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Trump Is About to Wreck His Legacy
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Trump Is About to Wreck His Legacy

Something to be thankful for on Thanksgiving.

Former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.)

Are your hands still singed after handling yesterday’s hot take?

Sorry for that. In my defense, though, speculating that Trump might be hurt rather than helped by a crowded 2024 primary field is only marginally hotter than my friends at National Review pleading with Republican hopefuls to clear the field for a Trump-DeSantis showdown.

That’s the right strategy if you’re a conservative whose goal is to maximize the GOP’s chances of nominating a superior candidate, but it’s eye-roll material if you’re an ambitious Republican politician who looks in the mirror and sees a president staring back. That ambition won’t yield to matters as trivial as basic electoral reality and civic duty. Inevitably, you’ll talk yourself into believing that chasing your dream is a necessary and even altruistic step toward Trump’s political demise.

Why, you might turn out to be the Trump-slayer prophesied to end the reign of darkness. Or you could prevail as a consensus compromise choice after primary voters crumble into bitter Trumpist and non-Trumpist factions. Either way, depriving GOP voters of your candidacy might mean the difference between Republican victory in 2024 and defeat.

It would be downright unpatriotic for you not to run.

That’s a great irony of the next cycle, incidentally. As selfish as Trump is in routinely placing his own interests above the GOP’s, the Chris Christies and Nikki Haleys who’ll end up piling into the 2024 field and splintering the anti-Trump vote will be guilty of having done the same.

Which Republican rivals are willing to take Trump on will be a major subplot of the 2024 election, needless to say.

But here’s another, one you might have trouble believing. Odds are surprisingly high that the next cycle will end with the GOP’s cult leader not just badly diminished in the eyes of Republicans but actively disliked by many. His legacy as the most popular right-wing leader since Ronald Reagan may lie in ruins.

It should already lie in ruins after he tried to orchestrate a coup against the duly elected president two years ago, and for roughly 52 percent of the electorate it does. But it’ll take more than merely attempting to end American democracy to shake the faith of that other 48 percent. To lose them, Trump will need to do something really bad—like harming the Republican Party’s chances of winning power.

And that’s almost certainly what he’s going to do. By the end of the 2024 cycle, the Great MAGA King could be an object of scorn for all but the most dead-end, glassy-eyed Republican populists.

If you’re skeptical, put on your oven mitts and keep reading. Because this take is hotter than a green bean casserole that’s about to bubble over.

There’s only one way Trump leaves politics with his legacy among right-wing Americans more or less secure. That’s if he graciously promises to support a new nominee for the good of the party.

The path of least resistance would be for him to think better of running again and end his campaign. The path of greater turbulence would be for him to run, lose, and unify the GOP in the aftermath by congratulating the victor.

The probability of any of that happening is 0 percent, of course.

Realistically, the GOP’s best hope for a “gracious” Trump exit from the scene is if the early primary polling shows him floundering against Ron DeSantis and he contrives an excuse to withdraw and spare himself the humiliation of losing. Health problems, legal troubles—there are all sorts of face-saving lies he can tell that rubes will buy to explain why he can’t seek the nomination again after all.

Even in that best-case scenario, though, it’s impossible to imagine him campaigning enthusiastically for DeSantis, assuming DeSantis ends up winning the primaries. He would resent the younger man for having sent him into premature retirement, particularly since that younger man wouldn’t be a national figure now if not for Trump’s support in Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial primary. The most the GOP could expect from Trump during the general election would be stony silence about his successor.

But no one expects that from Trump, do they?

Trump’s ego won’t permit him to be a graciously silent loser or a has-been elder statesman. No matter how hard party leaders work to try to soothe him, any circumstance that leads to DeSantis as nominee will inevitably prick Trump’s tender narcissism and set him off. He won’t sit idly by while “his people” chant DeSantis’ name on television. If you think he’s irrationally possessive about classified government documents, wait until you see how he feels about ownership of MAGA.

He needs to be the star of the show, always. He won’t cede that role for a bit part in Top Gun III: Ready for Ron.

If “graciously passing the torch” is a nonstarter, the 2024 cycle can end in only four ways. And none of them are good for Trump’s legacy.

1. He wins the nomination but loses the general election.

This is the likeliest outcome, one with which he has some experience.

But as a wise man recently noted, the old playbook for spinning away a general election defeat won’t work nearly as well next time.

That’s because the coming primary is destined to be competitive, if maybe not as competitive in the end as anti-Trumpers might like. It’s possible that Trump wins comfortably even with DeSantis in the field. But it won’t be a 90/10 thing. It’ll be closer to 60/40.

Or 51/49.

Whatever the final margin is, the best analogy for what’s about to occur within the GOP is an incumbent president being primaried when he’s up for reelection. Gerald Ford endured that in 1976; Jimmy Carter endured it in 1980; George H.W. Bush endured it in 1992. All three lost the general election, somewhat predictably given how the primaries that year ended up dividing their own parties against them.

Trump, an unprecedented presidential loser who nonetheless continues to lead his party, is about to endure something similar. Except that instead of one challenger, he may face a dozen. It will amount to a searing vote of no confidence in his leadership by the party’s governing class and it will certainly weaken him before November 2024.

And if he does go on to lose the general election, Republican voters who preferred a different nominee in the primary will have little patience for “Stop the Steal” 2.0 as an excuse. In 2020 there was no doubt that he’d be the nominee, so the entirety of the base was invested in his success, which made supporters susceptible to believing him when he insisted that he—and they—had been cheated.

It won’t be that way next time. The 40 or 49 percent who want a different Republican nominee will be less interested in wild tales about how Chinese hackers rigged the vote again than in recriminations toward MAGA for having foolishly nominated Trump again. “The 2022 midterms warned us that swing voters didn’t want Trump anymore,” they’ll insist. “Why didn’t we choose DeSantis this time?”

For roughly half the party, in other words, Trump will have built an unmistakable legacy of underperformance and failure. With him in charge the GOP will have lost the House in 2018, the presidency and the Senate in 2020, a raft of winnable Senate seats in 2022, and the presidency again in 2024. His most devout cultists will forgive him anything, but the large minority that wanted to go in a different direction will be furious.

Some will come to the reluctant conclusion that the Trump era was a mistake. Others, more ambivalent, will disagree but admit with hindsight that there were one too many sequels to the original 2016 blockbuster. The mystique of Trump as some consummate winner will have been shattered among a considerable part of his own base.

The cultists will continue to worship him. For everyone else on the right, “Trump” will forever be associated with losing.

2. He loses the nomination and successfully sabotages the GOP out of spite.

Here’s another high-probability scenario, so much so that some of his own Cabinet members anticipate it. Trump will not go gentle into that good night if he loses a primary. He’ll rage, rage against the dying of the light very strongly.

So strongly that many people will say they’ve never seen someone rage against the dying light with such strength, believe me.

Semafor has a piece out speculating about how Trump might try to pee in the new nominee’s punch bowl if he ends up on the short end of the 2024 primary. I agree with those who doubt he’ll run as an independent, not because he’s not vindictive enough to run against the GOP—he’s plenty vindictive enough—but because the logistical hurdles would prove too much for him. Sore loser laws would probably bar him from being on general election ballots in states where he’d already run as a primary candidate. If they didn’t, the organizational burden of conducting a 50-state petition drive to try to get on the ballot might vex his team.

Even if he cleared those obstacles, his reward would be to earn a humiliating 10 percent or so of the vote in his final run for national office. That’s good enough to play spoiler but it doesn’t scream “winner.”

Trump doesn’t need to be a third-party candidate in November 2024 to hurt the GOP, though. All he needs to do is convince a chunk of his most cultish fans to boycott the general election in order to punish the party for not nominating him. From Semafor:

Reed Galen, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a group first founded to oppose Trump’s reelection run, was similarly doubtful Trump would be willing to address the “money and organization” needed to make an independent run. He said his group had actively considered the scenario, however.

“Could I see him doing it? Sure … but the bottom line is, if he is not the nominee, he will do whatever it is he thinks he needs to, to make sure that the eventual Republican nominee loses,” Galen said.

“I don’t know if he’s gonna be the nominee, but if he’s not the nominee, I don’t see him saying, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t win, but I’m gonna just get behind all these great candidates.’ He’s likely to be disruptive,” Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, told Semafor.

Like any mad dictator worth his salt, Trump will conclude that disloyalty is a capital offense. The next best thing to the GOP winning with him in charge will be destroying the GOP for spurning him.

Trump helping the Democrats to national victory in 2024 to avenge a primary loss would be poetic justice for the Anti-Anti-Trump Republicans who made a devil’s bargain with him in 2016 and 2020. They reconciled themselves to a miscreant and would-be caudillo because he was their best chance, whether by desire or circumstance, to keep the left out of power. The “just deserts” ending to the Trump story arc would be him repaying that nihilistic hyperpartisanship by engineering a left-wing triumph to punish the Anti-Antis for finally ending their devil’s bargain.

There’s a song about that, if I’m not mistaken.

Should Ron DeSantis lose to Joe Biden because Trump convinces MAGA voters that DeSantis cheated his way to the Republican nomination, Trump will become a figure of infamy in GOP circles—the equivalent of Ralph Nader in 2000 minus the principled ideological reasons for running. It would lay bare like nothing else the truth that he was never as committed to owning the libs as the average Republican voter was, only to using those voters and the party for his own self-aggrandizement.

3. He loses the nomination, tries to sabotage the GOP out of spite, and fails.

This scenario is underrated. But I understand why people are skeptical.

Presidential elections run so closely in our era that Trump would need to persuade only a few percentage points’ worth of Republicans to stay home in protest to tank the GOP’s chances in 2024. If 10 percent of the party, say, consists of diehard Trump loyalists who’ll do anything he asks of them politically, that’s worth 3 or 4 percent to the Republican nominee on Election Day. That’s the difference potentially between victory and defeat.

I’m not sure there are 10 percent of Republicans willing to do anything he asks of them, though. Not if what he’s asking them to do is to hand power to the American left for reasons as petty as settling a personal grudge with Ron DeSantis.

We just received a sneak preview in Georgia of how viable a Trump sabotage campaign against a popular Republican governor might prove in a 50/50 electorate. How did it work out for Brian Kemp?

Trump didn’t badmouth Kemp after the primary, admittedly. But he spent more than a year before that aggressively badmouthing him at every opportunity. There can’t be a single Trump voter in the entire state who went to the polls this year unaware that the Great MAGA King despises their governor.

Kemp won easily anyway over a formidable Democrat, Stacey Abrams. Forced to choose between humiliating a conservative whom Trump hates and spending four years letting Gov. Abrams make policy, Georgia Republicans put their own interests above Trump’s. Kemp won by a wider margin in this election than he did in his first bout with Abrams in 2018, when he was still a Trump ally in good standing.

It seems likely to me that Republican voters in 2024 would behave the same way despite Trump’s best efforts to persuade them to sabotage DeSantis. GOP turnout might fall in ruby red states where the outcome is assured, but I have trouble believing that the sort of strident lib-hating right-winger who makes up the core of Trump’s base will remain on the sidelines in states like Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin knowing that Joe Biden will benefit if they do.

Trump might successfully cut into the Republican nominee’s share of the national popular vote, in other words, but not their share of the vote in the battlegrounds that decide the presidency. And even if he did, the whole point of nominating someone like DeSantis would be to attract cohorts like suburbanites who are open to voting for the GOP so long as the nominee isn’t Trump. If DeSantis picks up 1.2 suburban votes for every one MAGA vote he loses due to Trump spite, he’ll take that trade.

If Trump successfully sabotaging the party in 2024 is the political equivalent of first-degree murder, him trying to sabotage it and failing would be attempted first-degree murder. It’s still a grave offense, proof of homicidal intent toward the American right. And, almost as bad, it’s evidence of impotence. Trump would never look more pathetic than if he tried to play pied piper in leading populists away from the GOP only to turn around and find that no one was following him.

There may even be an inchoate cult of DeSantis forming among Republicans circa November 2024. The governor of Florida will never match Trump in charisma or authoritarian bravado, but since the GOP base now seems to view its leaders as avatars of culture war, it’s less improbable than you think that the allegiance of many would shift decidedly from Trump to the new nominee down the stretch of the campaign. If he tries to tank the party, the new cult of Ron will neither forgive nor forget, further diminishing Trump’s legacy.

4. Trump runs, wins a second term, and wrecks the government.

Here’s another case of me feeling uncharacteristically optimistic lately. Not that Trump might regain the presidency; that’s as pessimistic as political conjecture gets. Rather, that many Republicans might end up feeling queasy about what he does with his powers once he’s back in office.

I’ve linked to this Washington Post preview of a second term in other columns but the holiday is a fine time to catch up on it if you skipped it before. Freed by term limits from having to care about what voters will tolerate, it’s anyone’s guess what an unrestrained Trump might do. A political purge of the federal bureaucracy and the Pentagon, staffing up with populist ultra-loyalists, ignoring Senate confirmation and court rulings, wreaking havoc abroad by withdrawing from alliances—everything is on the table. Maybe some of his darker applause lines at rallies lately are just demagogic grandstanding for the peanut gallery, or maybe they’re evidence of seriousness of purpose.

Whatever he does or doesn’t end up doing on policy, the familiar daily Trump chaos will return and metastasize with fewer quality personnel around to restrain him.

The optimist in me wants to believe that many Republican voters will come to view all of it with dismay as it spirals, not having realized what they were signing up for. If so, Trump’s legacy on the right will end up suffering in the long run despite his victory. When the smoke clears, a sense that we can’t ever do that again will prevail.

The pessimist in me is telling me that I’m a chump who’s in denial, that those voters know exactly what they’re signing up for and that they’ll love every minute of it. Trump’s own running mate can no longer bring himself to describe his former boss as a “good man.” After a coup attempt, no one’s under any illusions anymore.

If that’s too depressing a note on which to end before the holiday, though, take heart in this: Thanks to the GOP’s dismal midterm result, the Trump 2024 victory scenario is the least likely at this point. And if he ends up indicted in the next few months (more than once, perhaps), it’ll be less likely still. He might even be back on Twitter soon, reminding an audience of tens of millions hour by hour that he’s grossly unfit temperamentally, morally, and intellectually to be president. The collective will to beat him one last time will be there when he’s on the ballot again in November 2024. If he’s on the ballot in November 2024.

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.