A couple days ago, Trump fans at Yankee Stadium unfurled a giant banner saying “Trump or Death,” juxtaposed with the dates 1776 and 2024. Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer for National Review, wrote a short squib complaining that this display was “an example of the hardest-core Trump supporters not even understanding what made Trump appealing to a winning coalition of voters in the first place.”
The message of this banner is hardly subtle. They are warning the country that if Trump does not win the election (2024) they will commit violence (1776). The banner is propaganda to whip up a violent political coup, or to use the threat of one to intimidate voters into handing them power peacefully.
The problem that Dougherty emphasized was the optics and messaging. “Banners like this are going to alienate independent voters, remind them of Trump’s election denialism leading to January 6 and his general association with extremists,” he argued. His exuberant allies were forgetting the lessons of Trump’s successful 2016 campaign. “Trump won because the choice wasn’t Trump or Death, but a fate Americans regarded with even more horror: Trump or Hillary.”
Now, I suspect that if you pressed Dougherty on it, he would concede that counterproductive messaging is not the only problem he has with “Trump or Death.” But his decision to confine his argument to the practical — fascistic threats don’t play well with married white non-college educated women in the upper Midwest, you know — is emblematic of a broader tendency among Trump’s intra-party rivals. They have focused primarily, and in some cases exclusively, on criticizing Trump on grounds that he can’t win, playing down or omitting any normative moral criticism of his authoritarianism.
The strong version of this claim is that Trump has absolutely no chance to defeat Joe Biden. “We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way,” says Nikki Haley. National Review’s Andrew McCarthy has insisted without qualification, “Trump Can’t Win.”
That is quite obviously not true. Polls currently show Trump in a virtual tie with Joe Biden — and that does not account for the impact of either the Electoral College, which would have allowed him to capture the presidency had he even come within four points of Biden in the national vote, or the likely presence of two spoiler campaigns dividing up the anti-Trump vote.
The weaker version of this claim is that Trump might win, but he is much less likely to do so than his main rivals. That claim also has very little to back it up. Right now, the RCP polling average shows Biden leading Trump in a trial heat by 0.4 percentage points, and leading Ron DeSantis by 3.7 points. Polls don’t tell you everything, certainly not this far away from an election. But there is just not much concrete reason to believe DeSantis would stand a better chance of winning than Trump would. (That is one reason why I’d prefer DeSantis as the nominee.)
The appeal of the electability argument, despite the absence of any solid evidence for it, is that it allows Trump skeptics to avoid making any moral case against Trump. It is probably a correct calculation that a party dominated by Trump admirers will not support a candidate who believes Trump has done anything worse than occasionally write a “mean tweet.”
But the single-minded focus on electability is not merely a communications strategy. It is also a way of establishing moral boundaries within the party. And the message sent by focusing on Trump’s electability is that the only problem with his behavior is that it reduces the party’s chances of obtaining power. If Trump does win the nomination, which now appears extremely likely, the electability argument leaves no room for abandoning him; to the contrary, it creates a permission structure for Trump skeptics to once again support him as the lesser evil.
“Electability,” even if it was factually persuasive, is a morally empty, de minimis critique of a nakedly authoritarian figure. The Republican calculation through every step of the Trump era has been to avoid the short-term cost of a party split and shrink its differences with his base to the smallest possible level. They couldn’t bear to break irrevocably with him after he won the 2016 nomination, or at any time during his crime spree of a presidency, or even after the insurrection. And now he has obtained total mastery of the party. “Trump or Death” is the future they are signing up for.