LOWRY/The fear factor
Donald Trump has gotten indicted yet again, and, as usual, most of the other Republican candidates have been sympathetic, if not outright deferential, to him.
It’s another episode that raises the question: Can someone who is afraid of Trump defeat him?
Of all the advantages that Trump has in the competition for the 2024 Republican nomination — immediate past president, ability to generate enormous media attention, etc. — perhaps foremost among them is the fact that the other Republican candidates are afraid.
It’s hard to think of anyone who has ever won a major-party nomination while showing fear, especially of someone else in the field.
A successful candidate might be careful around certain issues or constituencies, or back off of an unpopular position. But being clearly scared by an opponent is something else, entirely. George W. Bush and John McCain might have hated or disdained each other in 2000, same with McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008, or Romney and Newt Gingrich in 2012. But no one was ever clearly, demonstrably afraid.
When asked about Trump, most of the candidates might not actually lick their lips, or swallow hard or begin to blink faster, but you wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Generally, they’ll evade questions, reject the premise or revert to an answer that has been as carefully crafted as an official statement by one of the parties negotiating the Paris Peace Accords.
You can almost see them thinking:
Maybe he’ll leave me alone.
Maybe he’ll make me his veep.
Maybe there will be a better time to attack him later.
If they can help it, his opponents will never say Trump’s name — he’s the most unnamed major politician in American history. Mike Pence has tended to call him “my former running mate.”
This means that Donald Trump’s political dominance of the rest of the field extends to a kind of personal and psychological dominance.
A key aspect of the Trump phenomenon from the beginning has been how he’s brought the subrational element of politics that’s always been there, but usually relatively submerged, to the fore — more Frans de Waal, author of “Chimpanzee Politics,” than Richard Hofstadter; more Dana White than Lee Atwater.
This raises the possibility that not taking Trump head-on means more than simply missing the opportunity to make the case against him. It also means implicitly acknowledging his status as the Big Man of Republican politics, and the rival’s status as a subordinate player in the world Trump created and rules.
The only one who’s really not playing this game is Chris Christie, who gives as good as he gets and also needles Trump and initiates fights against him. If Christie can achieve a breakout in New Hampshire, it will be based, in part, on winning points on strength and courage while doing and saying what no one else dares. (Also-rans Will Hurd and Asa Hutchinson criticize Trump, too, but more politely and conventionally.)
All that said, the other candidates are reacting to a genuine conundrum — Republican voters might be open to an alternative to Trump in theory, but they don’t want anyone to criticize him. How to square that circle is the biggest challenge for the rest of the field, at least those members of it genuinely running to win.
To be fair, Governor Ron DeSantis, as Trump’s main target, has been willing to push back as necessary, and he makes a constant, implicit critique of Trump’s electoral prospects and governing abilities. But the Florida governor is always careful to stay on the right side of the line, biding his time for later or hoping that his message catches on without having to grasp the nettle. This isn’t unreasonable, but, again, it exposes a disparity — he has a strategy, while Trump has a sledgehammer.
So long as everyone believes that Trump has one and they don’t — and acts accordingly — the fear factor will continue to work in Trump’s favor.
Rich Lowery is editor of National Review, a leading conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley.