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What’s a Billionaire to Do?
Pity the poor Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch. After years of planning, conniving, devoting countless resources, and sneering at democratic norms, and then being successful in electing a sneering, conniving president who took a cleaver to those norms, their efforts seemed to have now blown up in their faces.
For the Koch brothers, it has dawned on them that after three consecutive disasters in biennial national elections, Donald Trump is now an extreme liability. Having spent tens of millions of dollars to get him elected, they now plan to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to deny him the 2024 nomination. In Murdoch’s case, after throwing Fox’s considerable muscle into making Trump the darling of the angry and the bizarre—and losing hundreds of millions in the Dominion lawsuit—he is now forced to stand by as Trump seems prepared to take his ratings magnet to another venue, perhaps Tucker Carlson’s new hate-and-conspiracy feed. Add to that the Federalist Society, which, after succeeding in its primary goal of stacking the Supreme Court with justices who would have felt right at home in the Inquisition, has grown fearful of a man who might find some way to destroy it all if it serves his ego to do so.
But as with Adolph Hitler in 1933, who got himself appointed Germany’s chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg and former chancellor Franz von Papen, two men who loathed him, those who thought Trump would be merely a passing phase have been rudely shaken awake.
Smart-money Republicans have more options than the officials in Weimar Germany—although the January 6 insurrection and Hitler’s burning the Reichstag in February 1933 is an uncomfortable parallel—they face the problem what to put in his place.
It seems clear from the August 23 debate that none of the current crop of wannabes can overcome Trump’s massive lead once the primaries begin early in 2024. Runner-up Ron DeSantis is too unlikable, too fake, and too canned for anyone who is not a family member, and maybe for some of them as well; third place entrant Vivek Ramaswamy, the sort of candidate who only thrives when there is absolutely, positively no one else, comes across like the smug, superior, obnoxious frat boy on whom just about everyone in college wishes ill; Mike Pence, trying to be the candidate of faith, projects only that he is the candidate of sanctimony; Nikki Haley is pushing policies that won’t fly with the base; and the other South Carolina entrant, Tim Scott, could not light a fire under Republican voters if someone gave him a blowtorch, nor could Asa Hutchinson. The two candidates most likely to be able to attract independents, Chris Christie and Doug Burgum, could not attract anyone else.
That leaves backing someone not yet in the race, and Republicans actually have some among their number who would make powerful, conservative candidates, and who, running an intelligent campaign, might both be able to turn out the hard core and attract enough independents to defeat a Democrat, especially if it’s Joe Biden.
To attract a Glenn Youngkin or a Tom Cotton, however, it will likely be necessary to first get Trump off the ballot. Each seems far too savvy to offer himself up as a foil to the Trump insult machine. But getting Trump off the ballot without infuriating his supporters and provoking a fatal backlash seemed like an impossible exercise.
Until last week.
That was when two arch-conservative, Federalist Society constitutional law professors presented their theory that Trump was ineligible, based on the anti-insurrectionist passage in Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which probably less than one American in a hundred who is not a Constitutional law professor or a judge had previously even heard of. Since then, Laurence Tribe and J. Michael Luttig, a Constitutional law professor and a judge, have picked up the cudgels.
Not to again go into the legal argument—I wrote about the article in detail in my post “Panic on the Right”—making their plan work would require a state to deny Trump a place on the ballot, citing Section 3. (In most states, the official in charge of overseeing elections is the secretary of state.) Trump or the state Republican party would then appeal and send the question to the Supreme Court. From there, the idea goes, the Court’s conservative wing, theoretically amenable to the idea of saving the party from imminent defeat, would rule in the state’s favor, which would then require Trump be removed from the ballot everywhere else.
Of course, even if the Court has joined the dump Trump movement, it would be forced to disqualify him on the basis of association and circumstance only, since he has yet to be convicted of any of the offenses that are the basis of the thesis.
If this scenario were not unlikely enough, it also leaves the question of where to find a secretary of state willing to initiate the action.
Not an easy task.
It would have to be done in such a way that Republicans could later disavow it and say “It wasn’t our fault. Those traitorous Democrats and turncoats on the Supreme Court did it.” But no Democrat in his or her right mind would jump in to save the Republican Party. In addition to taking a huge problem off their hands, it would stoke fury and resentment on the right and likely add to Republican turnout in an election where turnout will be everything. The whole rationale for those who proposed this scheme is that while Trump might be the strongest candidate in the primaries, he is likely the weakest in a general election.
That leaves Republicans to find one of their own to fall on the sword. Swing states are out. Of the six states most in play in 2024, five—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin—currently have Democratic secretaries of state. In the sixth, Georgia, it is hard to imagine Brad Raffensperger taking such precipitous action without being accused of engaging in a personal vendetta against his former telephone buddy. In addition, it would virtually assure that Trump voters would rebel and hand the state to Democrats.
Then there is Florida. Ron DeSantis would be thrilled to see Trump eliminated—although he is such a poor candidate that it might not help him much—but if Florida were to attempt to bar Trump from the ballot, his supporters across the nation would rebel, dooming both DeSantis and the party.
Utah is a slim possibility only because Governor Spencer Cox has insisted Trump be replaced at the top of the ticket and Mitt Romney is a harsh critic, but Trump’s strength in the state makes Utah unlikely as well.
All in all, prying Donald Trump away from Republican voters will be no easy task and throwing money at the problem in no way guarantees success.
So there the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch sit, all billioned up and nowhere to go.