Donald J. Trump is running for president. He is running for president whether or not he wins the GOP primary. This is the fundamental truth of 2024. All else is noise.
During the 2016 cycle, Trump angered Republican grandees by refusing to rule out an independent bid for the White House, shrewdly protecting himself against underhanded machinations by maintaining maximum freedom of action. There is every reason to think that he would have pursued this course had he lost the nomination, especially if his loss had been attributable to the meddling of GOP bigwigs.
Today, Trump commands a formidable lead over his rivals, so much so that he’s not participating in the GOP primary debates, including the one scheduled for tonight. He is largely immune to backroom intrigues, given the altered constitution of the party establishment. However, it remains possible that he could fall victim to the sort of open conspiracy that scuttled Bernie Sanders in 2020. He could even lose the primary fair and square.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
If he is defeated, there is good cause to believe that Trump will decline to terminate his campaign, forging ahead under the MAGA banner to the bitter end.
First, Trump maintains that he is the only man for the job. As he once declared, “I alone can fix it.” This sense of destiny and self-importance is often pathologized by unfriendly Trump-watchers. But Trump can make a solid case—to himself and to others—that he possesses a unique analysis of the country’s malaise and that he is the most reliable tribune of middle-American rightwing populism, despite the recent profusion of imitators.
Second, Trump’s conduct after 2020 strongly suggests that he would doggedly dispute an unfavorable 2024 primary result, especially since the contest would probably be close enough to raise the specter of fraud. Is it hard to envision Trump railing against “Sleepy Joe” in one breath and “Ron the Con” in the next?
Third, Trump would be persistently encouraged by the liberal pundits, whom he loves and hates in constantly shifting measures but whose applause he invariably craves. Talking heads on CNN and MSNBC would advance glowing comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt; think pieces in the New York Times and The Atlantic somberly commending his challenge to the two-party duopoly. Intoxicating stuff for a person who thrives on legacy media attention and who is obviously annoyed at being excluded from his old cable news stomping grounds.
Fourth, Trump’s milieu is populated by intellectuals and agitators primed for a major schism on the American right, under the impression that they would benefit personally and ideologically from such a rupture. They are generally hostile to and alienated from the Republican Party, and they have, with Trump’s half-witting assistance, developed a broad constituency that is profoundly suspicious of institutions, the GOP included. Therefore, Trump would be egged on from the Left and the Right, from without and within.
Fifth, Trump recognizes that his candidacy is a shield against legal danger. So long as he is a serious contender for the presidency, prosecution appears sordid and anti-democratic; and the prospect of criminal conviction raises genuine concerns about civil peace, affording Trump an opportunity to leverage any reprieve granted by cautious authorities. Moreover, electoral triumph offers the promise of deferring or evading judicial reckoning through the pardon power (with respect to federal charges) or by exploiting the fearsome prospect of constitutional crisis (with respect to state charges). Trump intuits that his legal exposure increases as his political salience decreases. Thus, he has every incentive to remain politically relevant, which, in the present context, necessarily involves running for president.
In short, should Trump lose the GOP primary, powerful psychological and social factors, and persuasive considerations of self-preservation and self-interest, will likely push him to make an outside play for the nation’s highest office. Should Trump lose the GOP primary, powerful psychological and social factors, and persuasive considerations of self-preservation and self-interest, will likely push him to make an outside play for the nation’s highest office.Tweet This
It goes without saying that such a gambit would be vain. No need to delve into the thorny questions of ballot access, the vagaries of election law, or the eccentricities of the electoral college. Suffice to say that there is no way that a solo march under the MAGA flag will lead Trump to the White House.
However, even a mismanaged, uncoordinated, and glaringly futile effort would depress or siphon off crucial conservative votes in key states, dooming the Republican candidate. Seasoned GOP politicians and operatives appreciated this reality in 2016; it is more forceful and evident now, when the former president commands the absolute loyalty of a sizable bloc of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
The unfolding primary is, therefore, a most curious and ludicrous spectacle, with the GOP’s brightest stars and biggest names courting the destruction of their party by potentially thwarting Trump’s path to the nomination.
There is, of course, no way to stifle an open primary. But it is remarkable to perceive the extent to which the Republican elite has failed, after nearly a decade, to come to grips with Trump and his method. Witness, for instance, the laughable thesis that someone (Christie?) can box Trump into a corner concerning 2020—a notion that strangely assumes Trump is a normal personality susceptible to logic and shame, while utterly neglecting his devilish ability to invent alternate discourses more fascinating, and thus more compelling, than those consonant with the “true facts.”
Maybe some of the contenders—lingering partisans of the pre-2016 consensus—have entered the fray with matches in hand, intent on burning down their own house, convinced that Republicanism must be destroyed to be rebuilt. Maybe. More likely, the dozen-odd contenders are just misreading their chief foe. They are playing the same old game. Trump, as usual, is up to something else entirely.
This is not to assert that Trump is a four-dimensional chess master. He has repeatedly shown that meme to be, well, a meme. It is, though, to assert that Trump is more or less untroubled by the Rules, the same Rules that his competitors have spent their careers scrupulously studying and obeying.
One of these Rules is that a loser supports a winner and gets something nice in return, living to fight another day. Thing is, Trump does not—cannot—lose, and he prefers to fight today, and tomorrow, and forever.
Trump is running for president. He will run with the GOP or against it. The sooner Republicans admit this fact, the sooner they can make the ultimate decision: to risk defeat with Trump, or to accept defeat without him.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]