Opinion | Trump isn’t unstoppable. Here’s how the GOP can beat him.


It’s important to remember how Trump won the nomination in 2016. It had more to do with basic math than with some kind of political genius. His main asset was a crowded field in which all the candidates carved up most of the vote, making Trump’s 20-odd percent in polls look like a tsunami by comparison.

Trump didn’t claim a majority of primary voters until his nomination appeared inevitable, by which time the desperate pleas from his opponents sounded only like the death whine of the establishment.

Eight years later, should Trump run again, he’s likely to see a more formidable set of faces on the Republican debate stage — people such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.

In 2016, Trump was a blank slate; a lot of Republicans bought into the baseless idea that Trump, if elected, would surround himself with brilliance and strive for normalcy. At a minimum, plenty of GOP voters figured they had nothing to lose by taking a chance on Trump rather than another Bush-era Republican.

Now Trump is the best-known quantity on the planet, and he’s likely to face far fewer challengers in 2024 — more than one or two, perhaps, but probably not a dozen. That means the field could narrow faster, giving voters a cleaner choice between Trump and a couple of alternatives — something with which Trump has never had to contend.

In the coming GOP contest, voters are likely to break down into three groups.

The first is what a friend of mine calls the “Fifth Avenue” crowd. Remember how Trump once said that even if he stood on Fifth Avenue and shot someone, his voters would still support him? These are those voters; they admire everything about Trump, but mostly the way he makes leftists and elite media come unglued whenever he opens his mouth.

In a second, smaller group are the self-described “Never Trumpers.” They still identify as Republicans, but they’d vote for flesh-eating bacteria if they thought it was the only thing standing between the country and Trump’s return.

The last bloc is the soft Trump vote. These voters cast their ballots for Trump twice, because they dislike Democrats even more. But they’re not married to him.

This last group is the one on which Trump’s fate will hinge in a contested primary, and his hold on them is weaker than before. Consider that in the annual straw poll held at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, Trump won with 59 percent, compared with 28 percent for DeSantis, who came in second.

That was a definitive win, except that we’re talking about the most partisan, conservative activists in the party. When pushed, 4 in 10 are already inclined to vote for someone else, and that’s before any of the other candidates have had a hearing.

Why? Because what matters most to soft Trump voters is that a Republican — any Republican — win back the White House.

And if winning in 2024 is your obsession, then Trump is much more problematic than he was in 2016, when what you cared about most was sticking it to the party elite.

Nothing that has happened since has made Trump a safer bet with these voters. On two issues, he has gone well outside the bounds of respectability and disqualified himself with many who might otherwise vote Republican.

The first is the way he incited the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, and then later said he would “absolutely give them a pardon if things don’t work out fairly.” The second is his slavishness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, a record that now threatens to become a nightmare for the GOP.

In both cases, Trump’s ranting is unpatriotic and dangerous, and it surely repulses a lot of traditional Republicans who were already open to an alternative.

If you’re running against Trump, you don’t need to directly make this case against Trump, and you shouldn’t. Electability as a campaign message inspires no one.

But being more electable than the other guy can be a powerful asset when voters are desperate to recapture the White House, and there are ways to make that contrast clear.

If I were a Republican planning to take on Trump, I’d already be planning a series of speeches about getting back to core conservative ideals. That means being the world’s indispensable beacon for freedom (as opposed to being pro-dictator); it means championing federal law enforcement (rather than supporting rioters and indulging crazy conspiracy theorists); and managing government like a business (and not like a criminal family enterprise).

I’d praise Trump for whatever good things you think he did — but only in the way one praises an erratic boss at his retirement party. I’d talk about him in the past tense, making the point at every opportunity that his moment has passed.

This would resonate with a lot of primary voters, and it would make Trump apoplectic. The more patronized he feels, the more he’ll lash out, and the more he lashes out, the more he’ll remind those skittish voters of what makes him a bad risk.

I know what my skeptical friends on the left will say to this: Everyone is always proclaiming Trump’s demise, and yet there he is, still in command of his party after all these years.

But some of the smartest Republican strategists I know will tell you that Trump is now a damaged messenger who would likely lose a general election — and many GOP voters suspect as much. Both report a desire for a strong, appealing alternative who can run a smart campaign.

Even in the Republican Party, that can’t be such a hard thing to find.