If Donald Trump tries To run for president again, one of his former campaign advisers has a plan to dissuade him. Anticipating that Trump may not know who Adlai Stevenson was or that he lost two consecutive presidential elections in the 1950s, this ex-advisor thinks he or someone else may have to explain the man’s unfortunate fate. They will remind Trump that if he were beaten in 2024, he would join Stevenson as one of history’s serial losers. “I think that would resonate,” said this person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely. “Trump hates losers.”
Trump may not listen to his former campaign agent. But the mere fact that someone who first worked to elect Trump is rehearsing arguments to stop a comeback suggests that the former president’s firm hold on the Republican Party may be waning. A few other developments in recent weeks point to the early turmoil of a Republican Party sidelined with Trump. Glenn Youngkin’s recent victory in the Virginia governor’s race showed that a Republican candidate could win in a battlefield without committing to Trump. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is now making the rounds to promote a new book that disproves Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election, indicated that he could run for the 2024 GOP nomination, whether or not Trump is running. AN poll last month offered encouraging news for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire, the state that traditionally hosts the first primaries of the presidential election season. Although Trump was the number one choice among likely Republican voters, DeSantis’ favorable rating had risen to 62 percent, eight points higher than Trump’s.
Unlike previous presidents who willingly took the podium after defeat, Trump has made it impossible for himself to be ignored since he left office earlier this year. He acts like a waiting candidate. “I’d be shocked if he doesn’t run,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, told me. “I think Trump is our best choice, to be honest, because everyone knows his flaws, but his successes are in stark contrast to what we are experiencing now.” (A pandemic, two accusations, and an economic collapse don’t sound like triumphs, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Many GOP politicians covet an endorsement from Trump in the upcoming midterm races, and he’s raising tens of millions of dollars to distribute to congressional candidates protecting his interests. He is constantly in the news as detectives playing out his role in an effort to nullify the 2020 election results. When families gather for Thanksgiving this week, it’s a good bet that far more people will be gushing about Trump than musing about incumbent president, Joe Biden. “This will be the sixth consecutive Thanksgiving that Trump Talk is on the menu,” Kellyanne Conway, former counselor to the president, told me. “People are still obsessed with him.”
Trump wants to keep it that way. His status within the GOP helps him get the boundless attention he craves, and he’s not about to lose that dominance without a fight. He hit back at Christie’s brutality by suggesting it is time to accept that Biden has won the 2020 election. Christie, Trump said in a statement, was “absolutely butchered” for such heresy. Privately, the former president may have turned down his most formidable potential rival for the 2024 party nomination: DeSantis. When DeSantis’ name pops up in conversations, Trump tends to remind everyone in earshot that his endorsement in Florida’s 2018 GOP governorship election elevated DeSantis over presumed favorite, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a person close to the former president told me . Trump “reminds everyone that he made DeSantis,” this person said. “There’s no question that Trump made him, and Ron doesn’t mind being reminded of that all the time.”
Trump’s most powerful means of maintaining his grip on his party is perpetuating the idea that he will be back on the ballot three years from now. Whether he continues to launch a reelection campaign may not matter. Stepping aside would be tantamount to inviting a slew of Republican candidates to run for the presidential nomination of 2024 and fill the space he frees up. Trump has no intention of letting his relevance plummet.
“Imagine what would happen if he said, ‘After careful consideration, I will not be a candidate in 2024,'” John Bolton, the former national security adviser to the Trump White House, told me. “You hear the spotlights go out. He will talk about it [running for president again] until he doesn’t anymore.”
Bolton’s belief is that Trump will ultimately not run and risk another defeat. At this point, the signs seem mixed. Trump has been reluctant. he gave a interview to Fox News earlier this month, saying he would “probably” wait until after the midterm elections to announce whether he will participate, although he added: “I think a lot of people will be quite happy with the decision, frankly. ” He’s lost some weight, maybe an indication that he’s still girding himself up for another race, or maybe just the natural consequence of eating less stress, as some in his job told me.
Earlier this year, a group of Trump administration alumni started a nonprofit called the America First Policy Institute. It’s sort of a placeholder for the next Trump administration, should he rejoin and win, a second former campaign adviser told me. (Trump’s son-in-law and former senior White House adviser Jared Kushner is not involved in planning Trump’s possible return, a person familiar with the case told me. Kushner is writing a book due out next year.)
A more direct test of Trump’s influence will come during the midterms. He is so focused on punishing perceived enemies within the GOP that he may end up backing challengers with no real chance of winning. Take Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only Republican in the Senate who both voted to convict Trump this year in the impeachment process and who will vote in November. Trump has already backed one of her opponents, Kelly Tshibaka. But Murkowski, who served in the Senate for nearly two decades, has proved a tenacious campaigner. In 2010, she won an entry campaign against a conservative Tea Party opponent, the first senator to pull off such a feat in half a century. Tshibaka will struggle to oust the resilient Murkowski, and if she fails, Trump will not appear to be the kingmaker he imagines himself to be.
Much the same dynamic is true in Wyoming. Trump has targeted Representative Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach him in January and now serves on the House committee investigating the Capitol insurgency. He approved one of Cheney’s main challengers, Harriet Hageman, after… meeting with other potential rivals at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. Polls that Cheney will have a tough race. But if she and Murkowski both win, Trump “will look like a goddamn dummy for supporting the wrong people,” the second former campaign adviser said.
Trump’s connection to the Republican base is emotional, not rational. If rational, his voters would recognize that the party struggled under his care and risks further losses if he remains its alleged leader. After all, when he returned to Mar-a-Lago as a private individual, the House, Senate, and White House were under Democratic control — and still are. Even Graham admits Trump could also ruin the next election if he runs a general campaign obsessed with his defeat in 2020. “If it turns into a grievance campaign, we’ve got a problem,” he said.
Perhaps the example of Adlai Stevenson will be convincing. If Trump sees his poll numbers plummet in the coming years, if his involvement in the midterm elections backfires, he could step down, as some of his allies predict. “I don’t think he wants to risk losing twice,” Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the Republican House, told me. “Once you can discuss the outcome. Twice it will be a rejection.”