where he remained for the better part of four years before reaching his end with Trump late in his term. The final indignity occurred when Christie attended the September 2020 super-spreader reception at the White House for the Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, after which the president, the first lady, and several guests, including Christie, tested positive for COVID-19. Trump was nice enough to call and check in on Christie when he was laid up in a New Jersey ICU. “Are you going to say you got this from me?” Trump asked, according to Christie. “It was one of the few laughs I had in the hospital,” Christie told me later of Trump’s gesture of deep concern. “I got off the phone, and I just shook my head. Like, this guy will never change.”
Christie is probably doomed to being dismissed as both a Trump traitor (by MAGA world) and a Trump doormat (by anti-Trumpers), but he could still make for an effective pugilistic foil. He has been a vocal proponent of Republicans moving on from 2020—which Trump of course has taken note of, and not in a nice way. The former president put out a statement saying that no one wanted to hear from a guy like Christie, “who left New Jersey with a less than 9 percent approval rating.”
In fact, Christie’s approval numbers in New Jersey bottomed out at about 13 percent, but that’s beside the point. The main point was how Christie came back at Trump. “When I ran for reelection in 2013, I got 60 percent of the vote,” Christie told Axios on HBO. “When he ran for reelection, he lost to Joe Biden.”
That could bear repeating.