Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
the national interest

If DeSantis Wins the Nomination, Trump Will Endorse Him

Trump is out for himself, not revenge.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Former Trump Justice Department head William Barr, in the course of reiterating his strong preference that his party nominate a less deranged presidential candidate next time, expressed a fear that has been in wide circulation: If defeated in the primary, Donald Trump “will burn the whole house down by leading ‘his people’ out of the GOP.”

One version of this is that Trump will either form a third party or simply refuse to endorse another Republican, thereby dooming his party’s chances. Those of us considering the question from a less friendly standpoint than Barr — I consider the Republican Party an unsalvageable fanatical proto-authoritarian formation — would very much like it to be true. Indeed, I have seen commentators treat it as something like a certainty that would doom a Ron DeSantis or any other non-Trump alternative.

But I think this idea misunderstands both Trump and the incentive structure of the Republican Party.

It is true that a world in which Trump has lost a primary to DeSantis is a world in which Trump feels very angry with DeSantis. But DeSantis is not the only person Trump feels angry with. Trump has spent the past several years simmering with anger at Joe Biden. And while a contested primary would make Trump resent DeSantis more than he does now, it’s hardly certain that it would make him hate DeSantis more than he hates Biden.

More important, it would be uncharacteristic for Trump to allow his grudges to get in the way of his clear self-interest. Trump does lash out wildly at anybody who disrespects him, but he also turns on a dime and makes friends with his former enemies. You can see this pattern in the way he lashed out at the likes of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio before reconciling on the basis of mutual interest.

What interests would Trump have in common with DeSantis? For one thing, DeSantis could offer Trump legal protection — either pardons or immunity from additional prosecution. Second, DeSantis already commands a massive fundraising network, and as the Republican nominee, he would hold enormous power over various revenue streams around the party, ranging from its scam PACs to its media outlets. DeSantis would be in a position to make sure Trump is very well compensated in return for an endorsement.

“Trump’s willingness to destroy the party if he does not get his way is not based on principle but on his own supreme narcissism,” complains Barr. This is only somewhat true. Trump understands that the threat to abandon the party gives him leverage. He said as much in 2016 when he refused to sign a promise to endorse the eventual nominee. And he used that leverage to pressure Republicans not to abandon him after the insurrection.

Republicans like Barr are talking angrily about Trump now because the party has an opportunity to nominate somebody they believe would be more effective at advancing their goals. Their objection to Trump is fundamentally not a moral one. Barr’s diatribe does not describe Trump as authoritarian — indeed, he reserves this description for Trump’s opponents. Trump, in his eyes, is simply an exasperating dilettante.

The denunciations of Trump coming from the right are akin to upset fans demanding the coach be fired. It tells you the coach’s job is in danger, but it doesn’t mean, if he manages to hold on to it, they’ll root for a different team.

The breach between Trump and his former loyalists is not nearly as deep as it may appear at the moment. They have every incentive to play up their differences now, and they may even believe what they’re saying. But their common interests will eventually win out over whatever antagonism may develop.

If DeSantis Wins the Nomination, Trump Will Endorse Him