The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t expect GOP alternatives to Trump to be an improvement

Former president Donald Trump arrives to speak at his Mar-a-lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 8. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

It was inevitable that former president Donald Trump would announce his candidacy for president. His narcissism, coupled with his (false) belief that running for office would stave off an indictment, all but guaranteed he would run.

What is not inevitable is that he will be the Republican nominee. The trouble is, few of his likely primary opponents will be any better than he is.

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Aside from potential contenders Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, there is nary a “conservative” in the GOP pool of likely presidential candidates, if that term has any meaning at all. Modern conservatism — as it applied to Ronald Reagan or John McCain — entails support for democracy (not Russia or other thugocracies) and the rule of law; limits on the scope of government (especially on the executive branch); an appreciation that immigration is the lifeblood of America and critical to economic prosperity; and preference for free markets (not cronyism or corporatism). More than anything, conservatism entails humility in governance, a preference for gradualism over radical shifts, and a respect for civil society and other levels of government. Conservatism by its nature focuses on preserving public institutions and norms, not blowing them up.

Given that definition, virtually none of the likely contenders is any more “conservative” than Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has abused immigrants, run roughshod over the First Amendment, regularly intervened in free markets for political reasons (e.g., bullying Disney for criticizing his policies), fanned white nationalism with his scaremongering about “critical race theory” and used the power of the state to persecute disfavored groups (e.g., LGBTQ students). It’s not even clear whether he rejects the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. (He has become adept at sidestepping questions.) In other words, DeSantis reflects many of authoritarian attributes the MAGA cult reveres; he’s just more disciplined than Trump.

Meanwhile, too many in the D.C. media bubble have treated Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin as a departure from Trumpism or a return to “normal” GOP politics. Wrong! Youngkin in his campaign for governor embraced election “integrity” measures premised on the need to prevent nonexistent fraud. He has waged war on public schools and also pushed the “critical race theory” issue. He even campaigned with Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, arguably the worst of the election deniers this campaign cycle. And let’s not forget the appalling “joke” he made about the vicious attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, which he later apologized for. Despite his slightly better manners, he, too, is a MAGA figurehead.

Some other 2024 contenders — such as Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) — tried to implement Trump’s coup plot by pushing the “big lie” and objecting to electors with no basis. They also both voted to acquit Trump twice in his impeachment trials and smeared the Justice Department and FBI for conducting a search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club for highly classified documents. And Cruz, who acknowledged that the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection amounted to a “terrorist attack,” later groveled before Fox News’s Tucker Carlson to disassociate himself with his own remarks. It’s possible Hawley and Cruz are even worse than Trump, since they certainly should know better and understand the injurious impact of their lies.

Cheney and Hogan, unlike their MAGA rivals, are not Trump imitators, conspiratorialists or bullies. Reasonable people can take exception to their views on abortion or a host of other issues, but they fit within the mainstream of the pre-Trump Republican Party. And for that reason, their chances of prevailing in a GOP presidential primary are slim.

The Republican primaries will likely underscore the degree to which the MAGA movement has become the Republican Party. The market for truly conservative ideas and, more so, for a conservative sensibility has shrunk as more voters in the center have defected to the Democratic Party or become independents. As the presidential primary cycle begins, the media should properly identify the GOP’s choices: Trump and Trump imitators. Other than Hogan and Cheney, there is not a conservative in the batch.