Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

How to Know When They Mean It

Breaking ‘Against Trump’ means opposing him through a general election. 
March 8, 2022
How to Know When They Mean It
Trump makes a statement on the census with Attorney General William Barr in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr pretty much concedes that Donald Trump is an awful human being who is unfit to serve in the Oval Office. But there’s just something about Trump that’s too good for Barr to give up.

Barr is in the news today—as opposed to when he made headlines misrepresenting the findings of the Mueller Report or planting foreign-ballot conspiracies—because he has a book to sell. His story is that a “manic” Trump “went off the rails” after the 2020 election and is “responsible” for the Jan. 6th attack. One would think these would be deal-breakers in evaluating a potential presidential candidate.

Wrong. When pressed, Barr admitted that he’ll vote for Trump in 2024 should Trump become the GOP nominee. His explanation is simple: “Because I believe the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic party, it’s inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee,” Barr told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.


Barr is literally saying he can’t mentally grasp the idea that voting for a Democrat would be a better alternative to voting for someone he directly observed trying to hijack American democracy.

Someone, please make a commercial featuring this broken man: This Is Your Brain on Partisanship.

Barr’s about-face isn’t exactly a new move for Republicans. It’s relatively easy to find Republicans who will lament Trump’s miserable qualities and then spin on their heel to discuss how of course they would support him again.

See: Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He told CNN’s David Axelrod that Trump’s lies about the election represented a “red line.” But then he told Fox’s Laura Ingraham that if Trump ran in 2024, “The line of supporting Donald Trump starts behind me!”

Or former South Carolina Governor and Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. After Jan. 6th, Haley told Tim Alberta that Trump “went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

A few weeks later, she told the Associated Press she would vote for Trump again in 2024. In fact, she’d gladly put aside her own presidential considerations should he decide to run.

Mike Pence will probably be doing his about-face soon enough.

Pence has been getting lots of googly, lookee-here, eye emojis from reporters for supposedly “breaking” with Trump. Last year he described Trump’s efforts to overturn the election as “un-American.” When Trump started making mean noises about how Pence did have the power to “change the outcome” and “he could have overturned the election,” Pence got attaboys from the Wall Street Journal editorial page for stating the obvious: “President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election.”

Now Pence is variously described as“slamming,” “condemning,” and “hitting” Trump over the weekend because he told a room full of Republican donors, “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom.”

One problem: Pence wouldn’t even say Trump’s name. He knows how the Democrats would use that to run against Trump in 2024. Can’t let that happen. Gotta protect the team.

Understand this: People like Barr, Christie, Haley, and Pence will offer their criticisms when there is a whiff of opportunity—either in the form of speaking fees, book sales, or the ability to test future political prospects.

Then they start measuring the cost-benefit of their calculated risk. Do they get applauded as a strong, principled leader who could be the future of the party? Or are they ostracized by the influencers at Fox News, their donors, targeted voters, and future employers?

On paper, there’s an entire coalition of Republican officials who should be, if you take them at their words, “Never Again Trump.” But only a few of them—Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and the former Trump aides who publicly campaigned against him in 2020—seem willing to make the necessary sacrifice of giving up some of their partisan identity to do so.

For most of the operators, the mental hurdle of putting country over party is, as Barr put it, “inconceivable.” If being a good Republican means voting for a twice-impeached, insurrection-inciting, Putin-praising, 2020 loser . . . then so bet it.

As long as that’s the case, the idea that any Republican has “broken” with Trump should be on hold until they answer the following two questions.

Is America better off today with Joe Biden as president rather than Donald Trump?

If Donald Trump is the Republican presidential nominee in 2024, will you vote for President Biden?

A buck gets you ten that they’ll balk and refuse to answer. Not because it’s an unreasonable question given the circumstances, but because of what it would do to damage their GOP credentials.

Until they get to “yes and yes” however, the only thing their tough talk about Trump reveals is how much pain they are willing to put the country through to keep themselves politically viable.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.