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It Could Go Sideways for Trump
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It Could Go Sideways for Trump

The optimist’s case for the 2024 primary.

Former President Donald Trump answers questions from reporters. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Sometimes a writer needs to get out of his comfort zone.

I am a pessimist, as longtime readers know and new readers have begun to learn. I could talk your ear off about why only the most tender suckers might believe anyone stands a chance of displacing Donald Trump in the cult ritual that now passes for a Republican presidential primary.

But relentless pessimism is boring. And besides, the pessimistic take on 2024 has already been written today better than I could have written it.

My colleague Kevin Williamson has an op-ed in the New York Times urging hopeful Trump haters to slow their roll about 2024. Trump remains the favorite for the nomination notwithstanding last week’s results, he writes, because of the quasi-religious bond he’s forged with the base. Part conquering savior, part martyred victim, he hath suffered for the sins of his followers—or so they believe. And the hour of redemption approacheth.

He will come again in glory in 2024 to judge the RINOs and the libs.

Trump’s messianic appeal aside, you can’t go wrong betting on the populist Republican electorate to prioritize gratuitous cruelty and authoritarianism in its nominees for high office. The biggest jerk in the field is likely to prevail simply because he’s the biggest jerk. And despite Ron DeSantis’ best efforts, no one out-jerks Donald.

The optimistic note in Kevin’s take is that the Trump cult’s reward for avoiding apocalypse in the 2024 primary will be to face apocalypse in the general election. A national electorate willing to turn out in a midterm to defeat Trump knockoffs like Kari Lake should be out in force for an opportunity to send the genuine article into political oblivion. “[P]erhaps it is time for these dinosaurs to meet their asteroid,” Kevin says. “The loss of the current Republican Party—deformed, depraved, backward and, in the end, fundamentally anti-American—would benefit the country.”

Agreed, although I prefer a biblical analogy. Build an ark, usher a few Brian Kemps and Mitt Romneys aboard, and let an electoral flood at the polls wash the sinful rest away.

The pessimistic view that Trump will win the nomination a third time is likely to bear out, I expect. But there’s an optimistic alternative scenario. And it seems that it falls to me, of all people, to sketch it as we wait for tonight’s will-he-or-won’t-he announcement at Mar-a-Lago.

Odds are fair that in six months Donald Trump will be considerably diminished as a political force, less because of events that will intervene to diminish him (although there’ll be some of those) than because his own disordered personality will lead him to diminish himself.

Imagine what the vibe would have been like for Trump declaring his candidacy this evening if the red tsunami had washed ashore last week as expected. Republicans down ballot would have overperformed in two consecutive elections. The anomaly of Trump himself losing in 2020 would have remained suspiciously anomalous to “rigged election” truthers. At the core of his “conquering savior” image lies the belief that the party under his leadership is stronger electorally, or at least no weaker, than its pre-Trump incarnation. A red wave would have affirmed that. You want to win in 2024? Then stick with a winner.

An early announcement also would have had strategic advantages. Ron DeSantis is stuck pretending that all he really wants to be is governor of Florida for at least another six months, certainly while there’s still legislative business to attend to. With the upstart sidelined temporarily, Trump will have the national stage to himself to work his magic on the Republican base. In the wake of a red tsunami, he would have used that time to congratulate himself on having made the glorious victory possible through his shrewd choice of nominees and savvy campaigning. “And we’re gonna win even bigger in 2024,” he’d tell Republicans. “So big that they won’t be able to steal it next time.”

But the red tsunami never made landfall. And because it didn’t, the complexion of tonight’s announcement is entirely different.

He won’t be bounding out ahead of a Republican victory parade to take credit if he declares his candidacy now. Instead, absurdly, he’s going to broadcast his own narcissistic interest in regaining power just one week after his handpicked candidates cost the party winnable races all over the country. The announcement will have the feel of a drunk driver clambering atop the coffin at the wake of the man he ran over, popping open a beer, and toasting to himself as the mourners look on.

He’s also destined to devote some of his remarks, which many millions will ultimately watch, to conspiracy theories about his own election and Kari Lake’s defeat in Arizona. And he’ll do it despite the fact that election denial was poison at the polls this year, with all nine statewide candidates who campaigned on it having lost. It’s bad enough for the party that Trump intends to upstage the incoming Republican House majority by reasserting himself as a candidate for office before it takes power. But having him relitigate his most toxic beliefs as he launches his new campaign means smearing a fresh layer of kook stink all over the GOP.

The 80 percent of the electorate that doesn’t count itself as hardcore MAGA will take it all in and groan. And then Republican leaders will turn their eyes to Georgia and hold their collective breath.

The obvious thing for Trump to do in a state where he lost to Biden, then fumbled away two Senate seats, then got decimated by Brian Kemp in a proxy primary challenge would be to stay away from the runoff between Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock. “I think that Youngkin or DeSantis is a better fit for soft Republicans or independents in the suburbs that we need to turn out,” Ralph Reed recently told CNN, astutely. But Trump won’t be able to refrain, particularly if he sees DeSantis and Youngkin stumping for Walker. The thought that his rivals for the 2024 nomination are assets to be deployed while he’s a liability to be contained will pierce his tissue-thin narcissism. If DeSantis goes to Georgia, Trump will want to go to Georgia.

And if he does go and Walker ends up losing, as many expect, suspicions that he’s a drag on the party in swing states will deepen. His phony mystique as the consummate winner will take another hit.

Electoral politics will go quiet after that for a long stretch, with DeSantis unlikely to announce before spring. Trump will be left alone in the 2024 spotlight for months, deprived of his ability to take credit for the red midterm tsunami that never happened. He’ll need to find other topics to fill the time.

And the topics he settles on are unlikely to do him any favors.

There will be endless “rigged election” talk on the stump between now and spring, needless to say, because his Queeg-like obsession with the subject always drags him back to it. This time, however, it won’t all have to do with 2020; he’s said already that he wants a do-over of this year’s election in Arizona because of problems with some voting machines on Election Day. Presumably Trump believes that a more comprehensive narrative about fraud that incorporates Kari Lake’s defeat will thrill his fans and deepen their conviction that he was cheated two years ago.

And maybe it will, but at the cost of scaring away whatever swing voters were still open to supporting him. In 2016 Trump’s message was “build the wall and drain the swamp.” In 2020 it was “best economy ever.” In 2024 it’ll be, for all intents and purposes, “Every tight election a MAGA candidate loses is rigged.” The reader will judge for themselves whether that’s more or less likely to attract undecideds than the earlier messages were.

Some Republican voters who were credulous about Stop the Steal 1.0 will start to get boy-who-cried-wolf vibes from the second iteration. The pool of GOPers who continue to believe in serial ballot-rigging might end up shrinking, with a few skeptics discouraged from their suspicions by the fact that nearly every election truther who lost statewide this year has conceded his or her own defeat. Even those who remain skeptical about the 2020 election may nonetheless end up concluding that two years of agitation about voting being pointless has begun to do the GOP more harm than good.

Voters who come away convinced that Trump is just a sore loser who can’t handle defeat are voters who’ll be primed to take a good look at DeSantis.

And DeSantis will be on their minds constantly because he’ll be on Trump’s mind constantly.

The governor was finally asked this morning what he thought of Trump’s recent attack on him. His answer was devastating, not because of how much it said but how little. Instead of engaging Trump, he all but laughed him off.

He’ll follow Brian Kemp’s strategy of refusing to take Trump’s bait until he enters the presidential race officially next year, I assume, and may even continue to follow it afterward.

And if he does, it’s going to drive Trump insane.

Trump’s attack on DeSantis last week was an embarrassing mistake not so much because he ungraciously sniped at the party’s biggest success on Election Day and thus proved—again—how little he cares about the GOP’s fortunes, but because it reeked of weakness. Clearly Trump is terrified at the prospect of having “his people” choose DeSantis over him in a popularity contest and, being the bundle of egomaniacal neuroses that he is, couldn’t resist attacking his rival preemptively. He might as well have titled his statement “I Fear Ron DeSantis.”

And fear is a conspicuously bad look for an authoritarian who’s consumed with projecting strength, or what passes for it in his mind. 

DeSantis will kick back for the next six months and greet every Trump attack with amused silence, I suspect, believing correctly that those attacks do Trump more harm than good. The one-sidedness of the war will contrast how panicked Trump is about the primary with how self-assured DeSantis is. And it will alienate Republican voters who’ll resent seeing Trump take pot shots at a man who isn’t in the race (yet) and hasn’t uttered an unkind word about him (yet). Inevitably ugly rumors about DeSantis will begin to leak into the media and everyone will know where they came from. DeSantis’ admirers will resent that, too.

Imagine this going on week after week, month after month, while a smiling DeSantis goes about enacting more base-pleasing conservative policies in Florida, like an abortion “heartbeat” bill. “The best thing for DeSantis is Trump gets in, DeSantis stays out for a while, and Trump runs a race against himself for the next six months,” one Trump confidante mused, shrewdly, to Axios. Trump has always framed his politics of cruelty and dominance as a matter of counterpunching against enemies who picked a fight with him first, but DeSantis hasn’t picked any fights with him. Nor has he betrayed the populist right by pursuing a squishy centrist agenda. Trump, unambiguously, is the one starting the fight here. To many righties, the counterpuncher will at last look like what he’s always been, a bully.

And if he prevails in the primary anyway, some will remember it and decide they have better things to do on Election Day 2024 than turn out for a bully.

Then there are the polls.

In the last few days, numerous surveys have shown DeSantis gaining on, or outright passing, Trump in the race for the 2024 nomination. A Club for Growth poll found the governor increasing his lead over the former guy in Georgia and Florida and taking the lead from him in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Texas Republican Party published data showing a 17-point Trump lead in the state in October becoming an 11-point DeSantis lead this month. A national poll conducted by YouGov showed the same trend, with DeSantis erasing a 10-point deficit last month to take a 7-point lead over Trump now. Meanwhile, Pew found that the share of Republicans with a “warm” view of Trump has dropped from 79 percent in April 2020 to 67 percent in July 2021 to 60 percent in October of this year.

Even the most encouraging recent survey data for Trump contains ominous notes. Morning Consult has him still leading DeSantis, 47-33, but that marks a 7-point improvement for the younger man since the previous poll. No other candidate tested was above 5 percent, which points to a de facto two-man race between them instead of the splintered field that Trump wants. And 65 percent of all voters say he shouldn’t run again in 2024, which will further deepen suspicions about his electability.

Maybe the trends will reverse once Trump has declared his candidacy and has the primary spotlight temporarily all to himself. But there are reasons to think they won’t.

I won’t rehash the uncertain politics of a Trump indictment. I already wrote that piece, so go read if you haven’t yet. It suffices here to say that Republican voters newly concerned that Trump is a drag on the party will have mixed feelings about seeing him charged by the DOJ or prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia. Right, granted, some will fall back on ye olde “the deep state is out to get him” propaganda. But others, dismayed by last Tuesday’s results, may find themselves mulling the mystery of whether the party might be hurt by having an accused felon as its nominee.

And if Trump responds to an indictment by inciting his fans to riot and someone ends up dying, that’ll be another few points in favor of Team We Can’t Possibly Do Another Four Years Of This. 

I also won’t rehash here how Trump’s influence is likely to confound Kevin McCarthy and the new House leadership, having already written that piece as well. But it won’t make Trump more appealing to gettable voters in 2024 to have him bleating for Republicans to shut down the government or to crash the debt ceiling or to block funding for Ukraine simply because he’s frantic to foist a crisis on Joe Biden and willing to do whatever damage to the country is necessary to make it happen. Just like it won’t make him more appealing if Kevin McCarthy is deposed as speaker within a year by Trump’s House flunkies and replaced by some unlikable MAGA chud like Jim Jordan.

It’s enough to say that Trump reminding the electorate sporadically that he’s an agent of relentless chaos and a chronic saboteur of his own party might send more wavering Republicans into the DeSantis column.

And the more Republican voters shift from the old guy to the new guy, the more political room conservative media and GOP officials will have to shift with them. There’s already been movement in that direction among outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, with Brit Hume the latest Fox News-er to plunge a dagger into Trump. Republicans on Capitol Hill have likewise been surprisingly stubborn this week in signaling that they’re considering their options in 2024, none more so than Sen. Cynthia Lummis.

Even Lindsey Graham won’t commit to endorsing Trump just yet. “I’ll tell you after Georgia,” he assured reporters Monday.

Asking the party’s political and media establishment to show a little backbone toward Trump is almost certainly asking too much, but DeSantis’ gigantic landslide in Florida has made it momentarily thinkable. If he continues to gain in national primary polling we could end up in a virtuous circle in which Republican influencers feel emboldened to support him openly, which in turn influences voters and pushes DeSantis higher in the polls, which further emboldens those influencers, and so on. Sooner or later, probably sooner, Trump will insist publicly that every elected Republican state for the record whether they endorse him to be the nominee or not. As his grip on the party begins to grow weaker, he might not like how they answer.

There’s a ton of submerged contempt toward him that’s built up in official Republican circles over the past seven years. The moment it becomes “safe” to vent that contempt, it’s going to blow like a pressure cooker pushed past the point of failure.

All told, I’d go as far as to say there’s a small but nonzero chance that DeSantis is not only leading Trump in most primary polls come spring, but that he’s leading comfortably.

And that’s when we’ll reach the moment of truth, one to which all paths for the past seven years have led. Trump will decide that a party that no longer wants him as its king deserves to be destroyed. He’ll contrive a reason to leave the GOP to spare himself the humiliation of a primary defeat and decide to run as an independent in 2024 instead.

“But you’ll divide the right and help elect a Democrat if you do that!” some of his dimmer fans will say, not realizing that’s the goal. Trump would certainly rather see America governed by the other party than governed by his party if it’s no longer beholden to him. His nightmare scenario isn’t Joe Biden winning a second term. It’s the Republican Party winning without him.

In my rosy timeline, the Trump story ends with him embarking on a third-party run in the belief that he’ll take a quarter of the GOP base with him, only to watch in horror as his fans gradually peel off and drift back into the Republican column in the name of defeating the libs. His willingness to persist in his candidacy despite its futility would reveal his selfishness and disloyalty to populist Republicans like nothing else has done before. Potentially he’ll end up with 5 percent of the vote as wayward MAGA Republicans come home to the party and help elect DeSantis president. Trump’s career dies the way it lived, consumed by nothing grander than spite and vendettas and repulsive to anyone with an iota of civic virtue.

Is that too optimistic?

It might be a tad too optimistic. In those rare moments when I feel a glimmer of hope, I like to roll around in it. Certainly, if you had to wager on the outcome of the 2024 primary, the smart bet would be Kevin Williamson’s scenario of a pigheaded populist Republican base choosing to renominate a guy who, among many other things, tried to sic the IRS on his political enemies the first time he led the executive branch.
But the chances of my scenario coming through aren’t quite zero, if perhaps very close to zero. Republican voters unacquainted with DeSantis are destined to be intrigued by a politician capable of winning by nearly 20 points in Florida who’s also prone to abusing state power to punish his opponents. They can have their authoritarian cake and eat it too! I’d put the probability at 5 percent or so. How lucky do you feel?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.