If you’re going to launch a new product, September is the time to roll it out. This is perhaps why—here in the final throes of summer—we’re hearing renewed rumblings about a Republican primary against Trump.
Consider the trend: In the last few days, former South Carolina Governor and congressman Mark Sanford reiterated his interest in exploring such a challenge; and it was reported that prominent trouble-stirrer and Never Trumper Bill Kristol has spoken to Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci “about trying to find another presidential candidate to replace Trump on the top of the GOP ticket next year.”
What is more, former Rep. Joe Walsh (a Tea Party conservative) penned a New York Times op-ed titled, “Trump Needs a Primary Challenge.”
I caught up with Walsh on Friday to discuss his piece, which argues that Trump would be more vulnerable from the right (as opposed to the campaign currently being run by former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who is considered a centrist).
Walsh has a pretty good theory for how to take on Trump, and it has little to do with complaining about the debt or tariffs. Instead of policy debates, you’ve got to make “the damn moral case” against Trump. This makes a certain amount of sense. Usually, incumbents are establishment insiders, while successful insurgents are passionate populists. Trump complicates this formula, which means that the temperament of his opponent is probably more important than political philosophy.
“You’ve got to punch him in the face, because he’s absolutely unfit,” Walsh told me. “I don’t know who it’s going to be, but somebody has to do that.”
Could that somebody be Walsh? For now, he’s not ruling it out.
Regardless, Walsh’s real point isn’t so much that Trump’s primary opponent must come from the right, but rather that Trump’s primary opponent must come fully armed. (Mark Sanford and Bill Weld are nice guys, but as Leonard Smalls says in Raising Arizona, “You want to find an outlaw, hire an outlaw.”)
This is sort of the case that Michael Avenatti was making before his candidacy collapsed amid scandal and legal troubles. Like Avenatti (and Trump), Walsh is no choir boy. His résumé includes controversies about tax liens, child support payments, tweets about Obama being a Muslim, and his support of a fictitious governmental program to turn a “first-grader” into a “first-grenader.” (There’s almost a catch-22 whereby anyone crazy enough to go toe-to-toe with Trump should be, by definition, disqualified from the presidency.)
Whether it’s Joe Walsh or Mark Sanford or someone else (I’m still holding out hope that Rep. Justin Amash—who departed the GOP on July 4 of this year—might launch a third-party bid), don’t be surprised if a challenger from the right were to emerge.
If it’s a primary challenge, the job is simple. It’s a sprint from Labor Day to the New Hampshire primary in January. You campaign relentlessly in the Granite State, hoping that the president stumbles and the media can’t resist some Republican-on-Republican crime, and praying the crowds show and you catch fire. (My theory is that you skip Iowa, with the assumption being that New Hampshire’s flinty, contrarian voters are more likely to boost a quirky insurgent. It’s basically what Pat Buchanan did.)
In the unlikely event this retail campaign pays off with a win (or even a surprisingly close loss), you parlay that into fundraising and a ticket to South Carolina. Even if not, you can garner publicity, impact public policy and elevate issues, and possibly plant a flag for a future run (sort of like Ronald Reagan’s failed primary bid in 1976).
And (if you deem this to be a salutary result) a strong Republican challenge could even cost Trump his re-election. Remember, the last two incumbent presidents to lose a reelection (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush) were wounded by primary challenges (Ted Kennedy and Pat Buchanan).
Here, it is worth contemplating the potential blowback—not just for the candidate, but for his cause. If Trump loses the general election, the best-case scenario would be the rejection of Trumpism as a viable electoral strategy, and the restoration of a Reaganite Republican party.
But if Trump (and his supporters) can make a “stabbed in the back” argument—if they can plausibly blame Trump’s loss on Never Trumpers—it becomes harder to persuade Republican voters that the only way to win the future is to abandon Trumpism. That’s all to say that there could be some serious unintended consequences to encouraging a quixotic campaign.
This hypothetical does not deter Walsh from clamoring for a primary challenger. For one thing, he tells me, win or lose, Trump isn’t going to go away. He’s like a bully who will steal your lunch money every day if you let him. “If we don’t do it now,” he says, “then he’s not going away.”
There’s also a moral case for signaling that Trump doesn’t speak for all of us—an argument for laying down a symbolic marker regardless of the consequences. “I just say, you have to do the right thing,” Walsh said, “and on principle alone, a Republican should stand up and be on the record to make the principled case against him, no matter…how that may play out in the future.”
Once you come to this conclusion, it’s hard not to run. But time is of the essence. Whoever gets in, it’s gotta be soon.