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Trump and the Fight Republicans Need to Have

Trump and the Fight Republicans Need to Have

Chris Christie says the party can’t move forward unless the former president’s opponents take him on directly.

By Peggy Noonan, WSJ

Nov. 17, 2022 6:47 pm ET


Chris Christie got a standing ovation from the Republican Governors Association this week after delivering fiery words that captured the inner views of audience members, including GOP officeholders from 50 states, donors, party figures and operatives. The former New Jersey governor told them voters in the midterms “rejected crazy.”


We spoke by phone after Donald Trump’s announcement Tuesday that he would run for the Republican presidential nomination.


Mr. Christie said the midterms were an actual change point in the history of the party: that its central struggle can no longer be avoided. That struggle is how and why to put Mr. Trump in the rearview mirror.


It can’t be dodged and can no longer be the problem that dare not speak its name: “We can’t lead and convince Trump folks if we’re unwilling to stick our necks out and say his name.” Over the next 18 months, leaders will have to take a side and go to Trump supporters to make the case against him. “There needs to be a fight out loud, in public. The only way it becomes a winning argument is transparent and public.”


The strongest argument: Mr. Trump can’t win, and if you truly seek to win you must disengage from him.


“This is a baseball country,” Mr. Christie said. “It’s always three strikes and you’re out.” Mr. Trump struck out in 2018, 2020 and 2022. He never came close to a plurality of the popular vote. When Mr. Christie ended his tenure as chairman of the RGA, in 2014, there were 31 Republican governors. Next year there will be 26. The reason, he said, is that Mr. Trump weighs the party down and picks candidates based not on issues or electability but personal loyalty. It is an electoral narcissism that is killing the party.


How to convince Trump supporters? “Give him credit for what he’s gotten done . . . but they need to be told again and again: A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for a Democratic president.”


In his announcement speech, Mr. Trump “called himself a victim. In the past his people saw him as a master, not a victim. It was the biggest moment of the speech. Republicans don’t vote for victims, they vote for leaders.” (Mr. Trump’s words: “I am a victim, I will tell you. I am a victim.” He was referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Steele dossier.)


Mr. Christie offered another argument: “Look, everything you hate about what Biden has done is ultimately Trump’s fault, and it will continue because he can’t win an election. You want eight years of Biden? Is that a risk you want to take?” Trump voters have always had a personal connection with him. “But in the end he put the people they feared the most in charge of the country—Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Biden.”


Mr. Christie sees the midterms as “a rejection of chaos: ‘Please, no more tumult.’ ” Democrats won independent voters by 2 points. That wasn’t expected in this year and these conditions. “That’s a plea of the people who say enough already, it’s about calm.” The country, he says, has been “traumatized,” not only politically but by the pandemic and its attendant struggles, tensions and loss.


Can the party hold together? “There’s gonna be some very tough fighting before there is a coming together.” But there are two reasons to think it can. “We are generally united behind a set of policy principles, and we are genuinely opposed to what the Democrats are doing. So that gives us the potential. But we have to have the internal family argument about the nature and character of our leadership.”


Afterward I thought there is another way of thinking about the Trump question. It is that countries make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and political parties do too. It’s not shocking, they’re conglomerations of people, forests full of crooked timber. But if you keep making the same one, it’s not the mistake you made, it’s who you are. After Jan. 6, 2021, this question became a deeper and more painful one, with broader dimensions and bigger implications.


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In the next 18 months, the Republican Party will have to decide if Mr. Trump is the mistake it made or who it is. Complicating the answer, people don’t like to view their actions as mistakes. They think to renounce their previous, passionately held position is to renounce themselves. But most people do want to move on after debacles, and most, once they see something as a debacle, are open to arguments, facts and thinking it through.


As to Mr. Trump’s speech, it was a wan, deflated enterprise. But something in the media coverage was interesting. No broadcast network carried it, none of the major cable-news networks stuck with it to the end, and one didn’t take it at all. All covered the announcement or reported it, but it wasn’t treated as an epic event, only a news event. This suggests that this time the media will be judging Mr. Trump by normal candidate standards, not Special Phenomenon standards. But when you don’t treat Mr. Trump like he’s special, you marginalize him. I don’t think the cable networks will be giving him the oxygen they fed him so freely in 2016, in part because none of their executives want to be accused of what Jeff Zucker was accused of that year: giving him unlimited airtime to get ratings, and making him president.


Worse for Mr. Trump, those executives may simply doubt his audience is still a huge one.


For Republicans, the most deeply embittering break point was the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Without that moment, the pro- and anti-Trump split would exist and endure, but less passionately. Mike Pence writes it in his recent book: “I was angry at . . . how it desecrated the seat of our democracy and dishonored the patriotism of millions of our supporters, who would never do such a thing here or anywhere else.” Republicans of all kinds felt slimed by 1/6.


In the coming 18 months of the big argument, Trump supporters can fairly be asked to consider a thought experiment.


What if it had been Barack Obama in 2012 who refused to accept a democratic outcome to a presidential election? What if we later found out he probably knew he’d lost but didn’t want to accept it so he incited the Obamaites with accusations and false claims and made speeches insisting the election was stolen? What if he’d made a big outdoor speech and sent his forces, including some antifa chapters, to storm the Capitol in an attempt to thwart the Constitution and stop the counting of electoral votes? What if he refused to stop them once he saw on TV what they were doing?


What if Democrats had done that? Republicans would feel righteous rage. They would never forgive Mr. Obama, who’d have shown the worst of himself and his movement. He and his actions would make you feel democracy itself was in the balance, and you would pledge to never let him enter the White House as president again.


You’d feel as Liz Cheney does now: This must end.

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