early and often

Here Come the Trump 2024 Alternatives

Tim Scott makes a lot of sense as an all-purpose validator of racial bona fides for a nearly all-white party. Photo: Ronda Churchill/Bloomberg via Getty Images/\

It’s the early — or perhaps silly — season of the 2024 presidential-election cycle, and the only actual candidate in the field is former president Donald Trump. Among Republicans, Trump remains the front-runner despite pervasive signs of GOP fatigue with him, and the fears his destructive involvement in a disappointing 2022 midterm election have fanned even in MAGA-land. If Trump thought his early 2024 announcement would clear the field of potential rivals as the party base swooned over him all over again, he was wrong. But flirting with a run against the King and stimulating speculation among the chattering classes isn’t the same thing as mounting an actual campaign against the man who has been underestimated so many times before.

Right now, the so-called invisible primary of scribbling and gabbing, winking and whispering, probably reflects the fantasy world of Republicans as much as any real prospects for winning the nomination. So the right question today may be what prospective candidates bring to this GOP dreamscape of a future more promising than a Biden-Trump rematch. Below are some of the “mentioned” and the longings they represent.

Ron DeSantis: Trump reverse-engineered

The newly reelected Florida Governor already represents a serious threat to Trump’s renomination if he chooses to launch it (at the age of 44, he can certainly afford to wait on running for president). He is presently very popular among both MAGA and non-MAGA conservatives, and may thus be both a unifying figure and a natural successor to the 45th president, as my colleague Jonathan Chait noted earlier this year:

People who do not ingest large amounts of conservative media may have difficulty comprehending the extent of the adulation both the Trumpist and the Trump-skeptical wings of the party have lavished on DeSantis. On a daily basis, the right-wing press churns out stories with headlines like “The Promise of Ron DeSantis,” “Could Gov. Ron DeSantis Be the Favorite GOP Frontrunner for 2024?,” “A Ron DeSantis Master Class in Rope-a-Dope,” “Media Keep Trying — and Failing — to Take Down Florida’s Ron DeSantis,” “Karol Markowicz on What Gov. Ron DeSantis Is Really Like: ‘So Real and Down to Earth,’ ” and on and on.

DeSantis’s fan club expanded after the midterms when his and his state party’s success (including a solid majority among Hispanic voters) represented what Republicans vainly hoped would happen everywhere. And it’s illustrative that some of the more extremist MAGA types seem to love him most. His political image is sort of a reverse-engineered Trump, with the pure hateful essence of “owing the libs” and the fascistic thrill of intimidating “woke corporations” and public school teachers are married to what is otherwise a pretty conventional state-level Republican pol. He’s Trump shorn of the unpredictability and narcissism that makes the ex-president a less than ideal instrument for right-wing cultural and economic politics.

He also, unfortunately, lacks charisma beyond the atavistic passions that just about anyone peddling his dangerous message could arouse, and the very hype his career has received makes him susceptible to a failure to meet expectations in a national race, as I recently argued:

[T]here’s something about DeSantis that reminds me of former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a charisma-free ideological thug who terrified liberals everywhere until he actually ran for president in 2016 and he sank like a stone before any votes were cast. And the swooning over DeSantis among conservatives reminds me of Rick Perry when he briefly stormed the 2012 Republican presidential field like a conquering hero — until he suddenly became perceived as an insubstantial buffoon.

We’ll see, but for his fans, DeSantis is the best of all possible worlds.

Mike Pence: Trump sanctified

Trump’s former vice president turned MAGA villain is even more likely than DeSantis to launch a challenge to the man whose “broad shoulders” he once cringingly extolled. And the former Hoosier governor really does have a tangible constituency: the politically militant conservative evangelicals who sold their souls to the MAGA movement and would now prefer to sanitize (if not sanctify) their subjection of the Gospel to Trump’s aggressively secular blend of hatefulness and greed. Many conservative Christian leaders rationalized their support for the 45th president by comparing him to the biblical figure of the Persian King Cyrus, who in Isaiah 45 freed Jews held captive in Babylon. As the New York Times explains: “Cyrus is the model for a nonbeliever appointed by God as a vessel for the purposes of the faithful.” Pence would be more like King Josiah, the young Hebrew monarch who very conscientiously restored observance of Jewish law after it had been all but forgotten.

Pence’s central problem is that he eternally alienated some MAGA bravos by his refusal to come to his adored boss’s rescue on January 6, and alienated many Republican Trump skeptics by his toadying attitude towards the self-same boss up to that very moment. He is also, to borrow Winston Churchill’s immortal line about Clement Atlee: “a modest man with much to be modest about.” The very same bully-boy authoritarianism that attracted so many conservative evangelicals to Trump in the first place is more likely to be re-found in DeSantis or Ted Cruz than Pence.

Ted Cruz: The pre-Trump throwback

Cruz (like his fellow senator and Trump rival Marco Rubio) was a product of that great MAGA precursor the Tea Party Movement.. A hard-edged hyper-partisan nature and zest for ideological purity made this sub-generation of Republican leaders heirs of Barry Goldwater and the pre-presidential Ronald Reagan. And until Trump came along, Tea Party Republicans looked very likely to dominate the GOP for an extended period of time.

It’s no accident that Ted Cruz was the most successful Republican challenger to Trump in 2016, beating him in Iowa, Wisconsin and nine other states, and becoming the last rival standing. But in the end, Trump almost completely coopted the pre-MAGA “movement conservatism” Cruz represented, as the Texan himself showed by swallowing endless insults from the 45th president before becoming a reliable ally. If Trump’s days of party leadership are somehow over, would the GOP turn – or rather return – to Cruz’s brand of conservatism? It’s possible, though Cruz shares DeSantis’s occasional bouts of anti-charisma, without in any way representing a breath of fresh (if hot) air.

Mike Pompeo: He’s very available

In every competitive presidential cycle there is always a candidate whose primary characteristic is really, really wanting the job and being willing to do just about anything to secure it. A good example was George H.W. Bush in 1980. Having bounced around appointed positions and lost two statewide elections in Texas, Poppy literally moved to Iowa and became a full-time presidential candidate, perfectly positioned to upset the over-confident front-runner Ronald Reagan. On paper, Bush’s foreign policy experience and years wearing the party harness made him a natural magnet for Reagan-averse Republicans of varying ideological stripes, and he stuck around on the campaign trail long enough to become Reagan’s veep after the idea of a Reagan-Ford ticket imploded.

Mike Pompeo is a bit older than Bush was in 1980, but has a similar appeal as a foreign policy maven who if he runs will probably spend a year or so trying to make himself a semi-favorite-son candidate in Iowa. If he gets very lucky other, better candidates will knock each other out of contention making Pompeo a fall-back option with Trump administration experience but little of the snell of brimstone emanating from more authentically MAGA candidates. It’s hard to see him taking the oath of office in 2025, but he’s already made the ranks of the regularly “mentioned,” and could, like Poppy, give a rough-hewn presidential candidate some foreign policy street cred.

Glenn Youngkin: An anti-Washington candidate from the D.C. burbs

The freshly minted Virginia governor naturally got a lot of buzz by winning a an off-year governor’s race in a state that had been largely written off by Republicans, and allegedly threading the needle by getting Trump’s endorsement and then barely mentioning the former president during the entire campaign. Like Mike Pompeo, Glenn Youngkin seems very eager to run for higher office; unlike Pompeo, Youngkin’s ambition is a bit unseemly since he just won his first election in 2021. He is the one potential candidate who might give DeSantis a run for his money as the candidate of “parents rights,” a latter-day movement that draws on all sorts of right-wing enthusiasms ranging from home-schooling to anti-vaxxing to QAnon and other conspiracy theories involving kids.

Like DeSantis, Youngkin is also a governor at a time of history where presidential fields have recently been dominated by senators. Republican voters are perpetually receptive to anti-Washington candidacies, though Youngkin, whose political base is in the DC suburbs, would have to strain a bit to portray himself as a champion of the Heartland. Perhaps the best thing Youngkin would have going for him as a presidential candidate is that he’s so new a figure that he really can’t be chewed up in the cross-fire between MAGA and non-MAGA party factions. Some GOP movers and shakers will be attracted to a “fresh face” who hails from the reassuringly familiar haunts of private-equity money-making and conservative religion.

Nikki Haley: Something for everybody

During a recent stay at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, where famously a “smoke-filled room” of Republican leaders made Warren G. Harding the GOP nominee and the 29th president, I thought about the kind of presidential candidate a similar assemblage of Republicans today might choose were it possible to do so, and quickly settled on former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. It’s not that Haley and Harding have much in common personally; I am not accusing her at all of the kind of sexual misconduct or inveterate cronyism for which Harding became famous soon after his untimely death. I do think Harding and Haley were equally at home in the shallowest depth of public policy thinking, and above all shared a knack for being in the right place at the right time. If somehow a 2024 Republican deadlock developed, the party might turn to Haley as someone with something for everybody, wrapped in some nice packaging.

She was elected and reelected as the first woman and the first Asian-American to serve as governor of her state, and left office without any major scandals or accomplishments. She then grabbed a precious foreign policy credential for her brief service as Trump’s envoy to the U.N., and became something of a performance artist for her ability to exhibit “independence” from Trump without angering him. She did, however, show some surprising political incompetence in harshly criticizing Trump’s conduct on January 6, and then had to overcompensate by pledging support for him if he ran again in 2024. Her opportunism is beginning to threaten the routinely positive press she has always managed to receive from all over the political spectrum.

Tim Scott: The we’re-not-racist validator

Perhaps the worst sign for Nikki Haley is that she is being eclipsed in the invisible primary by the man she appointed to the U.S. Senate, Tim Scott. Another Republican who manages to embody a change of direction from Trump without picking a single fight with the 45th president, Scott is the latest 2024 favor of the month, particularly among his Senate colleagues, as Politico reports:

Scott’s not personally chatty about the prospect of a 2024 presidential run, declining to talk and directing questions to his staff. But his Republican colleagues are buzzing about his massive reelection victory this year, rising national profile, substantial fundraising hauls and cross-country travels for other candidates. And they’re happy to talk him up.

The South Carolinian carved out a unique lane in the GOP, well-liked by mainstream leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell but never publicly at odds with Trump world, even when he’s offered halted criticism of the former president. And as the only Black Republican senator, he’d offer his party a compelling chance to build on its long-running effort to boost diverse candidate recruitment by further appealing to Democratic-leaning constituencies.

The Scott-for-President talk first began in the wake of his star turn providing the official GOP response to Biden’s 2021 State of the Union Address. A well-wrought combination of standard partisan talking points with his Horatio Alger autobiography as the son of a single mother living in and overcoming poverty in arguably the most racist state in America was bound to get rave reviews, and part of what makes Scott a celebrity, of course, is that he’s the Black validator of the racial bona fides of a virtually all-white political party. It helps that Scott does seem to reflect authentic Black conservative traditions flowing from conservative Black churches and Black-owned businesses; he’s no MAGA cartoon character wearing “White Lives Matter” T-shirts. But he does offer white conservatives cover against complaints of systemic racism (“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country. It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different discrimination,” he said in his response), and as my colleague Zak Cheney-Rice put it, Scott provides “telegenic cover for whatever the GOP wants to get done, plausible deniability with a pulse.” I doubt that’s enough to sustain a viable presidential candidacy, but if 2024 does not belong to Donald Trump, the GOP could go in many directions, as long as it stays in a far right lane.

Here Come the Trump 2024 Alternatives