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How the Big Lie inoculated Trump
The GOP helped Trump repel challengers, creating its own problem. Republican candidates on the debate stage this week will only make him stronger.
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So here we are in late August, and the first GOP presidential primary debate is happening this week without Donald Trump.
Completely chickened out. He hasn’t debated other Republicans since 2016, and he's very rusty. The last debates he did were with Joe Biden in 2020, and we all know how they went—and how he lost the election. He doesn’t have the stamina he had, and he doesn’t want to talk about things the other candidates want to talk about.
Trump only wants to cry about what a victim he is after being indicted four times and rant about his baseless claims of voter fraud in 2020.
Call him a coward—he is—but unlike any candidate in history who is not an incumbent, he sees no reason to debate. His lead is so huge that he’s considering himself the presumptive winner of the nomination and doesn’t want to give the other candidates any spotlight. In other times, voters would be outraged by the disservice done to them. But this is a cult, not normal times.
The decision could come back to haunt Trump—or not. We’ve never been here before, so it’s anybody’s guess. But so far, Trump has been able to repel any challenge. And he has the GOP and its leaders largely to thank for that.
Paul Waldman in the Washington Post notes that in primary elections, challengers often take on frontrunners by portraying them as the ossified establishment, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Barack Obama was successful in 2008 in portraying Hillary Clinton as part of an out-of-touch Democratic establishment at a time when Democrats wanted new blood. John McCain unsuccessfully but strongly made the same case in 2000, promoting himself as a "maverick" and portraying George W. Bush as a member of an entrenched and corrupt GOP establishment.
Trump, however, is difficult to frame as the establishment because he was the ultimate anti-establishment wrecking ball, ushering in a blatantly racist, anti-immigration, violence-embracing authoritarian presidency. And his argument is that he’s not finished and that there’s much more to do, something that his massive following in the GOP also believes.
It’s nice to see Chris Christie, Will Hurd, and Asa Hutchinson slamming Trump as a liar and criminal (and Mike Pence tepidly putting his toe in the water), but the GOP voters—completely in the cult of corruption and illegality—don’t want that. (And all four are providing too little, too late for the rest of us: Christie, of course, was for too long a Trump promoter, as were Pence and Hutchinson, while Hurd twice refused to vote to impeach Trump.)
Waldman points to the other argument challengers to a frontrunner can make: electability. But even here, the rest of the current GOP crop has been completely boxed in—all of their own and the GOP’s making.
Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Nikki Haley have all tried to cast themselves as better versions of Trump. This is truly a bizarro stance to take because voters will ultimately ask why they shouldn’t go for the real deal. But if you’re going to make that argument—that you’re a better Trump—electability, the fact that Trump can’t be victorious in a general election, has to be front and center.
And yet, they’ve all danced around this issue because of one giant impediment: The Big Lie. You can’t make the argument that Donald Trump can’t win elections unless you say that he lost big time in 2020 and cost the GOP a red wave in 2022. It would also be hugely helpful to point out that he didn’t even win the popular vote in 2016. Haley has tried to make this argument, but like the others, she refused to just come out and say the truth, muddying it up by focusing instead on candidates’ advanced age and wanting a "competency test" for candidates.
DeSantis recently finally said Trump "lost" and "Joe Biden is president," but then completely backtracked and promoted the basic tenets of the Big Lie, complaining of widespread mail-in ballots and "ballot harvesting." Ultimately, he undid everything he said.
GOP candidates believe they can’t take on the Big Lie with a sledgehammer, which is what needs to be done, because it’s grotesquely become religious dogma among the Republican base. Trump, even before the 2020 election, created and continually fed the lie, and of course it exploded after the election.
But GOP leaders could have killed it. Not only could they, of course, have impeached and convicted Trump; even if they didn’t convict him, they still could have taken powerful stands to say 2020 was a free and fair election, that Joe Biden had a clear and substantial win, and that there was no massive voter fraud—that Trump was lying.
Afraid of Trump and his impact on the base, however, they went the other way. They embraced and further fueled the Big Lie. They helped it become the false but immensely powerful doctrine of faith among GOP voters that it is today. And it has inoculated Trump, making him immune to any argument that he’s a loser—as Christie has called him—and that electability is an issue for him.
Absent Trump dropping out under the weight of indictments (which so far doesn’t seem likely), if the challengers don’t confront the Big Lie—and point to current polling showing Trump will lose a general election while also pointing out that he lost in 2020—they are doomed to fail. And they will only have themselves to blame.