For the GOP in 2024, It’s Still Trump

Since he first ran for president, Donald Trump has not only become the dominant figure in Republican politics — he’s embedded his own priorities and personal style deep in the GOP base. They’ll accept no substitutes for the real thing at this point.

Donald Trump greets the crowd during a campaign rally in Tampa, Florida, on July 31, 2018. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

This week, a poll conducted by Morning Consult about the 2024 Republican presidential field put Donald Trump at nearly 50 percent support with likely GOP primary voters, ahead of presumed rival Ron DeSantis by double digits. Former vice president Mike Pence sits at a meager 7 percent, while former South Carolina governor and Trump appointee Nikki Haley — expected to launch her presidential bid later this month — barely scored outside the margin of error.

Given the renewed animus toward Trump currently emanating from the GOP establishment, it’s easy to imagine various GOP candidacies materializing over the next few months beyond those that currently look likely. If he does run, DeSantis can be expected to pitch himself to Republican elites and primary voters as some kind of compromise candidate, an ersatz substitute for Trump himself all too happy to play to the esoteric concerns of the GOP base without the political baggage. Liz Cheney (incidentally at 2 percent in this week’s Morning Consult poll) could enter the fray and would probably be more popular among Democrats than those whose votes she would actually be courting.

While he doesn’t actually appear in the recent polling, it’s also easy to imagine a figure like Josh Hawley trying to peddle a right-wing version of Elizabeth Warren–ism and fusing a populist posture with more media-friendly appeals to policy wonkery. John Bolton, whose stated intention to run has so far been greeted with a mixture of indifference and ridicule, would probably do so on a single issue: the necessity of total war with Iran.

Should these candidacies or others like them materialize over the next few months, it’s exceedingly unlikely it will ultimately matter. In the seven years since he announced his initial run for president, Trump has not only become the dominant figure in Republican politics — he’s effectively made his own priorities, reflexes, and affectations the lingua franca of the Republican base. Despite losing reelection and earning blame for the GOP’s lackluster result in the midterms, he is currently sitting at nearly 50 percent support among Republican primary voters, with campaigning yet to even properly begin.

In modern American political history, there is no precedent for this. It’s not completely unheard of for a single figure to win multiple presidential nominations. In the 1890s, Grover Cleveland was elected to a second, nonconsecutive term despite having lost the 1888 election to Republican Benjamin Harrison. But no other individual has become a party’s presidential nominee in the face of such fierce resistance from its elites, gone on to win a general election, subsequently lost reelection, and then been the presumed front-runner in the following cycle.

For that reason, it’s very difficult to imagine any combination of personality, rhetoric, or policy that could ply Republican primary voters away from their longtime tribune. Whatever you think Trumpism ultimately is, it very clearly is not a conventional phenomenon resting on established premises or traditional assumptions about electoral politics. Ideologically, it might have more in common with the long-term conservative project than many would like to admit. But the essence of its appeal has always been less intellectual than emotive and aesthetic. Notwithstanding the various themes and ideas Trump has taken up since launching his first campaign in 2015, his attractiveness to large swathes of the GOP base has always had more to do with catharsis and libidinal attachment than any single policy or ideological commitment.

This is one reason why the countermeasures so often deployed against him by both liberals and conservative opponents — fact-checking, exposing hypocrisy, appealing to national honor — have proven so ineffective: all presume a world where politics are still regulated by an abstract superego consisting of norms, institutions, and codes of conduct. If nothing else, Trump recognizes that his success and popularity owe themselves near exclusively to freedom from these things.

It’s that freedom, grounded in unchecked id, that has enabled Trump’s improbable transformation into the de facto patriarch of the American right — and that, barring something completely unforeseen, will likely carry him to the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.