“Never Trump” was a label embraced by a handful of Republicans who deemed Donald Trump disqualified for office by some combination of his ignorance, his mendacity, his bigotry, and/or his authoritarianism. Almost no one still affiliated with the party or the conservative movement willingly uses the label any more. The label has largely been repurposed by Trump himself as an epithet against any Republican who dares utter criticism of him, however mild. “Never Trump” now serves essentially the same role in right-wing discourse as “Trotskyite” did in Stalin’s Russia — an all-purpose accusation of secret disloyalties, which must be fervently disavowed.
In place of Never Trumpism, the Biden-era Republican party offers up figures like Chris Christie. Christie has put himself forward as the face of Republican resistance to Trump. But it is a form of “resistance” so tepid as to become almost indistinguishable from support.
Christie grabbed headlines by declaring he might run for president, and — unlike other contenders, who have implicitly or explicitly conditioned their candidacies on Mr. Trump not running — he announced he wouldn’t wait for Trump’s permission. Christie has lambasted Trump for continuing to claim he legitimately won the 2020 election. But he has restricted his criticism to the exceedingly narrow ground that voters are simply tired of hearing about the past: “We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections — no matter where you stand on that issue, no matter where you stand, it is over.”
This is the perfect distillation of Establishment Republican thinking on this issue. They don’t want to dispute Trump’s election lies; they just want to drop the question. Trump, of course, has no intention of dropping the argument, which is why he’s winning it: He is making a case that Biden stole the election, and hardly anybody in his party is willing to contradict him. (Indeed, Republicans are actively muzzling Liz Cheney precisely because she insists on refuting Trump’s election lie.)
In an interview last night with Laura Ingraham, who spoke at Trump’s 2020 nominating convention, Christie assured the Fox News audience that he had no disagreement in principle with the party’s leader. He agreed that Democrats cheated in 2020 — “We know what happened in 2020, in instances where the voting laws were changed improperly” — and heartily endorsed state-level voting restrictions as an appropriate, forward-looking response.
Prodded further by Ingraham, he conceded that his disagreements with Trump were limited to matters of style and personality and that he fully supported Trump’s substantive positions. “Laura,” he announced grandly, “the line of supporting Donald Trump starts behind me!”
Trump appealed to the Republican base, despite his many apostasies, because he promised to crush their enemies. His attack on the Republican leadership was, and is, ideologically incoherent — they are too conservative or too moderate, too hawkish or too dovish, unable to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill or shamefully willing to do just that — but characterologically consistent. The other Republicans are timid and weak. He is ruthless and strong.
Trump’s supporters see the party as riven along the same lines: not left versus right, but weak versus strong. When conservative pundits Jonah Golderg and Stephen Hayes quit Fox News over Tucker Carlson’s weeklong orgy of paranoid January 6 revisionism, an American Spectator columnist assailed them for lacking the guts to get their hands dirty in the fight: “There’s a certain brand of weak-sauce conservative pundit, many of whom have populated the airwaves of cable news channels and other corporate media venues, which depends for its sustenance on remaining ‘acceptable’ to those who are not conservatives … Let’s hope that somebody is less ‘acceptable’ and more willing to accurately assess the state of America brought on by two decades of weak-sauce conservatism’s constant retreating.”
The “weak-sauce conservatism” of Goldberg and Hayes is extremely conservative. What makes it weak is its unwillingness to undermine the voting process through chaos and violence.
Supporting Trump is fundamentally a choice between being willing to abide the rules of the democratic game and doing whatever it takes to gain power. Christie is trying to elide the choice. But in so doing, he is revealing the same weakness of character that Trump used to discredit the Republican alternatives. When the choice comes again between democracy and power, they will choose power.