Make that the “total joke” challengers so far. White House reporters asked Donald Trump why he’s shutting down GOP presidential primaries and caucuses in several states, to which Trump responded that he has nothing to do with it. It’s almost certainly true, but it won’t stop the issue from being a Rorschach test of sorts for pundits:

This started on Friday after four state Republican Party committees acted to cancel their state primaries. This has some precedent; several states canceled primaries when George W. Bush, the most recent Republican incumbent, sought re-election in 2004. In that case, no one bothered to challenge Bush either, who was still relatively popular in that pre-Katrina period.

One of the states, Arizona, has canceled primaries before for Democrats too (via Matt Vespa):

The Arizona Republican Party officially canceled its 2020 presidential primary contest on Monday, joining several other state Republican parties.

State Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward confirmed the party’s decision in a letter to Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs obtained by The Hill. …

This is not the first time Arizona has had presidential primaries canceled: the Arizona Democratic Party did not have primaries in 2012 and 1996, when former Presidents Obama and Clinton, respectively, were running for reelection.

Neither Clinton nor Obama had any challengers in those cycles either. That’s a key difference to some, as this cycle has produced three declared challengers, two of whom are former GOP governors. However, none of them have seriously organized for a primary challenge, at least not yet, and the state parties have no reason at the moment to think they will. None of the three are exactly in the forefront of Republican Party politics anyway, as Trump complained to the media yesterday:

“I don’t know them,” the president responded. “I would say this: They are all at less than 1 percent. I guess it’s a publicity stunt. We just got a little while ago (a poll showing) 94 percent popularity or approval within the Republican party. So to be honest, I’m not looking to get them any credibility. They have no credibility.”

He added, “One was a person that voted for Obama, ran as a vice president four years ago and was soundly defeated, another one got thrown out after one term in Congress and he lost in a landslide and the third one — Mr. Appalachian trail — he wasn’t on the Appalachian trial; he was in Argentina.”

Practically speaking, the states could use the funds for down-ticket races instead of a meaningless presidential primary. If a serious challenger launches a campaign — or if one or more of these three pull together an actual campaign on the ground in these states — the party committees can easily reverse course and schedule primaries and caucuses. However, if no challengers are building campaigns in those states, it’s not clear why the state parties should feel compelled to fund primaries and caucuses.

At the Washington Post, GOP strategist Ed Rogers offers a reason while wondering whether Trump is “afraid” of something in pushing for the cancellations:

Besides, running in primaries, even when you have a significant advantage, is still a good exercise for a presidential candidate — including the incumbent. It energizes the political machinery and improves visibility at a grass-roots level. Think of it as a scrimmage before the big game. Perhaps Trump’s team believes he already has got his campaign rallies down pat, so why bother with the primaries? The answer is that the president may not be as strong as he thinks he is, and going through the exercise of organizing and traveling during the primary season and winning handily would only strengthen him for the general election.

It is one thing to attack someone on Twitter, but it is another to face them at the ballot box. There was no logical reason for Trump to lose sleep over Weld, Sanford or Walsh. But maybe now there is, because now Trump looks as though he is afraid of something. Voters hate to see a political ambush or a manipulation of the process that deprives them of their right to be a part of the decision. The president’s capacity for self-inflicted wounds is unprecedented.

We have become so used to clumsy moves and pointless ploys that don’t make any sense that the cancellation of four states’ Republican primaries barely registered as news. But it should. One day, Trump will be gone and Republicans will have to ask ourselves if we still have a party.

Afraid? Meh. Ask any incumbent if they prefer a primary challenger or a walkover and see what answer you get, at least if you catch them in an honest moment. Incumbents want party unity and a pass on spending finite resources to fend off internecine combats. However, Rogers does have a point about organizing for the 2020 election, especially when it comes to Team Trump, which usually replaces such efforts with massive rallies. Trump didn’t bother with such tasks in 2016 and was fortunate enough to draw the world’s worst presidential candidate as an opponent. He may not be so lucky this time.

That, however, requires more than just a primary, which Trump would easily win without even holding rallies in these four states, as well as others. It requires a campaign that is built on grassroots organizing and relationship-building in critical precincts and neighborhoods. It requires becoming part of those neighborhoods and listening to their needs, rather than relying on 30,000-foot national messaging. Barack Obama figured that out, but Trump hasn’t — and neither have his Democratic opponents. I doubt that primaries will teach any of them that lesson.