While anti-Trump Republican candidates themselves might say that they will wind up voting Republican no matter what — an idea I find entirely at odds with the threat Trump poses — they have a secondary function. They are there to remind “soft” Trump voters of the litany of Trump horrors and the moral debasement that comes with becoming a Trump apologist. Perhaps some of the soft Trump voters will vote Democratic, but if not, they might stay home, vote for a third-party candidate or leave the presidential ballot blank. In short, one critical purpose of the challengers is to demoralize Trump enablers and apologists, to remind them that with their help Trump is trashing every conservative principle they once held dear and endangering the country.
To that end, the challengers’ job is to attack Trump from the right, or from what used to be the right before the right became synonymous with the Trump Cult.
Let’s start with the economy. Trump has trashed almost every free-market principle: starting a trade war, taxing Americans through tariffs, picking winners and losers among industries, practicing crony capitalism at a level heretofore unseen and drowning us, our kids and their kids in an ocean of red ink. We’ve also witnessed the president seeking to cut legal immigration, which is essential to maintain a vibrant economy and counteract the drop in birthrates and a declining workforce. His prized tax cut was so badly designed that it increased the complexity of the tax code. He has expanded the welfare state, adding “farm welfare” to the list of government expenditures. And finally, he is threatening the independence of the Federal Reserve, a cornerstone of a sound market economy. If a Democrat did half this stuff, Republicans would be in the streets with pitchforks.
Then there is Trump’s ruinous impact on the rule of law: obstructing the Russia investigation, offering pardons to subordinates who might break the law to get the wall started, attacking the First Amendment and courts, undermining Congress’s power of the purse, violating the emoluments clause and so on.
He has ignored and undermined our defining creed of “All men are created equal” by stoking white nationalism, insisting “very fine people” were among the neo-Nazi marchers, favoring white Norwegian immigrants over black and brown people from “shithole” countries, propounding the oldest anti-Semitic trope in accusing Jews of disloyalty, attempting to corrupt the census by executive diktat and nominating (without success, thankfully) openly bigoted judges.
In addition, Republican challengers should speak directly to conservatives, who have held past presidents to a rigorous moral standard. Trump has paid off women with whom he allegedly had extramarital affairs and then lied about those payments, conducted an inhumane policy of family separation, engaged in self-enrichment and corruption to benefit himself and his family and carried out a nonstop campaign of vicious, misogynistic and cruel attacks on individuals, both public and private citizens. His thousands and thousands of lies and falsehoods (now more than 12,000 since taking office) have destroyed his credibility, but worse, debased the office he holds.
Finally, in the realm of foreign relations and national security, Republican challengers should remind voters that Trump has become a patsy for dictators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, refused to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, damaged relations with allies ranging from Denmark to Australia, reduced respect for the United States in the world, used the military as a political prop before the midterm elections, announced precipitous deadlines for withdrawal of U.S. troops, denied the rise of white nationalist terrorism and cut funding to combat it, slandered our national security community including the FBI, blurted out classified material to the Russians in the Oval Office and put human rights on the back burner. He has no discernible Iran policy and has seemingly welcomed Russia and Iran’s commanding presence in Syria.
I could go on, but these are the arguments that Republican challengers should make to Republican audiences against Trump. (And it’s a pretty handy guide to why the real conservatives are the NeverTrumpers, not the impostors who flack for Trump.)
Democrats have other arguments against the president, be they on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), guns or the environment. Republican presidential challengers, however, have a different role to play: To remind Republicans at every turn that their support for Trump undermines every conservative principle that they have advocated, threatens our democracy in ways they would never countenance under a Democrat and does far more damage to our national security than many Democratic presidents have.
If, as the economy sinks into recession, GOP voters begin to abandon Trump, then Republican challengers will have laid the foundation for a robust primary challenge. And even if Trump cruises to the nomination, the challengers’ attacks will have reached the ears of many soft Trump supporters. Some of them will stay home, and others — if the Democrats help out — will cross the aisle to vote for a centrist Democrat.
Oh, and all the elected Republicans who stick by Trump despite conservative alternatives will cement their reputations as unpatriotic, partisan hacks. It’s important to track that as well.