early and often

Trump Won’t Go Away Unless a Republican Actually Beats Him

Trump with the governor and lieutenant governor of South Carolina, where two potential rivals live. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP/Shutterstock

Some of the analyses of Donald Trump’s forays into New Hampshire and South Carolina this weekend exhibit world-class wishful thinking. Clearly, Trump is in free fall! He hasn’t locked down everyone who backed him in 2016 in the Granite State, and popular Republican governor Chris Sununu hasn’t ruled out a presidential bid of his own! Only half the Palmetto State’s congressional delegation (plus the governor and lieutenant governor) showed up at his event in Columbia! His candidacy is an overripe fruit waiting to fall to the ground once Ron DeSantis (or Nikki Haley, or Tim Scott) enters the race!

McKay Coppins has captured the moment perfectly in a truth-telling Atlantic column about the cowardice of anti-Trump (or post-Trump, or whatever you want to call them) Republicans:

This magical thinking pervaded my recent conversations with more than a dozen current and former elected GOP officials and party strategists. Faced with the prospect of another election cycle dominated by Trump and uncertain that he can actually be beaten in the primaries, many Republicans are quietly rooting for something to happen that will make him go away. And they would strongly prefer not to make it happen themselves.

“There is a desire for deus ex machina,” said one GOP consultant, who, like others I interviewed, requested anonymity to characterize private conversations taking place inside the party. “It’s like 2016 all over again, only more fatalistic.”

Republicans (almost exclusively on background or off the record, of course) want Democratic prosecutors, an unsurvivable scandal, or even the Grim Reaper to sideline Trump. But with the “invisible primary” for 2024 now fully underway and no one but Trump in the race or even near the launching pad, it’s increasingly clear he’s not going away unless some other candidate or candidates beat him over and over again in actual state primaries (which will begin less than a year from now). And while Trump’s silent detractors have placed a lot of stock in the Florida governor as the warrior who will slay the dragon of Mar-a-Lago, there’s absolutely no guarantee the 44-year-old Ron DeSantis will choose to make his presidential debut in this cycle, when he’d be running against an ex-president and a sitting president. 2024 is just the first of eight cycles before he becomes as old as Trump is today. So what if RDS does take a pass? Who will beat Trump then? Mike Pompeo? Mike Pence? Seriously?

Perhaps the most pathetic ray of hope Coppins found among Republicans is the idea that they will be saved from Trump by … Trump:

When I asked Rob Portman about his party’s Trump problem, the recently retired Ohio senator confidently predicted that it would all sort itself out soon. The former president, he believed, would study the polling data, realize that other Republicans had a better shot at winning, and graciously bow out of 2024 contention.

“I think at the end of the day,” Portman told me, “he’s unlikely to want to put himself in that position when he could be more of a Republican senior statesman who talks about the policies that were enacted in his administration.”

I let out an involuntary laugh.

The reality is that, after a slow start in 2022, the 2023 phase of Trump’s presidential campaign is going about as well as he could hope for. That’s mostly because, after all these years, the Republican Party still can’t figure out how to stop Trump or even manage him, and most Republicans remain terrified of his wrath despite their willingness to talk smack about him as long as their names aren’t disclosed. His comeback bid has its inherent problems, of course, as Ben Jacobs astutely observed at Vox after watching Trump’s South Carolina power play:

In the first public event since he announced his 2024 presidential campaign, the former president struggled to achieve the synthesis of the anti-establishment impulses that helped him capture the presidency in 2016 or the air of total control and inevitability that led him to avoid any serious primary challenge in 2020 despite colossal midterm losses — and the first of what would be two impeachments.

Trump’s various demons aside, there’s a reason no defeated president since Grover Cleveland has made his way back to the White House. And it seems Trump’s initial thought about how to refresh his political message for a new challenge is simply to turn up the volume, assuring listeners in New Hampshire that he is “more angry” than ever and suggesting in South Carolina that only he can save the country and the world from “World War III.” Maybe Republican primary voters, and not simply the elites who claim to represent them, will get sick of Trump’s act just in time to send him into retirement in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina or Super Tuesday.

But the odds of the GOP’s Trump problem just taking care of itself, which were never especially high, are dropping every day that he stands alone as a 2024 presidential candidate. There’s a pro-DeSantis group called “Ron to the Rescue” that’s already getting attention in New Hampshire. Maybe their wishes will come true, but Republicans need a Plan B badly and soon.

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Trump Won’t Go Away Unless a Republican Actually Beats Him