Republicans are lining up for the presidential primary like it’s 2015. Donald Trump was essentially in the 2024 race since he left the White House, but didn’t officially announce until a week after November’s midterms, where he led his party to squander any strategic structural advantage they might have had. It was little quiet, but Nikki Haley last week jumped in—albeit with “no clear rationale” for doing so—while entrepreneur and Fox News fixture Vivek Ramaswamy, who fashions himself as an anti-“woke” crusader, announced a long shot bid Tuesday on Tucker Carlson’s show.
Waiting in the wings are Florida governor and wannabe autocrat Ron DeSantis, Trump secretary of state Mike “blurbed his own book” Pompeo, former vice president Mike Pence, New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, Texas senator and area podcaster Ted Cruz, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and maybe even Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin. How many of them would actually run—and are willing to take on Trump—remains to be seen.
We know Youngkin is at the very least toying with the idea of jumping in because this weekend we learned that the governor may take aim at DeSantis’s new favorite villain: AP African American history. In the Republican Party pre-2015, we might spend months examining these candidate’s policy positions. We in the pundit class might compare their debate performances. We might muse over their deliveries. We might ponder these candidates’ “likability” factor. We might sit on cable news panels and wonder if the American voter would want to have a beer with Ted Cruz or Tim Scott. But this is not the Republican Party pre-2015; this is still Trump’s party and the rest of the candidates and pundits and everyone are just trying to survive in it. (Only the former president and DeSantis, who modeled himself in Trump’s image, show strong support in early polling.)
As we witnessed ever since the former reality star came down that bronze escalator and into our living nightmare, Trumpism was largely a vibe, a kind of embrace of the basest elements of the Republican Party. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said that day, adding: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Trumpism unapologetically trumpeted things previous Republicans had been ashamed to admit existed—the racism, the nativism, the stupid. Trumpism came with slogans (“Build the Wall” “Lock Her Up”), and for some, has vaulted the host of The Apprentice to deity status. QAnon diehards call Trump GEOTUS, which stands for “God Emperor of the United States.” Trumpism isn’t about policy, it’s about Trump.
Jared Kushner was reportedly going to help overhaul the Republican platform of 2016 for his father-in-law’s reelection bid. But didn’t happen, and so the Republican National Committee “dispensed with producing a 2020 platform, instead passing a resolution renewing what delegates enacted in 2016, bashing the news media and offering wholehearted support” of Trump, who, meanwhile, struggled to articulate a second-term agenda. Mitch McConnell is also guilty of this particular strategy, deciding not to release a legislative agenda before the 2022 midterms.
The question now is whether someone who isn’t Trump could win a GOP primary through Trumpism, which clearly isn’t fading away. When The Washington Post recently spoke to more than 150 Trump supporters, reporters found that in most interviews, “fatigue with Trump was not a break with Trumpist politics,” and that “while these voters expressed interest in someone less divisive, they showed little appetite for more moderate policies or messaging—a combination many saw possible with DeSantis.” DeSantis, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy, is apparently hoping that by acting Trump-like—plenty of bullying and threats—primary voters will somehow be wooed into thinking he’s Trump himself. It’s a gamble in a way. How does someone who isn’t Trump and isn’t endorsed by Trump convince Trump’s supporters that he is somehow more Trumpy, or as Trumpy, as the guy who created Trumpism?
Trumpism isn’t just a series of slogans; it’s also a bit of a fever dream. Since 2015, Never Trump Republicans and more mainstream pundits have predicted it would break. But so far, despite candidates like Kari Lake, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker, and Don Bolduc getting shellacked in the midterms, there’s still a fantasy that somehow Trumpism is a scalable phenomenon. If we’ve learned anything since 2015, it’s that Trumpism generally only works for Trump. I could see, theoretically, Donald Trump Jr. being able to pick up the Trump mantle, but the idea that some unrelated party would be able to take over seems less likely.
As for the non-Trump lane of this GOP primary, I just don’t understand how these more normal candidates break the fever that is Trumpism. Haley was famous for removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse in South Carolina (even if she’d also described it as a symbol of “service, and sacrifice, and heritage.”) But how does her much-heralded decision at the statehouse square with the Trump supporter marching through the US Capitol with a Confederate flag on January 6—or those Republicans on the side of that antidemocracy MAGA mob?
While Haley’s announcement video last week mentions “fiscal responsibility” and international issues, Politico’s Natalie Allison noted this week in Iowa how the crowd coming out for her seemed most worked up about culture-war issues. “Nikki Haley gets applause when she tells the crowd her father would not sign permission slip for her to take sex ed in 7th grade,” Allison tweeted. “Audience at all her town hall events so far has gotten excited when she talks about banning sex and gender lessons for kids.”
“For those of you on the left, you can call me a prop, you can call me a token, you can call me the N-word. You can question my Blackness. You can even call me ‘Uncle Tim,’” Scott also said Wednesday. “Just understand, your words are no match for my evidence. My existence shows your irrelevance. The truth of my life disproves your lies.” But it’s not racism on the left that’s going to be Scott’s problem in a GOP primary. How is Scott going to win a nomination given the Republican base has twice backed Trump, despite his history of racism, and seems to otherwise be considering DeSantis, as he wages war against AP African American history?