When The Simpsons’s evil billionaire C. Montgomery Burns heads for a checkup, the doctor informs him he has virtually every disease known to man, including some just discovered for the first time. The odd thing is that all these diseases are in “perfect balance,” which the doctor illustrates by trying to shove a bunch of fuzzy novelty germs through a tiny door all at once. When they’re all jammed together, none can actually make it through — an example of “Three Stooges syndrome.” Despite the doctor’s warning that even a slight breeze could upset this balance, Burns happily concludes that he is “indestructible.”
The Republican Party had a serious bout of Three Stooges syndrome in 2016. With every candidate concluding that they could beat Donald Trump if only they were to take him on mano a mano, the early incentive structure demanded hitting each other more than hitting him.
Trump’s victory was a shocking affirmation that the famous 2012 Republican “autopsy” had been better titled than they knew. And as his presidency supplied conservatives with one policy victory after another, it was clear there was no going back. This new party coalition was changing, trading suburban women for working- and middle-class Latinos and Asians, leaning into culture-war issues and no longer kowtowing to a Democratic media.
At the same time, the legal attacks on Trump himself and those closest to him sucked up the administration’s ability to achieve more permanent victories. Trump was reduced to governing via executive order and judicial nominations, which flowed out of the White House and the Senate. And once Covid arrived in 2020, the opportunity to advance other Republican goals disappeared, as Trump and his administration ceded control to a public health bureaucracy that they began to question only when it was too late.
Now Trump is attempting to make the case that he should get a do-over. He maintains that the 2020 election was rigged against him — when asked to explain why every lawsuit his team brought failed, why his allegations of fraud resulted in minimal findings of mishandled ballots, or why he believed the ridiculous legal theories that claimed Mike Pence could effectively undo the result on January 6, Trump descends into argle bargle. The promises he’s making in his 2024 campaign are essentially the same as his last ones — that he’ll achieve the things he promised he would achieve before, and would have if not for those meddling Democrats at the Department of Justice, the FBI and the media.
Depending on which poll you believe, Trump has half the party backing him — and this time, it includes the most conservative voters, the same people who provided the last boost of Cruz support in 2016. Trump won that election in part because he had the support of the most moderate voters in the GOP coalition, the group that had previously chosen Mitt Romney and John McCain. But this time around, moderates have soured on Trump. His tone and the sour taste of impeachment and indictment are just too much for them.
For the rest of the GOP field, the Three Stooges problem is back with a vengeance. While Ron DeSantis commands double digits in polling in the early states, he is followed by a litany of single-digit contenders who are once again preventing anything like a one-on-one contest. The cast of characters includes known and unknown personalities, from the staid, moralistic former vice president, to the once great neoconservative hope, the senator who frustrates leftist racial stereotypes, an ex-governor who missed his moment, an entrepreneur who seems bent on doing everything he can to help Trump, and a half-dozen others who have no shot at even making it onto the ticket. Jammed together in a tiny doorway, they are setting up a repeat of the dynamic where all roads lead to Trump.
The truly infuriating aspect of this if you believe the party ought to move on from the Orange Man — and if you believe the polls for a general election, particularly in swing states, Trump loses to Joe Biden once again — is that most of these candidates are running because they have nothing better to do. In 2016, you had a bevy of aspirational Tea Party senators in Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and a slew of accomplished governors in Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and of course megadollars Jeb Bush. All of them could squint and see a path to nomination. But Mike Pence is intensely disliked by half the party, Nikki Haley is viewed as a neocon at a time when that is very out of style, Tim Scott has an inspiring story but seems more like a number two than a commander-in-chief and Vivek Ramaswamy appears as interested at furthering a media career as he is in being an elected politician.
Only Chris Christie seems to be running based on a clear motivation: revenge. One of Trump’s earliest big endorsers following his defenestration of Rubio on the debate stage, Christie was sidelined by Jared Kushner once Trump won, unceremoniously tossed out on his ear. Christie has been beating the anti-Trump drum more loudly than anyone of late; he seems to be running a suicide campaign that is already winning him fans… just not among Republican primary voters.
The challenge for DeSantis in particular, but for the others as well, is how to attack Trump’s obvious weaknesses without having his supporters feel they are just echoing the criticisms of the left. A basic rule of thumb: if Jake Tapper is nodding along with your critiques, it’s bad; if Laura Ingraham is, that’s good. So far, only DeSantis has really engaged in even somewhat pointed criticisms: that Trump lost winnable elections for Republicans; that he failed to deliver on the border, law and order and “draining the swamp”; and that if elected, he can only serve one term, making him a lame-duck president from day one.
DeSantis has also been the only candidate to target Trump over Covid, resulting in a bizarre tit-for-tat where Trump’s team claims that it was DeSantis who was a fan of lockdowns, not their guy in the White House. This is obvious revisionist history, but it’s also telling. Because Trump never concedes that he could make a mistake — every call is perfect, including the ones that get him impeached — he can’t afford to admit that his failure to sideline or fire Anthony Fauci and other mandate-loving bureaucrats was an error. GOP voters are still activated by these Covid policy choices, in part because they believe the government would do the same thing all over again in a future scenario. DeSantis clearly plans to use that to his advantage.
What hurts DeSantis is his habit of talking in terms of his state-level experience. For as much as people flocked to the Sunshine State during the beastly nadir of Covid, not every state wants to be Florida and not every American wants to be a Floridian. Whether it’s the six-week ban on abortion, his aggressive fight with corporations like Disney, or the pushback on leftists’ sexual agenda in schools, many of DeSantis’s conservative culture-war stances could hurt his ability to argue that he’s a better general-election candidate than Trump. After 2022, Republican voters and donors are tired of losing. It’s in the interests of other candidates to frame DeSantis as a fine governor for a very red state, but too extreme for the general public.
Looming over all of this is the dark cloud of Trump’s legal problems. His indictment in the Stormy Daniels case had Republicans rushing to defend him against a biased jury pool and a leftist district attorney. The June indictment in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case didn’t result in the same lockstep defense. Republicans are more reluctant to sound hypocritical, especially after all the years spent criticizing Hillary Clinton over her email server and bleached and hammered phones. The power of the visuals here is also a factor — boxes and boxes of stuff stuck under chandeliers in bathrooms and ballrooms. Trump’s defense amounts to the idea that he alone could go through them to sort out his golf clothes from war plans — that’s decidedly uncomfortable for the law-and-order GOP to defend. The DoJ and FBI indeed have a history of overtly targeting Republicans and meddling in politics, but it’s also possible that the former president has invited them to do so. The drama sucks up all the oxygen — once again Republicans find themselves spending more time talking about the former president’s personal battles than about their agenda for the country.
With the first debate scheduled in Milwaukee on August 23, Republicans will soon discover whether this makes their Three Stooges problem worse or better. Doug Burgum, Larry Elder, Will Hurd, Asa Hutchinson and Francis X. Suarez will struggle to meet the low requirements — but if they do, it’s all the more time that the top seven won’t be talking. And that assumes Trump even attends — with as strong a lead in the polls as he currently commands, and his many gripes with host Fox News (where I am a contributor), he may just decide to skip it and leave DeSantis as the focus of other candidates’ ire. History suggests he’ll show, though: the last time Trump skipped a debate, he lost Iowa to Ted Cruz — a mistake he won’t want to repeat.
This is a bizarre election. The factors involved have no real precedent. Trump’s quest to return to the White House is motivated as much by personal animus and revenge as it is any aim of achievement for the country. It’s more important for him that he never goes out a loser than anything else. He is certainly not trying to return as a unifying force for the GOP, but as someone who deems major figures in his party personally disloyal, traitors who sold out for book deals and faint praise from the media. He has denigrated his White House staff and the most prominent members of his cabinet; they in turn have called him unqualified to serve again.
It is very possible that Trump wins the nomination despite the opposition of the majority of his cabinet; that those who served closest to him, knew him best and campaigned for him in 2020 don’t want him back in the job. For Republican primary voters, this is unlikely to matter much. But it tells you something about the kind of administration Trump would run if he takes the White House back: one with no holds barred, no guardrails or norms, focused on going after those who wronged him. Perhaps that reign of vengeance is what Republicans want, but it does not seem like a recipe for what the country needs. Yet until some bold candidate pushes through, Trump endures, indestructible to the end — if only in his own mind.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s August 2023 World edition.