Thin Bench

Is There a Republican Who Can Save the Republicans From Trump in 2020? Probably Not.

Jeff Flake is making noises about challenging Trump in 2020. Um, fine. But if Trump is to be toppled, it’s probably going to have to be by a fresh face.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

As Donald Trump continues to tease his 2020 re-election campaign, Never Trumpers seem poised to waste another summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.

Or, at least, they plan to spend the spring talking about it. Taking back the GOP won’t be easy. And it won’t happen overnight. It’s time conservatives accept the fact that help isn’t on the way. Things aren’t getting better any time soon. And with apologies to Rick Pitino, it’s time we accept the fact that Ronald Reagan’s not walking through that door.

There are currently a few leaders of the resistance who are being floated to challenge Trump in the Republican primary. Ohio Gov. John Kasich leads the league in hits. Media hits, that is, in which he continues to not rule out the possibility. Two years ago, I referred to his candidacy as a “joke.” His odds of winning a nomination today are dramatically worse than when he first uttered those words. Any pathway to the nomination would presumably go through New Hampshire, a state that Kasich couldn’t win the last time around.

The next guy on the list is probably Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. When asked by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd if he thinks Trump “needs to be challenged from somebody who espouses your views?” Flake responded, “Yes, I do. I do,” Flake said. “I mean, it would be a tough go in a Republican primary. The Republican Party is the Trump party right now. But that’s not to say it will stay that way.”

He has a point. Something crazy could theoretically happen between now and 2020 (and by crazy, I don’t mean simply Republicans losing the midterms) that would open the door for another Republican to challenge Trump. But the fight to de-Trumpify the party could be a long one. Times change. At some point, the Trump fever will break, and Reagan conservatives should be ready when it does. I can remember when Karl Rove ruled the right with an iron fist and nobody dared stand up to George W. Bush. Donald Trump won the GOP nomination, in part, by mocking and criticizing the former president. Eventually the pendulum will swing, it’s just a matter of how long.

Flake, of course, has little chance of being the guy to effectively take on Donald Trump. Even he knows this. “As a Republican who believes in free trade, limited government, economic freedom, I couldn’t be re-elected in my party right now,” he told Chuck Todd. “Somebody who voices, you know, reservations about where the president is or criticizes his behavior like last night, it’s tough to be re-elected in a Republican primary.” (He was speaking on Sunday, referring to Trump’s rally in Pennsylvania the night before.)

2020 will most likely not be the moment—though someone should be waiting in the wings in case Trump completely implodes.

But who’s to say it has to be a politician? In the New Hampshire Journal, Michael Graham notes that “On Wednesday, America’s most prominent #NeverTrumper, Bill Kristol, will be in New Hampshire, home of the ‘First In the Nation’ primary, speaking at a must-show event for potential presidential contenders.”

Graham has a point when he writes that, unlike the relatively unknown Evan McMullin, who seized the opportunity to become the Never Trump movement’s sacrificial lamb, “Kristol has spent decades on national TV promoting Republican causes. He co-founded The Weekly Standard, one of the most influential magazines on the Right.” If populist TV commentator and former White House staffer Pat Buchanan could give establishment President George H.W. Bush a run for his money in the Granite State, what’s to say that Kristol, also a former staffer turned TV pundit, couldn’t do the same to a populist president?

I’m not holding my breath. This is very likely either a coincidence or a publicity stunt (if Kristol wanted to run as a sane conservative against Trump, he should’ve done it in 2016!) but the point here is that the speculation won’t stop, even as the options for the resistance are pretty weak. I mean, even the best-case scenarios aren’t terribly intimidating.

There’s also the fact that running against Trump would be a suicide mission. If Ted Kennedy couldn’t beat Jimmy Carter in a Democratic primary—and Ronald Reagan (Ronald Reagan!) couldn’t beat Gerald Ford in a Republican primary, then how is John Kasich going to wrest control of the GOP from a sitting Republican president?

And then, there’s the fact that a primary campaign or an independent run could result in the Never Trumpers getting blamed as “spoilers” for electing a Democrat. Maybe Donald Trump would have lost in 2020 anyway, and maybe then the pendulum would have swung back our way. But if it’s perceived that one of our guys (or women) blew the election for Republicans, then it just further postpones the possibility that we could ever persuade the base that they made a huge mistake, and regain control of the Party of Reagan.

If Reagan conservatives ever want to retake the GOP, they must play their cards just right. You need the right person at the right time. 2020 will most likely not be the moment—though someone should be waiting in the wings in case Trump completely implodes. But while politics is often about ambition and seizing opportunities that nobody else sees, it’s also about timing. The Trump fever will probably have to run its course before it breaks. What I am suggesting here is a sort of Benedict Option for conservatives—that we form a government in waiting in order to preserve and defend the ideas of Reagan conservatism.

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Next, it’s important for the right person to emerge. Historically speaking, the best people to lead a revolution are usually not the generals who have already surrendered or been beaten. And frankly, you could argue that Trump has already defeated Kasich, Flake, and Kristol, to some degree, or another. Being a victim doesn’t make you a hero.

One of the problems here is that the Never Trump movement is, itself, a chaotic competition. At least half of the prominent members are engaging in a campaign of virtue signaling in an attempt to build a brand following. The kinds of people on the right who have been turned off of Trump don’t necessarily share much else in common. We still make strange bedfellows. What do I have in common with Jennifer Rubin? What does Erick Erickson have in common with David Frum? There is no single person who universally enjoys the respect and admiration of the Republican resistance.

What is more, opposition to Donald Trump doesn’t denote any other shared beliefs. That’s why Max Boot wants to be called a “classical liberal,” and why I prefer (for now) “Reagan conservatives” over the term “Never Trumpers.” For this reason, the person to lead us out of the wilderness should be focused on a coherent conservative agenda—not a candidacy that is solely (or even primarily) defined by opposition to our own party’s standard bearer.

If and when Trumpism is discredited, the ability to retake the GOP will depend on having the support of some erstwhile Trump voters. Some of these folks might back a Reagan conservative, but not if he called them stupid for having backed Trump in the past. Yes, this is why I can never lead the resistance.