Why Won’t Trump’s Rivals Just Say It?

Now is an ideal moment for Republicans to free themselves from the former president.

A photo of Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

After his historic indictment was announced Thursday night, former President Donald Trump reacted with his characteristic cool and precision: “These Thugs and Radical Left Monsters have just INDICATED the 45th President of the United States of America.” Presumably this was a typo, and he meant INDICTED. But the immediate joining of arms around the martyr was indeed a perfect indication of precisely who the Republicans are right now.

“When Trump wins, THESE PEOPLE WILL PAY!!” Representative Ronny Jackson of Texas vowed.

“If they can come for him, they can come for anyone,” added Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona—or at least come for anyone who has allegedly paid $130,000 in hush money to a former porn-star paramour (and particularly anyone who allegedly had unprotected sex with her shortly after his third wife had given birth).

As usual, the Republicans’ latest rush to umbrage on behalf of Trump, before the indictment is even unsealed, was imbued with its own meaning—namely, about what the party has allowed itself to become in service to him. Trump is no longer just Republicans’ unmoveable leader; he is their everyman. His life is not some spectacularly corrupt and immoral web—but rather his victimization has become a proxy for their own imagined mistreatment.

And soon enough, Trump has promised, he will be their “retribution.” He is their patron crybaby.

The GOP’s ongoing willingness to fuse itself to Trump’s deranged and slippery character has been its most defining feature for years. The question is why it continues, after all these embarrassments and election defeats. And why Republicans, at long last, don’t use the former president’s mounting milestones of malfeasance as a means of setting themselves free from their orange albatross.

The popular assumption among Republicans that Trump’s indictment strengthens him politically shows how cowed they all still are. Yes, Trump’s indictment is “unprecedented,” as his defenders keep reminding us. But this is not necessarily flattering to the former president. They perceive him to be invulnerable, and he behaves as such. In their continued awe, they see their only choice as continued capitulation.

There is, of course, an alternate response: the exact opposite. “My fellow Americans, I am personally against paying hush money to porn stars. Maybe I am naive or even, forgive me, a bit conservative in how I choose to live my life. But it is my personal view that our leaders, especially those seeking our highest office, should not be serial liars, should not be subject to multiple state and federal investigations, and should not call for the termination of the Constitution in order to re-install themselves as president against the democratic will of the American people.

In some long-ago Republican universe, there would in fact be a dash to condemn the former president’s words and conduct. This is not who we are, some might say, or try to claim. Sure, there could be some old-fashioned political opportunism involved here. (It wouldn’t be the first time!) But what politician wouldn’t seize such an opening to score points?

Instead, the response from the GOP’s putative leaders was as predictable as the indictment news itself. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who supposedly represents the Republicans’ most promising possible break from Trump in 2024, seized the chance to pander his way back into the old tent. He vowed that Florida would “not assist in an extradition request” that might come from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office is responsible for the indictment. DeSantis called the indictment “un-American” and dismissed Bragg as a “Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney” (bonus points for Ron, getting Soros in there).

DeSantis also cited the “political agenda” behind the indictment. Or “witch hunt,” as it was decried by distinguished elder statesmen and women such as Representatives Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and George Santos, among others. Gee, where do they learn such phrases?

Former Vice President Mike Pence announced on CNN that he was “outraged” by the “unprecedented indictment of a former president.” (Pence, of course, expressed far more “outrage” over Trump’s predicament than he ever publicly did over his former boss leaving him to potentially be hanged at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.) Meanwhile, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, one of Trump’s few official 2024 challengers, rejected Bragg’s move as “more about revenge than it is about justice.” Senator Tim Scott, another possible presidential rival, condemned Bragg as a “pro-criminal New York DA” who has “weaponized the law against political enemies.”

No one knows yet how solid Bragg’s case against Trump is. But there are simple alternatives to this ritual circling of the withering wagons every time Trump lands himself in even deeper trouble. “We need to wait on the facts and for our American system of justice to work like it does for thousands of Americans every day,” Asa Hutchinson, the Republican former governor of Arkansas, said in a statement, offering one such alternative.

Or, speaking to the matter at hand, “being indicted never helps anybody,” former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said recently on ABC’s This Week. In a normal world, this would represent the ultimate duh statement. But among today’s Republicans, Christie was making himself an outlier.

In the early stages of the 2024 Republican primary, Christie has been the rare figure to step into a “lane” that’s been left strangely wide open. Christie dropped into New Hampshire on Monday and continued to tease the notion that he might run for president again himself. He pummeled Trump while doing so—and sure, good for Christie, I guess. Better several years late than never.

He makes for an imperfect messenger, this onetime Trump toady of Trenton. My elite political instincts lead me to suspect Christie will not go on to become our 47th president. But his feisty drop into Manchester was constructive nonetheless. “When you put yourself ahead of our democracy as president of the United States, it’s over,” Christie told a receptive crowd at Saint Anselm College, referring to Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat in 2020 and subsequent efforts to sabotage the transfer of power. I found myself nodding along to Christie’s words, and willing to overlook, for now at least, his past record of bootlicking. If nothing else, Christie knows Trump well and understands his tender spots.

You don’t always get the pugilists you want. Especially when the likes of DeSantis, Pence, Haley, et al., have shown no appetite for the job. The leading contenders to beat Trump in the primary have offered, to this point, only the most flaccid critiques of the former president, who—perhaps not coincidentally—seems to be only expanding his lead in the (very) early polling.

If Trump has demonstrated one thing in his political career—dating to his initial cannonball into the pool of the 2016 campaign—it is that he thrives in the absence of resistance. In his initial foray, none of Trump’s chief Republican rivals, including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, bothered to take him on until he was well ensconced as the front-runner. Christie was himself a towering titan of timidity in that campaign. He dropped out after finishing sixth in the New Hampshire primary and immediately led the charge to Trump’s backside.

This time around, DeSantis, viewed by many Trump-weary Republicans as the top contingency candidate, has barely said a critical word about the former president. Trump, in turn, has been pulverizing the Florida man for months, dismissing him as an “average governor.”

Meanwhile, Pence has managed only to rebuke Trump at a private dinner of Washington journalists. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, a favorite of many Republican donors and consultants, recently told Politico that he prefers leaders who can “disagree with people without being disagreeable.” He then summarized what sets him apart from Trump. “We just have different styles,” Youngkin concluded. Ah yes, if only Trump had a more agreeable “style,” everything would be cool.

Or maybe Republicans should consider a change in “style.” The delicate deference they continue to afford Trump—through two impeachments, repeatedly poor election showings, and (at least) one indictment—seems only to have solidified his hold over them.

Campaigns are supposed to be “disagreeable” sometimes, right? Especially when the face of your party is about to become a mug shot.