The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As in 2016, Trump’s GOP rivals haven’t figured out a way around him

Former president Donald Trump at Palm Beach International Airport on March 13, ahead of a trip to Iowa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Republicans who want to run for president in 2024 will have to go over, under, around or through Donald Trump to win the nomination. So far, none has remotely figured out how.

It’s still early, but not that early. Trump is in the race and running hard, despite his legal troubles. Aside from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who announced her bid last month, the potential GOP candidates are all still making their pilgrimages to Iowa and New Hampshire, hawking their political memoirs, doing high-profile television interviews, and trying their best to look and sound presidential.

What they don’t appear to be doing is meaningfully loosening Trump’s hold over the Republican base. Not that they aren’t trying, kind of.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, currently Trump’s most formidable potential challenger, opened with a strategy of presenting himself as the MAGA-friendly, drama-free alternative to the former president. But when polls showed DeSantis a legitimate threat to win the nomination, Trump reacted by — I know this will come as a surprise — attacking him viciously and often.

The latest mocking nickname Trump has coined, “Ron DeSanctimonious,” does not easily roll off the tongue. But his portrayal of DeSantis as nothing but a faux-populist poseur might be hurting the governor’s standing with the MAGA base. It certainly isn’t helping it. The RealClearPolitics polling average has Trump with a 14-point lead over DeSantis, 43.9 percent to 29 percent.

Now, DeSantis has finally begun to hit back — but with love taps, not actual punches. In an interview with British talking head Piers Morgan, DeSantis called Trump’s attacks “just background noise” and unleashed a veritable trickle of implicit criticism. His own approach to government, DeSantis said, is “no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board.” He spoke of the importance of the “type of character” a person brings to the presidency. He said that “we have to agree that there’s a certain reality to the world” and not “just create our own facts.”

Meanwhile, Trump was on social media blasting DeSantis — by name — for failing his state on issues such as crime and education — and for his past positions in favor of cutting Medicare and Social Security. “And we don’t want Ron as our President!” he concluded.

Perhaps all of the declared and undeclared GOP candidates are waiting for state and federal prosecutors to do the job of cutting Trump down to size for them. There’s no way of knowing whether this is a reasonable bet, because we’ve never had a former president try to reclaim the White House while under criminal indictment. It is indeed possible that such a scenario — if it develops — would weaken Trump’s hold on the GOP base.

But why, then, are Trump’s rivals encouraging Republicans to rally around him? Amid reports that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg might be nearing an indictment of Trump in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case, Haley said the rumored prosecution is “more about revenge than it is about justice.” Former vice president Mike Pence, who is third in the GOP polls behind Trump and DeSantis, said that Bragg’s case “reeks of … political prosecution.” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, widely expected to announce a presidential run, said that Trump is a “victim” of a district attorney who wants to “weaponize the law against his political enemies.”

Ruth Marcus: Three intersecting truths drive the Trump hush-money case

DeSantis did get in a dig with a snarky reminder of what the case is about: “Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just — I can’t speak to that.” But still, in the end, he defended Trump by accusing Bragg of “pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office.”

Trump must be thinking that with enemies like these, who needs friends?

I don’t know how a Republican should go about beating Trump in a primary campaign, because nobody has done it. But it appears to me that one lesson to be learned from those who have failed is that Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy does not work; Trump never exhausts himself by throwing punches, but instead seems to gain energy. Another lesson, to switch from boxing to mud wrestling, is that it is impossible to compete against him and remain above the fray; he will always drag you down, and he will dirty up your nice new outfit.

I do not believe Trump can win again in a general election, whether he has to run as an accused felon. If we are to avoid the grave peril of testing that proposition, the other Republican candidates are going to have to start hitting him back.