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Three Horsemen Are Coming for Trump

It's not quite the apocalypse, but it could make things a little uncomfortable for the incumbent.
September 10, 2019
Three Horsemen Are Coming for Trump

On the day this website launched, I wrote that Donald Trump was more likely than not to see a primary challenger.

He now has three: Bill Weld, Joe Walsh, and Mark Sanford.

There’s no magic to this. As I said then, the objective indicators for a challenge were all there:

  • Trump is deeply unpopular. Normally incumbents are vulnerable when their approval rating is under 50 percent. Trump’s approval rating has never gotten to 50 percent and for most of his term he’s been closer to 40 percent.
  • The Republican party suffered a large midterm loss in 2018.
  • Primary challenges happen all the time: Since TV took over politics, nine sitting presidents have sought re-election and five of them have been challenged in primaries.
  • Trump has done nothing to co-opt potential challengers. Rather, he has actively antagonized parts of the party establishment.

This last part is particularly important. Trump is the only president I’ve ever seen who spends at least as much time attacking members of his own party—Mia Love, Jeff Flake, Jeff Sessions, Paul Ryan, John McCain—as he does the opposition party. For most of Trump’s supporters, this seems to be a feature, not a bug.

But there is a reason presidents have historically gone out of their way to mollify, rather than antagonize, the parts of their party that are least enthusiastic about them: They want to tamp down the appetite for a primary challenge, not feed it.

And while most of Trump’s supporters clearly like his attacks on other Republicans, the Venn diagram of “hard-core Trump supporters” and “Republicans” is not a perfect circle. Which is why you get numbers like these: One poll shows that 63 percent of registered Republicans in Iowa are open to a primary challenger and another in New Hampshire shows that 40 percent of Republicans say a challenger would be good for Trump.

Because Donald Trump is Donald Trump, people seem to have assumed that the normal laws of politics don’t apply. But if you had been handed a sheet with the president’s name crossed out and just the various polling numbers on it, then you would have expected at least one serious candidate—by which I mean “not Lyndon LaRouche”—to challenge the sitting president this cycle.

You can read Mark Sanford’s candidacy as a direct result of Trump’s open hostility to parts of what used to be the Republican party.

It’s remarkable how quickly Trump forced the GOP to abandon two of its longest-held orthodoxies. For decades, Republicans had been—at least in theory—the party in favor of reforming Social Security and Medicare and the party of fiscal responsibility.

In practice, these orthodoxies were more aspirational than dogmatic. So when Trump came along and threw them into the dumpster—he campaigned against reforming Social Security and Medicare and hasn’t even pretended to care about deficits while ballooning the national debt—people assumed that it was no big deal. They thought that Trump was merely ratifying reality.

But you can’t take a political idea that a party has held for a generation, flip it 180 degrees, and expect there to be no reaction.

The stories people tell themselves matter. And since 1980, Republicans have been telling themselves that they were the grownups who were responsible with money and weren’t going to spend like crazy and run up the debt like those damn hippies with their tax-and-spend commie bullshirt. Republicans understood business! They wanted government to get out of the way and balance its books the same as any real business had to!

As I said, this turned out to be less attractive in practice. But it was still how Republicans saw themselves. And while Trump was able to get a majority (plurality?) of the party to renounce this self-image, he hasn’t convinced them all. Which left him with a large exposed flank. There was plenty of room for a politician to test the market and see if Republican voters in New Hampshire would be willing to rebuke Trump for having the GOP openly abandon fiscal responsibility.

Which is where Mark Sanford comes in. He’s the obvious—and predictable—reaction to Trump’s transformation of the party’s fiscal orthodoxies.

The same can be said—along different vectors—about Weld and Walsh.

Weld represents the kind of moderate, establishment Republicanism that has been on the outs in the party since John Anderson in 1980. The Rockefeller wing of the party was never very big. Outside of the Northeast it’s minuscule. But it exists. And most conservative presidents have tried to stroke it (as needed) rather than crap all over it.

As for Walsh, he’s the representative of Trump’s unfulfilled populist promises: There is no wall. What we’re getting is 174 miles of fence and it’s going to be paid for by abusing the Constitution to take money that was supposed to keep schools for the children of U.S. soldiers safe from terrorist attacks.

Don’t get me wrong: Every president disappoints parts of his coalition. Every president faces some internal resistance from parts of his own party. That’s the nature of politics.

But it’s precisely because of these facts that every other modern president has gone out of his way to placate—or trick or sweet-talk, you pick the verb—these elements.

Trump has been in a flame war with them going on four years.

What did he think was going to happen?

It’s not clear to me which of the three challengers poses the biggest danger to Trump. And to be clear, the concept of “biggest danger” is relative. The chance of Weld, Walsh, or Sanford being the next Republican nominee is very, very, very small.

On the other hand, if the sitting president of these United States rolls into New Hampshire and he’s trailing Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris in match-up polling and then he gets only 70 percent of the vote in the Republican primary—well, this is not a super-awesome scenario for Donald Trump.

So there is danger for Trump here. If some combination of Weld, Walsh, and Sanford combines to get, say, 30 percent of the vote in one of the two early states, it will be a sign of tremendous electoral weakness.

There is a real question about whether such a result would actively weaken Trump on its own, or merely be an indicator of Trump’s existing weakness. I don’t know.

But I can tell you to look at the landscape as it exists now:

Anyone who says that things are going just the way Team Trump had hoped is high. Or lying.

While we can’t know which of the challengers is most dangerous for Trump, having three challengers is worse for him than having one or two.

Weld, Walsh, and Sanford all come at Trump from different angles. They will nibble away at different parts of the Republican electorate and will rarely be in direct competition for voters.

The mere existence of their campaigns means that the Republican primaries are a story, independent of Trump. There are horse-race numbers to be reported. There could even be debates, though given the RNC’s stubborn sycophancy, a cable network would have to host a “candidate forum.” (I would put good odds that this will happen.) Trump should probably stay above the fray, but he’ll also realize that he can’t control the narrative the way he could when it was just him against one guy. The GOP primary fight is now a story that can run even without Trump’s participation.

And the three horsemen could act as force multipliers for one another.

It’s not hard to see how an attack by, say, Joe Walsh, could pry a marginal Republican voter loose from Trump. Then, even if that voter were uncomfortable with Walsh, she could land with, say, Sanford. And as their cumulative vote share increases, it gives permission to other early-state Republicans to vote against Trump. Even if they just want to send a message about a particular issue: Build the wall! Or, be more moderate! Or, don’t spend America into oblivion!

It does not matter what people on the internet think about the three horsemen. It does not matter if Twitter makes fun of them or Conservative Inc. goes after them or NeverTrumpers “support” them.

What matters is how 80,000 or so Republicans in New Hampshire actually vote.

One more thing: As Peter Thiel likes to say, the hardest step is going from zero to one. After Bill Weld made the jump, he lowered the cost of entry for Walsh, whose presence further encouraged Sanford.

It does not take long to stand up campaign primary challenge to a sitting president. In 1992, Pat Buchanan went from a standing start to 38 percent in New Hampshire in a matter of weeks. And this was pre-internet, when he had to do it with nothing more than a car and a microphone.

It would not shock me if a fourth horseman appeared at some point between now and January.

NWA Birth of The Four Horsemen 10/26/1985

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.