Trump in 2024? If Republicans Dread It, Then Yes!

The Former Guy may be the GOP's biggest liability going forward. He already is.

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Former President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with attendees at the "Rally to Protect Our Elections" hosted by Turning Point Action at Arizona Federal Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Frankly, if I were a Democratic strategist I would want Donald Trump in the hunt for 2024 as long as possible. I would do anything I could to make that happen.

And this is why.

If you missed Jeremy Peters’ report on private GOP handwringing yesterday, you might want to go read it in the New York Times now. Peters says what those of us who have been following the story have also observed: that Trump denialism about the events of January 6 is subtly different from the general policy of GOP denial, or minimizing, of what was a harebrained attempt at a coup.

These two kinds of denialism are also aimed at different audiences. Trump’s brand of crazy is aimed at extremists and only secondarily at what remains of the GOP establishment, while the denialism of your average GOP politician is not crazy, it’s strategic, and it is aimed almost exclusively at Trump.

For Trump, and the extremists who are loyal to him, the stolen election really happened, and the attack on the Capitol was a logical response to that. Even though we know, from several accounts, that Trump is repelled by people who wear funny costumes and hang nooses on his behalf, we also know that he welcomes organized white supremacists like the Proud Boys as supporters and that once you do that, those to the right of the Proud Boys are bound to show up for the costume party.

Being a practical, if deranged, man, Trump knows that spectacles matter—the bigger and scarier, the better. As a former reality television star who specialized in making otherwise ordinary professionals do bizarre, embarrassing things to win his approval, such as sell lemonade on the street corner. My guess is that he has a higher tolerance for people who wear horns and fur capes than the rest of us do.

For others in the GOP leadership, minimizing the events of January 6 and being evasive about whether the 2020 election was stolen sound the same, but they aren’t. On the one hand, as Peters points out, not backing Trump up on “the steal” has predictable consequences: being publicly rebuked by the Former Guy, perhaps being primaried by one or more of his acolytes, and absolutely drawing the ire of Trump supporters (even those who aren’t extremists) who have no compunctions about sending death threats to those who do not support their cause.

Trump has less than majority support among GOP voters for a presidential run, but Peters reminds us that this shouldn’t, in itself, comfort anyone. A majority do agree that he is the head of their party, and they don’t want him out of politics. Equivocating, dissembling, or lying about the 2020 election to stay aligned with the ex-president, as a charismatic leader and titular leader of the GOP, Trump remains highly influential. As Peters writes,

Many Republicans don’t seem to want to hear anything critical about him. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center, for instance, highlighted the lack of an appetite for much dissent. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans, Pew found, said their party should not be accepting of elected officials who criticize Mr. Trump.

We will understand more about this phenomenon as time passes, but unfortunately, 2022 is right around the corner.

That said, the GOP is now in a Scarlett O’Hara position: do they abandon Tara, and take a chance that there is a new life out there that resembles the old one, or do they hold their noses, find a way to pay the taxes, and build a New South on the ruins of the old one?

We know what Scarlett chose—but the GOP is radically unsure at this point, and they can’t keep the party from cracking apart forever. And the truth is, as much as we talk about “divisions” in the Democratic party between progressives, liberals, and moderates, we have some evidence that Democrats are willing to do the work to keep moving forward without torching intra-party relationships.

Any way they turn from here on out, GOP candidates have Trump sticking to them like dog excrement on a shoe. That reality requires telling one lie or another—but excludes campaigning as an authentic conservative who is speaking from principle to other authentic conservatives. It makes candidacies shallow and incoherent, and it makes it possible for thinking Republicans to sit on their hands rather than vote for candidates who speak to them like Trump puppets.

And here’s the other thing that causes people to sit on their hands: Trump telling his people not to vote. Everyone knows this and they can’t get him to stop doing it. As Peters notes, minority leader Mitch McConnell

has told colleagues that he is concerned Mr. Trump’s campaign to relitigate the 2020 election could depress confidence among Republican voters and hurt the party’s chances at winning back the majority it lost this year after Democrats captured Georgia’s two Senate seats. Republican leaders warned Mr. Trump at the time that by blaming fraud for his loss, he would convince many of his supporters in Georgia that their votes in the Senate runoff election on Jan. 5 wouldn’t count, deterring them from participating.

That number could be as high as 5-10% of the conservative electorate, which would be big trouble for someone like Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate for governor of Virginia, who needs sunny skies and a surge of voters to put him over the top. And no GOP candidate can count on Trump showing up at a rally and supporting the candidate in any more than a cursory way: instead he obsesses about the “stolen” election.

Trump’s fixation on his own loss could be due to narcissism, an obsession with dark web “news” sites, progressive dementia, or sheer perversity, but it doesn’t matter. When Barack Obama or Joe Biden shows up to support a candidate, they say: “This is my candidate! Vote for them and you vote for me!” When Trump shows up, he endorses himself, and encourages potential voters to understand casting ballots as a meaningless activity.

The GOP is coming to terms with how unstable it now is to base an electoral strategy on extremism: it’s been hard for them to perceive it, because they have mobilized extremists for decades in one way or another. Even though going along with Trump’s crazy has permitted the party, in multiple cases, to legally rig future elections in their favor, it is an unstable and unpredictable strategy when it comes to wooing actual voters. As Stevens writes, “the harder Mr. Trump’s allies push their election fraud claims, the harder it becomes to satisfy their most hard-core followers.”

By definition, this is what it means to be an extremist. As it happens, I encounbtered a similar observation in Talia Levin’s Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy (LegacyLit, 2020). Levin, who went undercover on extremist internet sites to research and write the book, notes how quickly Trump’s supporters turn on him when he does not meet their expectations—and how thoroughly hostile they are to Trump supporters who are as out of the mainstream as Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk. The point of extremism, Levin underlines, is the extremism. Satisfying one desire, such as closing the borders to immigrants, only produces another, more radical position such as: why not round up all immigrants and expel them? And if that doesn’t happen, rage follows.

In other words, extremists don’t do deliberative democracy at all, nor do they make compromises. They make demands. And when those demands are satisfied, they make more demands. And more.

Because of this, there is no Trump in 2024 strategy that does not gut the GOP as a functioning political party. Their strategists know it. So the question is: can Republicans hold it together and seize Congress before that happens, so that they can ditch Trump?

Or do the wheels start to come off in the 2022 cycle?

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What I’m writing:

  • In my monthly Alternet column, I ask: why do the endless cycle of political crises, and Congressional hearings, over Facebook not spur government action to regulate social media? (October 14, 2021)

Short takes:

  • Three hundred Black Congressional staffers say they want change. Currently only two of their number are in leadership positions, and they want the opportunity to have a bigger impact. “Black staff members say getting hired is a long process of networking, milking connections, and scoping out which members of Congress will not flinch at a conversation about race,” Kavi writes, “or will allow aides to wear their natural hair.” (Aishvarya Kavi, New York Times October 17, 2021)

  • In an interview with Mike Allen of Axios, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) argues that elected leaders in all branches of government should take and pass regular cognition tests beginning at 80. Cassidy is a doctor, and as he points out, dementia can present and advance quite rapidly after that age. (October 18, 2021) In a rare bipartisan moment, I agree. And if you want to disagree and cite the Founders on this one, let me say that it probably never occurred to them that people would remain in public life past 70. The average life expectancy in the late eighteenth century was lower than forty, and it was only 42 on the eve of the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson lived to the extraordinary age of 83, but he left political life in his late 60s.

  • Did you know that the pay gap between men and women widens as the work becomes more high status? Researchers Laura Kray and Margaret Lee explain that telling women that they will get more if they ask for more is untrue: women and men request raises in equal numbers, but men succeed more frequently. Furthermore, at high-status firms, women are given fewer responsibilities and put in charge of smaller teams, which leads to being perceived by supervisors as less successful. (The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2021)