Opinion: Can Republicans be persuaded to vote for someone other than Trump?

File photo/Travis Dove/The New York Times / Sen. Tim Scott, R-s.C., speaks at a town hall event in Charleston, S.C., on April 30, 2023.
File photo/Travis Dove/The New York Times / Sen. Tim Scott, R-s.C., speaks at a town hall event in Charleston, S.C., on April 30, 2023.

The first thing you should know is that South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is one of the nicest guys in Washington. Capitol Hill Republicans and just about anybody who knows him likes him. Sincerely patriotic and devoutly Christian, Scott is most comfortable preaching, but he manages to avoid being preachy.

He does this mostly by leaning heavily on his own autobiography as a way to celebrate traditional values and show his gratitude for a country that made it possible for the grandson of a Jim Crow-era cotton farmer to become a United States senator -- and possibly president.

Scott will do his best to convince Republican primary voters that he deserves their vote. The better question is whether many of those voters deserve him.

In 2016, the GOP primaries had a belling-the-cat problem. In this parable, it's in the interest of all the mice for someone to put a bell around the cat's neck, but it's not in the individual interest of any mouse to be the one to do it. Republican contenders spent time and money destroying each other in the hope that someone else would take care of Trump and they'd reap the benefits.

People are worrying about a replay of 2016. But it's a different cat now.

Trump is not an insurgent, he's the front runner. Convincing voters that a Trump presidency would be a disaster was possible in 2016. Convincing them he'd lose to Hillary Clinton was plausible (Trump ended up picking the lock on the Electoral College, even though he received a smaller share of the vote in 2016 than Romney had in 2012).

But such hypotheticals don't work anymore. Trump won in 2016, and he's even convinced a lot of people that he won in 2020. His biggest fans didn't think his presidency was a disaster; they actually think he made America great for a brief, shining moment. And even Trump's less committed fans don't like it when Republicans criticize him.

This is the dilemma his opponents face. When Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, announced she was running for president, she said, "I don't put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you're wearing heels." But when asked about a civil jury verdict holding Trump guilty of sexual abuse, her response was, "I'm not going to get into that."

The point isn't that Haley and all the others, save for Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor, who relishes a fight, are cowards for not going after Trump. They'd all throw the kitchen sink at Trump if they thought it'd work. But after years of institutionalized cowardice with regard to Trump, the Republican Party now has a sizable number of voters who like the worst stuff about Trump. They want the entertainment; the policy stuff is incidental. They enjoy watching Trump take the low road.

I'm not saying all of Trump's most loyal voters are bad people. But what a lot of them want from politics is bad. Tim Scott is too good for these voters because he's a good guy.

Ron DeSantis, Florida's governor, is too good in another way. He's betting that enough Republican voters want Trumpian policies, without the drama and the "culture of losing" that has cost the GOP dearly in every election since 2018. DeSantis isn't heartwarming and emotionally reassuring the way Scott is. He's tough and ideologically reassuring. From a conservative and partisan perspective, he's been wildly successful as governor. But for voters who thought Trump's drama was a feature, not a bug, DeSantis' stolidness is a poor substitute for Trump's self-indulgent chaos.

What Scott, DeSantis, Haley and the rest need are primary voters who think the party should stand for something more than a cult of personality, and that the presidency is more than a tool for self-aggrandizement and retribution.

Unless they know where to find a bunch of new such voters, they're going to have to start re-educating the ones they have. And it's getting late.

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