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How not to beat Trump

Maybe he'll have a massive heart attack? Sorry, that sounds morbid and uncaring. Maybe he'll get run over by a bus.

How Not to Beat Trump

Too many want to pronounce him unfit, but it’s Republican voters who’ll decide.

William McGurn, WSJ

Sept. 26, 2022 6:08 pm ET

Donald Trump is still a kingmaker.

In several recent Republican primaries, Trump endorsements helped Senate candidates. A push from the former president helped Mehmet Oz and J.D. Vance across the finish lines in Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively. A Trump endorsement also helped gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake defeat her Republican rivals in Arizona. The question for November is whether these and other Trump-backed candidates can defeat Democrats too.

But general-election victories don’t appear to be the priority for Mr. Trump. More important than getting his own people in is getting his enemies out—e.g., men and women such as Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney. And herein lies a lesson for Republicans who want their party to move past Mr. Trump.

Join Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot and Columnists Kimberley Strassel and Karl Rove live from Dallas as they discuss how inflation, Donald Trump and the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling will affect the midterms. What’s at stake in the House and Senate? Will the red wave hit as many predict? The panel will break down what the election will mean for the economy, President Biden’s legislative agenda, and the run up to the 2024 presidential race.

WSJ+ members are invited to attend this exclusive member event live in Dallas, TX, or via livestream online on Monday, October 17 at 7:00 PM CT / 8:00 PM ET. Purchase tickets to the live event in Dallas or to register for the virtual livestream.

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Unfortunately, too many Trump critics have the same problem he does. They want him gone, whatever the cost. Thus far they have been conspicuously without success. So here’s a thought: Why not try to beat Mr. Trump by offering Republicans a better deal?

It’s a good question for the 2024 GOP presidential campaign, which kicks off in earnest soon. The nagging Republican fear is that even if he doesn’t seek the nomination, or runs and doesn’t win, Mr. Trump would still retain sufficient influence with his voters to sabotage the eventual GOP nominee.

There is no escaping the only answer that has a chance of electing a Republican president. To be successful, a candidate must take the policies that worked under Mr. Trump—tax cuts, deregulation, solid judicial picks, pulling out of the Iran deal—update the agenda for today, and then explain to GOP voters why he is a better choice than the former president to get it done.

It’s easy to forget that Mr. Trump’s successes were largely born of classic Republican principles. He was also innovative in answering skeptics. When conservatives questioned how he could be trusted to pick good Supreme Court nominees, he reassured them by releasing a list of solid judges and committing himself to choosing from it.

Alas, too many Republicans believe they can simply declare Mr. Trump unclean and cast him out of polite society. It didn’t work in 2016, and it won’t work today.

It won’t work today because Mr. Trump’s fate won’t be decided by Republican Party elders. It will be decided by Republican voters. And if you ask them why they like Mr. Trump, probably they will say what Lincoln said of Grant: He fights.

Republican voters are well aware of Mr. Trump’s shortcomings. But they are skeptical of moral denunciations about norms and insurrection from people who winked when our intelligence and law enforcement agencies ran with a Hillary Clinton campaign dossier falsely accusing Mr Trump of being a Russian agent.

Trump voters may be prickly but they aren’t stupid. They sense that the attacks on Mr. Trump are ultimately attacks on them. We have this on no less authority than President Biden, who recently made it explicit when he denounced MAGA Republicanism as “semi-fascism.”

People forget, too, that among the things that made Mr. Trump president was his emphasis on winning. In 2016 he sold himself as the one man who could beat Hillary. And then he did.

For Republicans with presidential aspirations, the lesson is clear: Stay focused on winning. Don’t be goaded into responding even when Mr. Trump offers up an insult. Instead, demonstrate you’re the one to put what Republicans want into action. Certainly there’s a lot of material to work with: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on the border, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on job creation, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on school choice, and many others.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s re-election is giving voters a taste of this. At least for now, he is the Republican alternative to Trump who is most likely to lead the GOP into 2024. Even Democrats can see that, which is why a New York Times columnist criticized Mr. DeSantis for—of all things—lacking Mr. Trump’s “soft edges.”

Mr. DeSantis seems to get that if he allows himself to be goaded into talking about Mr. Trump, it will immediately drown out anything else he has to say. So he’s campaigning on his agenda, on everything from keeping Florida’s economy open during Covid to crime and education.

It appears to be working. In January a USA Today-Suffolk University poll found Florida Republicans preferring Mr. Trump 47% to 40% over Mr. DeSantis. Today the same poll has reversed, with the Florida governor enjoying a 48% to 40% advantage over Mr. Trump.

The key lesson of the coming midterms is that it isn’t enough for a Republican to win a GOP primary. He must be able to win the general election. In the 2024 presidential contest, that will require a GOP nominee who sells Republicans on the idea that he is better than Mr. Trump without insulting—and alienating—the Trump voters he will need to win that November.

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