Politics / January 22, 2024

Trump No Longer Faces Any Honest Rival for the GOP Nomination

DeSantis flamed out. Christie and Hutchinson bowed out. All that’s left is Trump sycophant Nikki Haley—and the inevitable winner himself.

John Nichols
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up after speaking at a campaign event in Rochester, N.H., Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.

Donald Trump at a campaign event in Rochester, N.H., Sunday, January 21, 2024.

(Charles Krupa / AP)

The field of Republican presidential candidates, once crowded with partisans who dared to imagine that they could displace a scandal-plagued Donald Trump as the party’s 2024 nominee, is rapidly clearing.

On Sunday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was viewed as Trump’s toughest potential rival before he ran one of the most incompetent campaigns in modern American political history, bowed to the inevitable after finishing a weak second in last Monday’s Iowa caucuses. DeSantis, who had promised to “Never Back Down,” did just that, with a loser’s lament posted to X. “It’s clear to me that a majority of Republican primary voters want to give Donald Trump another chance,” he said, going on to endorse the man who had mercilessly attacked him for over a year.

DeSantis’s flameout is the most significant thus far. But he was by no means the first Trump challenger to see the writing on the wall as the campaign moved from speculative phase to actual voting. The candidate who tried to position himself as Trump’s Mini-Me, Vivek Ramaswamy, quit the competition immediately after his decrepit fourth-place finish in Iowa and announced that he would formally become what he already was in practice: a Trump surrogate.

More consequentially—for the tenor of the debate within the GOP, if not for the overall outcome— were the decisions of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who ran an aggressively anti-Trump campaign, and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, arguably the race’s most honorable contender, to abandon their efforts to redeem what, for the time being at least, is an irredeemable party.

So now Trump, who once faced close to a dozen Republican pretenders, is left to compete in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary against only one prominent rival: former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who pulled close to the former president in Granite State polls two weeks ago but now seems to be sliding toward also-ran status.

A Trump renomination has been the best bet since this race began. But it now seems like the primary fight could conclude even sooner than the former president and his most enthusiastic adherents imagined possible. If Trump repeats his Iowa result and pulls over 50 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, the race will, for all intents and purposes, be finished. Even if Haley finishes strongly enough to maintain the fantasy of viability for another few weeks, she’s very likely to get tripped up in her home state of South Carolina, where the former governor is trailing far behind Trump in polls leading up to the February 24 primary.

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No matter what happens in New Hampshire, or in the convoluted February 8 Nevada caucuses, or in South Carolina, or on what is shaping up as a not-so-Super Tuesday, however, the Republican race is no longer a serious contest for the future direction of a party that is rapidly confirming its status as a cult of personality.

While they garnered a fair share of media attention, billionaire money, and big-name endorsements, Haley and DeSantis never mounted honest challenges to Trump.

Yes, of course, both of the former president’s most high-profile rivals desperately wanted to win the Republican nomination. And, yes, of course, they technically met the standards that horse-race pundits use to identify “credible” candidates.

But neither Haley nor DeSantis ran campaigns that sincerely took on Trump, let alone the threat that Trumpism poses to their party or their country.

Despite his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, despite his 91 criminal indictments, despite his increasingly authoritarian rhetoric, and despite the fact that he ridiculed them on a regular basis, both Haley and DeSantis promised to support a renominated Trump in November. And both pledged that, if by some unfathomable twist of political fate, they were to get elected, they would pardon a criminally convicted Trump.

In other words, they ran wholly sycophantic and wholly absurd campaigns. Indeed, only in what is likely her campaign’s final phase has Haley dared to question the aging and increasingly incoherent Trump’s fitness for office.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2023, DeSantis and Haley grumbled about the fact that Trump refused to debate them. But what would have happened if he had taken the stage? On most of the issues, Haley and DeSantis would have agreed with him or, in many cases, adopted stances that were more extreme and unpopular than those espoused by the ex-president. And when it came to critical questions about the future of the party and the country, they would have left any serious dissent to Hutchinson, who bravely discussed the prospect that Trump’s insurrectionist scheming to overturn the 2020 election had disqualified him, and to Christie who, when asked if he would pardon Trump, answered, “No, no, no, no.”

“As a governor, I issued pardons. And one of the things you have to do is look at the person. The person has to accept responsibility for what they did,” the former New Jersey governor explained in an interview two weeks ago on ABC’s The View. “Do you think Donald Trump will ever accept responsibility for anything he did?” In stark contrast to DeSantis and Haley, Christie said when asked about the prospect of letting Trump off the hook, “It’d be really the easiest pardon decision I would ever have to make as president. You don’t accept responsibility? Too bad. Go to jail.”

Christie was unapologetically aggressive and vehement in his challenge to Trump, asserting that the former president “acts like someone who wants to be a dictator,” and declaring to the very end of his campaign that “I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be president of the United States again.” Hutchinson, like Christie a former US Attorney, was more cerebral but no less pointed in his critique of Trump. “I’m not even sure he’s qualified to be the next president of the United States. And so you can’t be asking us to support somebody that’s not perhaps even qualified under our Constitution,” the former governor of Arkansas said last fall on CNN. “I’m referring to the 14th Amendment. A number of legal scholars said that he is disqualified because of his actions on January 6.”

Speaking truth to Trump’s power didn’t get Hutchinson or Christie very far—even if Christie did gain some last-minute traction in New Hampshire, before deciding to quit a contest in which he could have been blamed for spoiling Haley’s remote chances.

Neither of the race’s genuinely anti-Trump contenders made it to the first primary. But at least they ran against Trump, rather than making apologies for him.

History will record that Haley made it to New Hampshire. But it won’t honor her. While Christie said he ran “to save my party and my country,” DeSantis refused to do so from the beginning to the end of his dismal, morally vacant, campaigns. And the safest bet at this late stage in the game is that the same will be said of Haley at some point—be it this week or some week down the line—when she finishes with her muted criticism of the front-runner and acknowledges that she was for him all along.

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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