Is it better for the GOP if Trump loses the primary or if he doesn't run at all?

Is it better for the GOP if Trump loses the primary or if he doesn't run at all?
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

There’s no third option. Without question, there are more electable politicians whom the party could nominate in 2024. The question is whether it’d be better for the GOP on the whole if Trump cleared a path for those people or if he jumped into the race and was vanquished.

Philip Klein and Charles Cooke are debating the matter today at NRO, with Cooke preferring that Trump clear a path and Klein preferring to see him vanquished. A competitive primary in which Trump ran and lost would break his death grip on the party, Klein argues, while giving the nominee maximum distance from the less popular aspects of Trump and Trumpism in the general election. A candidate who defeated Trump could ignore him thereafter whereas a candidate who became nominee at Trump’s sufferance couldn’t. Plus, a competitive primary would help the nominee hone his campaign skills before facing the Democrats, the same way the Obama/Clinton primary in 2008 made Obama a stronger candidate that November.

Cooke ultimately wins, though, for the obvious reason:

The potential consequences of Donald Trump taking part in a primary — even if he were to lose that primary — will be disastrous and irrevocable. Trump will undermine the process itself, arguing at every stage that it is rigged or has been corrupted. He will weaken his opponents without regard to the broader aim, which should be to get a Republican elected in 2024. He will use his platform to spread pernicious lies about the American electoral system, and about the riot that those lies engendered. And he will, as ever, totally dominate the media coverage of the race, and thereby distract voters from the many legitimate criticisms of the Biden administration that ought to be the GOP’s focus going forward.

For a competitive primary to make a party stronger, as it did for Democrats in 2008, the losing candidate must cooperate. Hillary Clinton was a loyal soldier for her party in defeat, endorsing Obama and reconciling with him to the point where she ended up as his secretary of state. Trump won’t do that if a “disloyal” Republican challenges him and wins. He’s constitutionally incapable. He’d rather see the party lose dismally without him at the top of the ticket, ensuring continued Democratic rule, than see it win and prove that it was better off without him.

Don’t take my word for it. We’ll have a real-world test of this soon: If the polls in Georgia hold up, Brian Kemp is on his way to defeating Trump’s anointed primary challenger, David Perdue. My guess is that Perdue will endorse Kemp if that happens — but Trump will not. The “rigged election” narrative will prove too seductive for him in the aftermath since he’s already talked himself into believing that Georgia’s election machinery is corrupt. He can’t tolerate the idea that he lost to Joe Biden in a traditionally red southern state so he’s primed to believe that the man who certified that result, Kemp, would stoop to similar shenanigans to secure his own reelection against Perdue.

He’ll find it unfathomable that Georgia Republicans could have listened to their king call Kemp a traitor for 14 months and decided to stick with Kemp anyway. There must be some other explanation.

I’ll give Klein this, though. I do think if Trump were to run in 2024, lose the primary, then start screeching about voter fraud, it would drain some of the poison from his ongoing effort to undermine faith in American elections on the right:

[D]espite the likelihood that Trump would claim any election he loses was rigged, it will be much harder to pull off in a primary. It’s much easier to convince Republican voters that there were shenanigans going on in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, or Atlanta than it would be to argue that Republican-controlled primaries in states such as Iowa and South Carolina were somehow fixed to steal the election from him. Having chosen another candidate, the base would likely have much less patience for attempts by Trump to sabotage the nominee and help the Democrats keep the White House.

Trump running around sputtering that Republican-run elections in red states are also rigged will lead some “stop the steal” true believers to entertain the unthinkable possibility that maybe the 2020 election wasn’t stolen after all. Maybe Trump is just a sore-loser narcissist who’ll always grasp at straws to explain why he lost a popularity contest rather than admit that the people preferred someone else. And if you doubt that he’d pull the “rigged election” nonsense on a fellow Republican, let me remind you that he already has. He did it in the first contest of the 2016 primaries, after Ted Cruz’s evangelical coalition nudged him past Trump in the Iowa caucus:

Trump was preparing to pull the same thing on Hillary Clinton if she won the 2016 election. And of course he did end up pulling it on Biden in 2020. His attitude when he wants something badly is to use every lever of pressure available to him to get — bribes, bullying, lawsuits, and if all else fails, cries of cheating and unfairness. He’s an agent of chaos and sower of division in everything he does. That’s what he’ll be for the GOP too in 2024 if he runs and loses.

But … maybe there’s a chance he won’t run? I’d put the odds that he does at over 90 percent but a surprisingly bad showing by his candidates in this year’s primaries might give him pause:

Losing to Kemp would be especially embarrassing. Trump will ease the pain of seeing his candidates lose with various coping strategies, blaming them for being weaklings who failed him or even switching his endorsement if he looks headed for a sure defeat, but deep down he’ll wonder if the base has begun to drift in a different direction. The thought of him losing a primary fight decided by “his people” might be so painful to him that he may contrive a pretext to back out and retire as undefeated Republican champion. Here’s hoping.

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