Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
What’s that we hear? Is it the sound of prominent conservatives and Trump allies openly rebuking former President Donald Trump? Are these the early murmurs of a conservative backlash against Trump? And is it possible a political lane is opening for another Republican presidential candidate in 2024?
It’s too soon to know, of course, and there’s plenty of evidence that those who stand up against the vindictive Trump will end up crushed by either his bullying ways or by his loyal followers, with little support from the rest of the GOP. And yet, it is noteworthy that in the past few days we have heard from two major figures in the conservative camp telling Trump that he should stop whining about the election he lost and let the Republican Party focus on real issues, instead of his self-serving fantasies.
The statements from Rupert Murdoch – who controls a media empire that includes, among other properties, the shamelessly pro-Trump Fox News – and from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – an adviser who worked with the former president and helped him prepare for the presidential debates during the 2020 election – may serve as a test for Republicans who understand just how harmful Trump’s dominance of the GOP is, and how it could ultimately sink the party.
It was startling when Murdoch, addressing his company at the annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, said that the United States faces a number of major political decisions that conservatives will fail to shape unless Trump moves on. “The current American political debate is profound,” he said, citing education, welfare and economic opportunity. “It is crucial that conservatives play an active, forceful role in that debate,” he added, “but that will not happen if President Trump stays focused on the past.”
Murdoch is not alone in arguing that Trump is a threat to conservatives. Christie, who has just published a new book that looks very much like his unofficial entry into the 2024 presidential race, is making the same case, only more forcefully.
Consider the title of Christie’s book – which effectively labels Trump a threat to the GOP: “Republican Rescue: Saving the Party from Truth Deniers, Conspiracy Theorists, and the Dangerous Policies of Joe Biden.” Notice that Trump fits two of the three reasons the party needs saving (by Christie, presumably).
Murdoch and Christie are not the first Republicans who have stood up to the former president – but their rebukes of Trump are markedly different. Trump’s early critics, like Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and others, melted into passionate defenders once their criticisms proved perilous to their own standing. Their reversals bring to mind a quote often attributed to Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”
Christie says many in the GOP are frightened of Trump, whose “conduct is meant to instill fear.” Conservative Republicans who refuse to fall in line, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, are being hounded out of a party that is increasingly remade into the former president’s raging, iconoclastic and intolerant brand.
Sure, it’s possible Murdoch and Christie’s words may also fail to change the course of the GOP, but their criticism is different. They both helped Trump throughout his presidency, and it’s significant that they are the ones now speaking out against him. Their plea that he stop complaining about the last election, however, will only fall on deaf ears, since Trump is simply incapable of admitting he lost. But Murdoch and Christie are sending an important message to other members of the party – and the rest of the country – that to continue supporting Trump is a dangerous folly.
Coincidentally or not, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, finally acknowledged Biden’s win on Thursday, more than a year after the 2020 vote. “Painfully,” she said, “Joe Biden won the election and it’s very painful to watch. He’s the President. We know that.”
Murdoch and Christie undoubtedly have their own personal motives for speaking out against Trump in this moment, and there’s plenty of evidence to warrant accusations of hypocrisy. Murdoch, whose Fox News – home of Tucker Carlson, a purveyor of harmful lies and propaganda about everything from the Covid vaccine to American democracy – is still serving Trump’s goals. But Fox News now faces billion-dollar defamation lawsuits brought by two voting technology companies that allege the network spread false claims of election fraud.
Murdoch might be driven by a fear of liability and the potential damage additional lawsuits could inflict on his bottom line if Fox News continues to follow Trump down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and baseless claims. There is, also the possibility that he cares about the future of conservative politics, and genuinely fears the GOP might get trampled if Trump doesn’t let up.
Christie, for his part, is trying to promote his book and his prospects of occupying the White House.
Still, it is remarkable that they have done the calculus and decided they can benefit from speaking out against the former president, even after other Republicans have been badly hurt by doing the same thing.
I think their calculation makes sense.
With President Joe Biden’s ratings sinking, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Democrats are doomed. But it is Republicans who may be doomed if they continue to stick with the former president.
There’s no doubt the Biden administration is terrible at messaging. The economy is booming and yet consumers are feeling pessimistic. Meanwhile, Biden is making important legislative progress, and the inflationary pressures that are creating the false impression that the economy is failing could be resolved in time to boost Democrats’ fortunes.
Even if Democrats are still in the doldrums in 2024, it’s hard to imagine that voters will be yearning for another four years of Trumpian chaos. Biden may look uninspiring now, but the former president, who had the most consistently poor approval ratings of any president in the modern era, remains highly unpopular and controversial.
Do Republicans want a candidate embroiled in endless – and serious – legal troubles? According to the New York Times, prosecutors are likely to impanel a grand jury in Georgia in the criminal investigation of the former president’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election (In September, he suggested he was being unfairly targeted, saying, “Even the Fulton County DA, district attorney, is after me.”) Meanwhile, prosecutors in New York have convened a second grand jury to hear evidence about Trump Organization’s business practices, according to the Washington Post. (The first grand jury, which convened this spring, charged two Trump companies and an executive with tax evasion. Trump, who was not charged, blasted the indictment and called the investigation a “political witch hunt.”)
A Pew poll conducted in September found that two-thirds of Republicans want Trump to remain a major force in the party, but only 44% want him to run again. One-third of Republicans and 92% of Democrats don’t want him to be a major national political figure going forward. That’s not the arithmetic of victory.
There’s the potential for a post-Trump Republican Party to gain ground. It still seems like a long shot at this point, but if his critics are successful in persuading the GOP to move in a different direction, there’s a chance American democracy can return some semblance of normality, where political leaders debate what policies are best for the country, without fear of upsetting the tender, explosive feelings of a very bad loser.