GOP rivals come gunning for Trump — but let's consider their history of failure and mendacity

Republican establishment finds a line of attack: Trump's a loser. Problem is, their voters don't believe that

By Heather Digby Parton


Published November 21, 2022 9:40AM (EST)

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a Save America Rally to support Republican candidates running for state and federal offices in the state at the Covelli Centre on September 17, 2022 in Youngstown, Ohio. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a Save America Rally to support Republican candidates running for state and federal offices in the state at the Covelli Centre on September 17, 2022 in Youngstown, Ohio. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

After all the years of Donald Trump's corruption, lies, depravity, ineptitude, recklessness and greed, the Republican establishment has finally found their red line, the one thing they simply will not abide: losing. Or at least that's what they seem to have decided might be a winning message with Republican voters — who by and large have no problem with Trump's grotesque character or his unique talent for destroying everything he touches. GOP leaders apparently believe that Trump's loyal flock can be persuaded to abandon their Dear Leader because they want Republicans to win elections more than anything.

I have my doubts. Trump has a full-blown cult following and it has little to do with the Republican Party per se, or even with winning elections. Trump's fans worship him because he is their greatest martyr, the man who suffers for their sins and takes the slings and arrows they believe are aimed at all of them. They see these Republicans who are coming after him as no better than the hated Democrats. They don't blame him for losing the midterm elections any more than he blames himself.

Regardless, this is what the GOP establishment seems to be going with. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has kept his head down for the last few years — quietly amassing a fortune on the Fox Corporation board of directors, among other things — suddenly rose up to offer an opinion after having stayed silent through the entire Big Lie saga:

Now there's a man of principle for you.

At the Republican Governors Association meeting last week, we heard Chris Christie making the same argument, declaring, "We keep losing and losing and losing. And the fact of the matter is the reason we're losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else." And at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting this past weekend, which served as an early cattle call for potential presidential candidates former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also chimed in, saying, "We were told we'd get tired of winning. But I'm tired of losing. And so are most Republicans."

All these comments come on the heels of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan saying, as early as last May, "Well, I'm tired of our party losing." (Hogan now petulantly says the other potential GOP candidates have stolen his line.) The Next Big Thing, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, took a slightly different tack at the governors' confab, bragging in Trump-like fashion that voters would "walk barefoot over broken glass" to vote for him — but not necessarily for others he did not mention.  

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Other potential contenders, including Sen. Ted Cruz, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Vice President Mike Pence, made the rounds talking up potential donors and seeking to appear presidential. That brings the number of potential Trump rivals up to double digits.

Trump himself appeared by video, almost as if he's so busy being the president in exile that he couldn't take the time to appear, and received a standing ovation. You cannot help but wonder whether he didn't want to be in the same room with all those possible rivals complaining about how the party has been a failure under his leadership. After all these years of being treated like a demigod, he likely didn't expect to have to get down in the dirt and fight for the nomination. Just this week, Rolling Stone reported that Trump has made numerous calls to prominent Republicans demanding that they endorse him immediately or there would be hell to pay.

All these potential GOP candidates say they're tired of losing, and suggest that someone is to blame. But none except Chris Christie has called out Donald Trump by name.

Let's notice that none of the would-be candidates except Chris Christie has actually called out Trump by name, so it's premature to assume that the Republican Party has finally turned its back on the man who has led them to defeat in the last three elections. They just keep saying they are tired of losing, which of course Trump and his followers blame on the faithless RINO establishment. So I really don't think this tactic is going to work with anyone except big GOP donors, who really do want to win. (They need those taxes and regulations cut!)

It was conventional wisdom until quite recently that Trump would run virtually unopposed in 2024. The rise of DeSantis raised the prospect of a two-man race, which most GOP professionals would relish. They seem convinced that Florida Man is an exciting politician, and he clearly agrees. The idea was that one principal rival has a better chance of defeating Trump, given that the large and contentious field in 2016 was a big reason he managed to win the nomination. (Republican state primaries are often winner-take-all events, allowing a candidate to build up a majority of delegates while only garnering a plurality of votes.) The problem here is that the Republican establishment's theory of the case is something of a myth. Trump won in 2016 because he was genuinely more popular among Republican voters.

Ed Kilgore at New York magazine explains:

It's not as though Trump marched to the 2016 nomination by piling up delegates against a perpetually divided field of rivals who wouldn't let each other get a clean shot at the MAGA man. The dynamics were more like a King of the Mountain game in which various rivals serially tried to topple the front-runner, who gained strength during the process before nailing the nomination down when there was no one left to oppose him other than Ted Cruz.

He mowed down those rivals one by one, and by the end of the primary season was winning decisive majorities. Those voters really liked him. That important fact has long been one of the hardest things to accept about Trump's rise, I know, but it is unfortunately true. At least it has been until now.

Trump will soon be criss-crossing the country again holding his trademark rallies, which might have been exciting if he had ever stopped doing them. These events feel tired these days. In fact, Trump himself seems tired these days. Imagine if he'd been off the road for the last two years. For such an experienced showman, he sometimes has a poor sense of how to leave the crowd wanting more.

I'm sure he'll have no real trouble filling up the event spaces as usual, but whether that illustrates anything beyond the fact that his hardcore fan base is desperate to keep the party going won't be evident for a while yet. Trump should probably think about getting a new act.

Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine how any of his following can be persuaded that he's a loser. They see that that legal authorities and leading Republicans keep aiming at Trump and missing, and most of them truly believe he won the 2020 election in a landslide.That's the cost of the GOP establishment's failure to push back against the Big Lie, and it's why this new mantra about being tired of losing must sound bizarre to their base today. A majority of Republican voters think Donald Trump is the greatest winner they've ever seen, and they just want him to keep on doing it. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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