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Unto the Breach

An open letter to those considering a Trump primary.
January 18, 2019
Unto the Breach
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Dear Sir or Madam,

If you are reading this correspondence you already know the case against Donald Trump. You don’t need me to rehash all the ways that he is either the most corrupt president in modern times or leading a kakistocracy. If you need an exhaustive list of his misdeeds before you decide to run, I will gladly pour myself a bourbon and commit several hours to the task. But in that case this is probably not the job for you.

Instead I want to offer the practical case for why you, Republican legislator/governor/general/tycoon, should challenge Trump head-on and enter the Republican primary for president of the United States.

I know, the task seems daunting. Conventional wisdom will tell you that there is no chance for success; that the president’s internal support is too strong; that a primary of this nature has never succeeded. You are certain to get branded with a mean nickname. (Though the president has been recycling these lately, so you will probably end up being “Liddle X,” regardless of your height.) There will be a lot of jerks in your Twitter mentions and they will make memes with racist frogs peeing on your face and whatnot.

But put all that aside for a moment and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I have better judgment, greater commitment to fundamental American and conservative values, and more capability to unite our fractured country through moral leadership than this president? (Unless you are Don Trump Jr. the answer to this question is “yes,” so everyone moves on to number two.)
  2. Is being a leader who is given a massive, global platform to speak with conviction about this administration—as well as being a catalyst for a new path for conservatives—better than my current job. (If your current job as a Republican elected official requires you to pretend that you think Everything Is Fine in the White House, then the answer is “yes,” and you can move on to number three.)
  3. Does my life experience give me a rationale for pursuing this job?
  4. Can I offer a conservative vision for the future that puts us on a better path than Trumpism?
  5. Am I prepared to lose knowing that I offered the people in this country who are looking for optimism and a better path forward a foundation on which to build in future campaigns?

If the answer to all five of those questions is “yes”—and I believe there are plenty of people for whom that is the case—then my last question is simply this:

Why not you?

There is no doubt that this primary will be a massive uphill battle. I wouldn’t even attempt to convince you otherwise. But how can you have lived through the past decade in politics without believing that the improbable is possible? Is a primary challenge to Trump any more outlandish than thinking that a twice-divorced borderline illiterate whose most recent resume line was hosting F-list celebrities on a TV reality show would be the next president? Or being told in 2003 amidst the shock and awe campaign with President Bush’s approval rating in the 60s that his successor would be an anti-war sitting state senator with the middle name Hussein? I’d say that beating Trump in a primary is actually more likely than either of those scenarios would have seemed at the time.

And it isn’t as if there is no appetite in the GOP for a Trump alternative. A recent Des Moines Register survey of Iowa GOP caucus-goers showed that Trump had an 81 percent approval rating—but 63 percent of them would welcome a primary challenge.

A national poll of Republicans asked if they want a primary challenge to Trump and found 44 percent in favor versus just 45 against. That’s enough of a base to start from, and you can be fairly confident that you aren’t going to have too many tomatoes thrown when you host your first town hall in Cedar Rapids. So yes, the campaign would be an extreme long-shot. But the worthy battles are always the hardest.

Are you concerned about the possibility of being derided as a spoiler who becomes responsible for the election of President Bernie Sanders? Don’t be.

For starters, the same herd thinkers who spent a year saying Trump had no chance to win in the first place will be the ones saying that a primary will only hurt him. The reality is nobody has any clue what the impact would be. I could just as easily make the argument that forcing Trump to actually compete for the nomination will channel his energies rather than torpedo him. (If he’s able to beat you, that is.)

On the other hand, if Trump is so weak that he can’t beat a Democratic Socialist come the general election, then he was never going to be strong enough to win in the first place. Remember: He has yet to cobble together a popular majority for anything, ever. The only people who’ll deserve blame—or get blamed—if the GOP goes down with him, are Trump and his enablers.

Which brings me to the final political calculation: There is good reason to believe that Trump has already reached his high-water mark in popularity.

A Marist/NPR poll this week showed 57 percent of registered voters saying they will definitely not vote for him . Trump is looking down the barrel of two years of investigations into his business practices and ethical issues at the White House. Who knows what the ultimate result of the Mueller investigation will be. Or how events might hurt him in the coming months. Economic experts are bracing for a downturn. And as Secretary Clinton learned in 2016, eventually voters just get sick and tired of hearing about the scandals and the bad news and decide they want to change the channel. In the face of all these headwinds, what is the good news that could rally voters to the president?


But let’s set aside the polls and the prognostications, because in the end the odds are against you and it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict exactly how our politics will look next year.

You have to know, deep down in your gut, that this campaign will be an honorable endeavor even if it ends in defeat. It will be a Bushido mission that will leave behind a vessel for the party and the country’s future shaped by your vision and your message.

That’s because presidential campaigns are the idea incubators for parties and movements. Pat Buchanan’s failed populist, nationalist primary campaign against President H.W. Bush was reborn in the influential Reform party campaigns of the ’90s and then finally blossomed with Trump. Steve Forbes’ presidential primary campaign created a Republican fiscal litmus test that has lasted two decades. John Edwards’ “Two Americas” will be echoed from Council Bluffs to Wolfeboro in this year’s Democratic nomination fight. The DLC sprang from the failed primary efforts against Walter Mondale, and yielded a president from its own ranks just two cycles later.

The Republican party does not have to be a reactionary personality cult forever.

There is no reason it can’t be remade as a principled, liberty-minded party that is committed to America as a welcoming, shining city. While Trump’s intra-party popularity is real, you need not look far when visiting Young Republican groups in cities or on college campuses for conservatives who are frustrated, alienated, and searching for a leader they can rally behind. Kids who aren’t willing to accept a binary choice between nationalist white grievance politics and Democratic Socialism. These young Americans need a champion. Why can’t it be you?

This primary will be an opportunity to chart a future course for conservatism; to become a hero to those who aren’t represented by President Trump’s crude transactionalism; to remind the country that our politics don’t have to be so base, and so selfish, and so unpatriotic, and so damn short of what we are capable.

The opportunity and possibilities are endless because the cause is right.

So I’m asking you to enter the arena. The time is now. The game is afoot. Follow your spirit, and upon this charge, who knows? Maybe when all is said and done you’ll be 46.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.