early and often

Trump’s Terrified 2024 Rivals Show It’s His Race to Lose

He's still the scary king of the mountain.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We are constantly being told by wise insiders that Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign is already toast. Without question, he misplayed the midterms by making a series of dubious endorsements and creating a distraction by insisting Republicans accept his 2020 stolen-election fables. And he squandered the advantage associated with being the first candidate in the 2024 field by basically hanging around the house for many weeks.

But if Trump 2024 is indeed the doomed final gesture of an exhausted demagogue whose party and country are thoroughly tired of him, why aren’t any of his many potential rivals stepping forward to administer the coup de grâce? Au contraire: As Politico explains, the GOP’s other presidential candidates plan to stay on the sidelines because they are afraid of Trump:

For Trump’s potential opponents, it may be a matter of self-preservation. Though Trump’s support softened following a midterm election in which high-profile, Trump-endorsed candidates flopped, there is a recognition among Trump’s rivals that the ex-president — with the benefit of an opponent — can be lethal. He is still polling ahead of potential competitors in national surveys, and no Republican has forgotten his humiliation of “low-energy Jeb” Bush, “little Marco Rubio” and “lyin’ Ted Cruz” in the 2016 primaries.

And so, everyone is waiting for the other to act. As another Republican who has spoken with multiple prospective candidates and their teams put it: “I think they think a group launch … provides them protection from Trump.”

To be clear, a “group launch” would be an unprecedented development. Typically, presidential candidates don’t want any competition for the momentary bright lights of a campaign announcement, but no one wants to paint a target on themselves by challenging Trump first.

It should be obvious enough that this “strength in numbers” strategy, as Politico calls it, is not only a testament to Trump’s residual power but also a tangible asset for his own campaign. Just as in 2016, Trump will perform best (as every 2024 poll has shown) in a field that starts out chock-full of candidates angling to get him into a one-on-one competition.

You do have to wonder if the assortment of candidates who are afraid of Trump includes his governor, Ron DeSantis. Is the rampaging demagogue who took on Mickey Mouse and is laying waste to Florida’s educational system actually hesitant to draw sustained fire from Mar-a-Lago? If he’s as smart as he is devious, DeSantis should indeed worry about an early 2024 mishap that exposes him as an exotic tropical phenomenon that cannot survive the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire. Plenty of invisible primary front-runners in both parties have suffered from a quick deflation after announcing their candidacies (including Joe Lieberman in 2004, Rudy Giuliani in 2008, Rick Perry in 2012, and Scott Walker in 2016). And Michael Bloomberg in 2020 proved that no amount of money and influence can protect a presidential candidate from one terrible debate performance.

But no matter how weak and feckless you consider the 45th president to be — or how badly the people who chat up Politico want him to go away — you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and you surely cannot count on the prosecutors Trump has been outmaneuvering for most of his adult life to take care of the problem. Every day Republicans let Trump stand alone in the 2024 presidential field makes his renomination more likely. And if they’re too gutless to take him down, it will be up to Joe Biden to keep him out of the White House again.

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Trump’s Terrified 2024 Rivals Show It’s His Race to Lose