In politics, as in life, there is a tendency to overcomplicate things. And the simple truth about the 2024 campaign is that, like the two Presidential elections that preceded it, the race is all about Donald Trump.
On the Republican side, no potential candidate has registered in the national polls as anything close to a Trump-toppler, and that includes, so far, the much touted governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. I was reminded of this while listening to the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt interview the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie the other day. Christie is considering running again for President as a former Trump friend who’s seen the light, but it’s hardly clear whether there is a path for him in the field. Hewitt summed up the state of the Republican electorate as being divided into four categories: Never Trump, Sometimes Trump, Always Trump, and Only Trump. The Only Trump category constitutes a more or less immovable twenty-five to thirty per cent of the Party, Hewitt said—which is also the estimate he gave for the percentage of Republicans who will never again vote for Trump. The Party, in other words, is stuck in a Trump doom loop, and the primary will come down to a referendum one way or the other on the former President.
Among Democrats, who are united at least in their loathing of the ex-POTUS, the Trump factor hangs over the race in a different way. Without him running again, it’s at least conceivable that Joe Biden might choose, at age eighty, not to seek reëlection. But with Trump as the Republican front-runner, Biden has positioned himself as an indispensable opponent: the one proven Trump-beater. Their fates are intertwined. Once again, it’s all about Trump, Trump, Trump.
That is why I urge you to disregard the conventional wisdom about the former President being a spent force in Republican politics and pay much closer attention to what Trump is actually doing and saying in his campaign—a doomsday-laden frontal attack on American democracy far darker and more threatening to the constitutional order than even his previous two bids. Last weekend, in a speech to CPAC that failed to make many front-page headlines but should have, Trump framed his effort to return to the White House as an outright war and vowed that, once reinstalled in power, his mission would be nothing less than “retribution” for all the wrongs that he and his grievance-fuelled followers have suffered. Speaking for more than an hour and a half in front of a crowd that repeatedly cheered his definition of the Presidency as a platform for personalized vengeance, he spoke ominously of “enemies,” and promised to “totally obliterate the ‘deep state,’ ” among other demons, once victory was attained.
His call to arms was not merely the stuff of political symbolism. Echoing the inflammatory language with which he summoned his supporters to the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump urged them to fight once again in explicitly end-time terms. “We have no choice,” he said. “If we don’t do this, our country will be lost forever.” In case the comparison was lost on anybody, he explicitly extolled the “great, great patriots” unfairly sitting in jail, recasting the rioters who breached America’s own Capitol building as MAGA martyrs. “This is the final battle,” he insisted. “They know it. I know it. You know it. Everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win, or we win, and if they win we no longer have a country.”
This chilling peroration by Trump followed his December call, in a post on his Truth Social platform, for “termination” of the Constitution, if that is what it would take to return him to power. The two statements, taken together, sum up his campaign like no other. Termination and retribution are the reckless pillars on which Trump is running. Why not, finally, take him at his word?
The fact that you most likely did not watch Trump’s rant does not make it any less dangerous. If anything, it might make it more so. The former President—in narrowcasting to his passionate audience of Always Trump and Only Trump Republican voters—is already a changed political figure from a couple of years ago.
In the course of that campaign and the four years of rambling rallies that preceded it, I logged hundreds of hours listening to Trump speak to the cheering crowds that he craved. I watched many of them again while co-writing “The Divider,” a history of Trump in the White House that was published last year. And it is already clear that 2024 Trump is far different from 2020 Trump, more willing to pronounce extreme beliefs after having become the first American President to seek to overturn an election—and still emerging as his party’s front-runner two years later.
To reinforce just how much he meant the threats in his CPAC speech, the Trump campaign later sent out a gritty meme from it as a fund-raiser. It showed a black-and-white photograph of Trump, glowering as he pointed at the viewer: “I am YOUR retribution,” the caption said. Vengeance-minded in the best of times, Trump is now outright promising a second term filled with unchecked purges and payback.
Historical experience suggests that it would be foolish to disregard this kind of statement by a man who commands such a large and unyielding portion of the electorate. Would-be authoritarians like Trump, given a chance to return to power, do not have a record of moderating their views. Look at Israel right now, where the aggrieved former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to win reëlection and assemble the most far-right government coalition in that nation’s history. Netanyahu, himself under indictment, has proposed judicial reforms so sweeping that many consider them nothing less than a “judicial coup” that would end Israeli democracy as we know it.
Other rivals in the Republican race, of course, may yet find success in challenging Trump. Many, like DeSantis, will probably emphasize their credentials as culture warriors, attacking “woke” Democrats and the like. Others, such as Trump’s former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, may come at him as more traditional conservatives, criticizing his inward-looking “America First” platform as isolationist weakness at a time when rivals like China and Russia demand strength. But it’s an extraordinary fact that Trump remains not only the dominant figure of the Republican Party headed into 2024 but one who is still able to set the Party’s agenda to a remarkable degree. Without Trump, it’s hard to imagine any other Republicans carrying on about 2020, or about the so-called heroes of January 6th. Most parties like to move on from elections they lost.
But, because of Trump, today’s G.O.P. cannot. And his rivals, so far, are proving to be a timid bunch, all too wary of poking Trump. Faced with voters who overwhelmingly supported Trump’s election lies, they kowtow or equivocate as he continues to untruthfully decry the “Massive Fraud” of the 2020 election. This does not suggest a party that is on the verge of abandoning its leader for a newer, less controversial figure. And, besides, the more crowded the field ultimately gets, the more the gumption—or lack thereof—of the other candidates may not matter: in a divided party, the Only and Always Trumpers have more than enough votes to prevail.
For Republicans, the strongest argument that’s been advanced against a Trump redux is that of simple electability. The Party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight Presidential elections, and few believe that Trump, already a two-time popular-vote loser, is likely to convince many general-election voters to change their minds the third time out. In that same interview with Hewitt, Christie argued that Trump simply could not win suburban women—and “a Republican not winning suburban women can’t win the Presidency.” Christie’s appeal to the pragmatism of G.O.P. voters may seem eminently reasonable, but that hardly means his logic will prevail. It should be noted that Christie was one of many who believed Trump would not, and could not, win the Republican nomination in 2016—before eagerly climbing on board Trump’s campaign.
The point is that we’ve been here before. Let’s not make the mistake once again of failing to take Trump seriously. Or literally. Today’s Republican Party is a lot closer to Forever Trump than it is to Never Again Trump. The revenge play continues. ♦