Watching the nascent Republican primary race, I have a sickening sense of déjà vu. As much as I abhor Donald Trump’s opponents, I’m desperate for one of them to prevail. Trump might be easier for Joe Biden to beat, but anyone who gets the Republican nomination has a chance of being elected, and the possibility of another Trump term is intolerable. So it’s harrowing to see Trump abetted, again, by the cowardice of his opponents.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who was supposed to stop Donald Trump, is deflating before even entering the race, with his poll numbers softening and donors fretting. Trump, meanwhile, seems more buoyed than hindered by his ever-proliferating scandals, and is racking up endorsements at DeSantis’s expense. There are several explanations for why this is happening, including the backlash to Trump’s indictment, DeSantis’s near total lack of charisma, and concern among Republican elites about the sweeping abortion ban he just signed. But there’s another dynamic at work here, and I think it’s the big one: Like Trump’s 2016 rivals, DeSantis is making the mistake of believing that the primary race is about issues, while Trump instinctively understands that it’s about dominance.
Dueling super PAC attack ads about Social Security and Medicare illustrate DeSantis’s problem. The ad from the Trump camp is inspired by reporting about DeSantis eating pudding with his fingers on an airplane. Over a nauseating video of a man messily consuming chocolate pudding with his hands, the spot says, “DeSantis has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements.” But the policy argument is just an excuse for the disgusting visuals; the point is not to disagree with DeSantis, but to humiliate him.
The ad from DeSantis’s allies misses this point entirely. It attempts to fact-check the claims in the pro-Trump spot with video of DeSantis promising to protect Social Security, then tries to turn the tables by airing a clip of Trump saying that “at some point” he’ll “take a look” at entitlements. “Trump should fight Democrats, not lie about Governor DeSantis,” the ad continues — whining about Trump’s aggression rather than countering it.
This approach didn’t work in 2016 and it’s not working now. Witness the parade of Florida Republicans turning their back on DeSantis and bending the knee to Trump with their endorsements.
Republican attempts to outflank Trump from the right, a strategy tried by Ted Cruz in 2016, are also falling flat again. Before Mike Pence’s speech to the National Rifle Association last week, Politico reported that the former vice president was aiming “to get to the right of Donald Trump on guns, bringing debates the two once had behind closed doors in the White House into the public eye.” Pence ended up getting booed by the crowd and then mocked by his former boss.
The upcoming Republican primary race, like the last one, is going to be fought on a limbic level, not an ideological one. It will be about who is weak and who is strong. That’s why, if Republicans want a non-Trump candidate in 2024, they’re going to have to find someone willing to tear him down. I understand that this is made difficult by the fact that Republican primary voters often seem excited by Trump’s most repulsive qualities, including his authoritarianism, rapacious greed, incitements to violence, friendly relations with white supremacists and antisemites, and the corruption that’s already led to multiple felony charges. It’s also hard to tar Trump as a loser when so much of the right-wing base believes the fantasy that in 2020 he actually won.
Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about how Trump would take on a candidate like Trump. I don’t think he’d do it with passive-aggressive sniping, like when DeSantis, while attacking the New York district attorney Alvin Bragg for indicting Trump, worked in a dig about the ex-president paying “hush money to a porn star.” Trump, faced with an opponent who had Trump’s own flaws, would just blast away at them all until he found something that stuck.
Trump’s approach to DeSantis’s war on Disney is instructive. Until approximately five minutes ago, DeSantis’s willingness to do battle with ostensibly “woke” corporations — even a giant of Florida tourism like Disney — was part of his appeal. But Trump didn’t try to show that he’d be even harder on Disney than DeSantis has been. Instead, he trolled DeSantis by taking Disney’s side, taunting the governor for getting “destroyed” by Disney and speculating that the company would stop investing in Florida. There is, so far, little sign that this is hurting Trump, even though the right has spent months demonizing Disney, a company Tucker Carlson compared to a “sex offender.” Consistent displays of dominance matter more to Republicans than consistent displays of principle.
This doesn’t mean that Republican candidates should try to copy Trump’s insult comic act; they’ll almost certainly fail if they do. But they need to be, to use a Trumpish word, tough. As House speaker, Nancy Pelosi managed to repeatedly emasculate Trump not because she imitated him, but because she treated him like a petulant child. Most of Trump’s would-be Republican rivals, on the other hand, are treating him like an unstable father, fantasizing about supplanting him even as they cower in fear of his wrath.
An exception is the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who understands that you can’t beat Trump without fighting him. “I don’t believe that Republican voters penalize people who criticize Trump,” he told Politico, adding, “If you think you’re a better person to be president than Donald Trump, then you better make that case.” Whether Christie can make it is hard to say, given that he’s already abased himself before Trump more than once. But he’s right that no one’s going to defeat Trump until they stop acting scared of him.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.