If you’re an ambitious Republican, it’s time to start thinking about challenging Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020. If you don’t get going now, you’re doomed to be too late. Unless you’re a celebrity with hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal, you’ll need to lay the groundwork for your campaign very, very early. Raising the necessary funds will mean assembling the right team, and that will take a lot of wheedling. I say start wheedling now. If you fear embarrassment, by all means be discreet about your intentions. While one can imagine there being a 2020 primary challenger who’s been vociferously opposed to Trump from the get-go, there could also be a candidate who runs against Trump more in sorrow than in anger—say a former Trump loyalist who wants to do right by the president’s base or an earnest conservative who gave Trump the benefit of the doubt for as long as she could before reaching the breaking point.
Why is now the right time? It wasn’t so long ago that Donald Trump would routinely crow about how well he was doing in the polls. As recently as February, the president declared that “any negative polls are fake news.” But the crowing has mostly stopped, presumably because even Trump realizes that he is profoundly unpopular. As Jonathan Swan of Axios reports, “Sources both inside and close to the White House are worrying about a loss of energy among the president’s base.” The most recent Gallup survey finds Trump’s approval rating at 36 percent, and there are signs that even the president’s most devoted supporters are losing faith. Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents are growing more energized by the day, and Democrats are salivating at the prospect of making major gains in next year’s midterms. If Democrats do manage to win the House (a big if, admittedly), there could be a mad scramble to challenge Trump. If you’re a Republican who has always wanted to run for president, you’d be foolish not to give yourself a head start.
Granted, it’s possible Trump will make a major comeback over the coming months. I’ve certainly underestimated him in the past. But how will Trump grow his base, exactly? As of now, the plan for getting the Trump presidency on track seems to be passing something that can be characterized as an Obamacare repeal and a massive temporary tax cut, both of which can be done through the budget reconciliation process. The trouble is that the GOP’s Obamacare overhaul is even more unpopular than Trump himself (indeed, it seems to be dragging down his approval ratings), and a massive temporary tax cut aimed at high-income households and corporations would powerfully reinforce the notion that Donald Trump is a fake populist. That is, even if we assume Trump achieves his chief domestic policy objectives, there’s a good chance he’d lose more support than he’d gain.
The underlying reason for Trump’s swoon is that he’s rendered the Republican Party dependent on a group of voters who hate Republicans. Shortly after the election, Stanley Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz of the Democratic polling firm Democracy Corps released a survey of the GOP’s potential coalition, which analyzed three groups: GOP base voters who refused to back Trump (14 percent of the overall coalition), GOP base voters who did vote for him (72 percent), and non-GOP voters who voted for Trump (14 percent). The GOP defectors were mostly college-educated suburbanites who were turned off by Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, his opposition to free trade, and a general sense that he was in politics to line his own pockets. The non-GOP Trump voters, meanwhile, were by and large less affluent, less educated, and deeply suspicious of conventional Republicans and their priorities. To them, Trump’s departures from GOP orthodoxy on taxes and trade were a plus. Nevertheless, non-GOP Trump voters were suspicious of Trump’s motivations, and they were prepared to abandon him if he, say, reversed his pledge to protect entitlements and passed tax cuts that disproportionately benefit corporations and the rich. Assuming Greenberg and Zdunkewicz were right, Trump’s domestic policy agenda is almost perfectly designed to alienate non-GOP Trump voters. Yet his erratic behavior ensures he’s not about to win back the better-off GOP defectors either.
There’s obviously no way to know what the world will look like in 2020. But we do know that Trump’s base is already shrinking and that every setback he’s faced so far is of his own design. We also know that he’s proved unable to counter Democratic opponents when they’re not named Hillary Clinton and that his domestic policy priorities are deeply unpopular. Is it really so unthinkable, then, that a well-funded primary challenger could at least make some noise, or maybe even win?
Honestly, I’m not sure it’d matter if this hypothetical challenger were to run against Trump as a centrist, a nationalist, or a Reaganite true believer. Ideology matters less to voters than we ideologues like to think. What does seem to matter is that when people aren’t happy with the state of the world, they want to punish the people in charge and replace them with fresh faces. That’s where populism plays a role. In a 2016 essay in the Brown Journal of World Affairs, Harvard sociologist Bart Bonikowski offered a simple definition of populism: It is a style of politics that juxtaposes a corrupt elite against a morally virtuous citizenry. Populist rhetoric can be married to almost any political program. Bernie Sanders combined it with a call for democratic socialism, as did Jeremy Corbyn in Britain’s recent general election. For years, Republicans from Goldwater to Gingrich combined populist rhetoric with calls for shrinking the power of centralized government. In France, Emmanuel Macron combined populist rhetoric with a program of technocrat-endorsed centrist neoliberalism. In short, populism is less an ideology than the vessel for an ideology.
As Bonikowski explains, less experienced candidates use populist rhetoric far more often than more experienced ones do, for the simple reason that calling yourself an outsider isn’t all that plausible once you’re actually holding office. So while Trump was able to win as a populist once, it’s going to be awfully difficult for him to do it a second time. Beating him as a populist, on the other hand, might be well within reach. That’s clearly what Democrats will try to do in 2020. A Republican would be wise to give it a try, too.
The question then is which Republican should give it a try. A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about Ohio Gov. John Kasich running against Trump in 2020, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in it, not least because Kasich is probably too old and too familiar to make an insurgent candidacy work. One intriguing possibility is Ben Sasse, the 45-year-old Nebraska senator and former college president who recently published The Vanishing American Adult, a breezy paean to old-fashioned American values. With his self-effacing style and his Gen X appreciation of irony, Sasse would make for a stark contrast with Trump. Though he’s solidly conservative, he tends to emphasize centrist, post-partisan, good-government themes. He’s the kind of Republican serious left wingers loathe but suburban moderates love. My guess is that Sasse is not nearly ambitious enough to take something like this on. But Sasse would do well to think back to 1976, when a former California governor decided to challenge a sitting Republican president. Though Ronald Reagan’s campaign to wrest the GOP nomination from Gerald Ford didn’t succeed, it’s rightly remembered as the start of something big.