The president has spent days calling a dozen or more allies to ask what they think he needs to do over the next two years to “stay part of the conversation,” according to two people, including one who spoke to the president. And while Trump has told allies he plans to run for president again, he has also indicated he could back out in two years if he determines he’ll have a tough time winning, said three people familiar with the discussions.
As I’ve argued all along, Trump is not actually going to run again, but he will keep saying he’ll run, because that will keep people’s attention on him, which in turn will help his business and his terribly fragile ego. It will also, of course, affect other Republicans and American politics in profound ways.
Many have noted that keeping a 2024 run alive will “freeze” the race in place, with other potential candidates left unable to begin their bids so long as people assume the nomination is Trump’s if he wants it. But it’s not just poor Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) who will be affected. A potential Trump run will freeze the Republican Party as well, in ways that are terrible for our democracy.
Even if Trump departed the scene with the dignity of a Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush, his party would still be shaped by his presidency for years to come. But at the very least, a Trump-less GOP could begin to reassess its identity and the nature of its appeal in the coming years.
For instance, how should the party confront its rapid loss of ground in many of the fastest-growing states, including Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Texas? Does it need to devise new policy solutions on issues such as health care and college affordability that voters might find appealing, or is it enough to just keep saying that Democrats are radical socialists bent on destroying America? How many more election wins can it squeeze out of White grievance and voter suppression?
If there were a genuine internal debate, the more Trumpian answers to all those questions might prevail (especially since they reflect the approach the party has taken for decades). But Republicans can’t have any debate at all with Trump as the party’s de facto leader, which he absolutely will be so long as there’s any chance he’ll run again.
Which, from his perspective, is the whole point. He still has the loyalty of most Republican voters, who feel far more strongly about him than they do (or will) about any of the other potential candidates. According to a new CBS News poll, 82 percent of Trump voters say Biden is not the legitimate winner of the election, and as long as the stolen-election myth persists in the GOP, the party will be seeking a restoration, not a revision.
For Trump, retaining that position atop the party has all kinds of benefits; most importantly, it gives everyone a reason to keep paying attention to him. It could also be essential to saving his business from ruin. Once he’s an irrelevant ex-president, nobody will have reason to book events at his struggling properties or buy whatever junky licensed products he comes up with next (“Only these platinum-quality Trump Nose-Hair Trimmers give you all the luxury of Trump, right up your schnozz”).
So imagine you’re Cruz or Cotton or Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) or former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. If Trump ‘24 is still ostensibly a possibility and he’s still the party’s leader, what do you have to do to position yourself for the moment when he finally admits he isn’t running?
You can’t do anything that could be read by the party’s base as a break with Trump and Trumpism, substantively or stylistically. That would be seen as a betrayal of the party’s leader. So you have to present yourself as a still-loyal Trumpist, crafting your presidential bid with the greatest of care just in case he doesn’t run.
You might be able to give a speech or write an op-ed laying out your vision of conservatism, but few people will pay much attention to it. Meanwhile, you’ll have to make a show of deference toward Trump: echoing his false complaints about voter fraud, aping his vulgar insults of Democrats, showering him with praise and agreeing that if the way back to the White House doesn’t lie with Trump himself, then it lies with the closest facsimile the party can find.
That will filter down the ballot, too. As long as the news is filled with Trump’s latest rantings, the party will continue to bend toward its most resentful, angry, conspiracy-minded people and impulses. Primary contests in 2022 will turn on which candidate claims the most zealous loyalty to Trump.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that if Trump departed quickly, then Republicans would quickly turn the page, speak forthrightly about how he debased the presidency and mount a vigorous debate about the most worthwhile policy solutions for a changing America. But at least without him there might be a space to begin contemplating the next phase of their party’s evolution.
As it stands now, it looks like that’s going to have to wait at least another four years.