Somewhere in my recent travels, at a desert campground in rural California, I met a couple who was training for an off-road, cross-country race. I was six days removed from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where I had taken in the MyPillow C.E.O. and Donald Trump obsessive Mike Lindell’s Beckettsian “election fraud” symposium, replete with cameos from Steve Bannon, a zoom appearance from Alan Dershowitz, and exceedingly little plausible proof that Trump lost the 2020 election for any reason other than that more people voted for Joe Biden. As I made small talk with my new campmates, the question of American democracy was fresh in my mind. Inevitably, we started talking about my job, and inevitably, their long-buried feelings about Trump emerged.
During the conversation, the husband brought up an incident that I’d nearly forgotten after five years: the last time, he argued, that a Republican attempted to stop Trump from becoming leader of the G.O.P. It was July 2016, and Trump had just handily dispatched his final intra-party rival, Senator Ted Cruz, in the primaries.
Back then, amid the nascent Trump hysteria, there had been talk of leveraging the parliamentary quirks of the Republican National Committee to let delegates off the hook from the looming election result, allowing party leaders to orchestrate a brokered convention, effectively steamrolling the presumptive nominee. Alas, all these high-anxiety, political engineering stunts went unfulfilled. Any heresies were memory-holed, less than a week later, after Trump secured the nomination. (Ronna Romney McDaniel even dropped her maiden name.) But these were still the days when a Republican could openly wring their hands in despair over where Trump was leading the party, and lament that Hillary Clinton seemed destined to rout him.
It was then, onstage, in the middle of the convention, that Cruz conspicuously declined to endorse Trump. “If you love our country, and love our children as much as you do, stand, and speak, and vote your conscience,” he said, standing in front of an audience filled with Trump supporters, increasingly hostile to his message. “Vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom, and to be faithful to the constitution.”
At that very moment, Trump dramatically emerged from the back of the arena, staring daggers at Cruz, inciting all of his supporters to lustily boo the runner-up and his family as they were quickly ushered offstage. And just like that, my fellow travellers and I acknowledged, the era of dissent was over on the right. With few exceptions afterwards—John McCain, a random ex-C.I.A. operative, and several Congressional representatives who deliberately junked their political futures in the process—no Republican ever mounted a serious challenge for party primacy again.
Now, whether we want to admit it or not, Trump is coming back. Yes, his once omnipresent dog-whistling has been largely muted via bans on Twitter and Facebook; indeed, his Fox News groupies appear less hewed to his every degradation or self-aggrandizement; and, sure, the mainstream public is spared the Keeping Up with Kardashians ubiquity of familial buffoons like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. But if you’re an ambitious Republican politician pondering your 2024 prospects, there is, quite plainly, no way around Trump.
Despite his broader unpopularity and exile from social media, Trump retains his meaty grip on the G.O.P. with one hand and holds a dead man’s switch in the other. Unless he commits to not running for reelection—which seems implausible, given his desire for relevance—there will be little oxygen, and zero wiggle room, for other candidates to maneuver. They will be walking in his shadow.
A 2024 presidential straw poll last month at CPAC, our best barometer of the grassroots mood, found that Trump still commanded 70 percent of support, while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis trailed mightily at 21 percent. A category best described as 19 other prominent Republicans came in at less than 1 percent. The message to other presidential aspirants was clear: any challenge to Trump could invite excommunication, or at least a MAGA-approved primary challenger.
This is an unfavorable dynamic for Republicans looking to assert their own identity, or demonstrate leadership, separate from the brand of an embittered former president. When the CPAC organizers asked who attendees would vote for if Trump wasn’t on the ballot, only DeSantis seemed to stir the crowd, winning the informal poll with 68 percent of the vote. No other candidate—not South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, nor Don Jr. or Cruz or Mike Pompeo—achieved double digit support, though they did all notch more than 1 percent. (A better performance, at least, than in the previous poll.) Mike Pence, the actual former vice president, was virtually nowhere to be found.
Trump, naturally, is preserving optionality and building suspense by refusing to say much of anything about whether he’s running again. There’s no telling exactly whether this is strategic or yet another reality show twist—one G.O.P. strategist told me that he could envision a scenario in which Trump could dramatically hold off his announcement until right before the Republican National Convention, 36 months from now. That seemed far-fetched, but then again, it would be impossible to rule it out. After all, some Democrats fantasized that Hillary could come out of retirement to rescue a seemingly lackluster field last spring. In American politics, nothing is crazy anymore.
Trump isn’t known for his political Vulcan chess, but he may have backed a number of his potential challengers, or at least his would-be heirs, into a gnarly predicament. The real genius of Trump’s shadow campaign is how it has immobilized his rivals, forcing would-be challengers into positions of servility for as long as Trump can maintain his sway over the base and favor with Fox News.
Loyalty remains the default, safe position for Republicans, even when it demands painful equivocation about the legitimate outcome of the last election. Supporting Trump’s Big Lie is quietly and quickly becoming an essential issue for any candidate, just like cutting taxes. Pence, who had the temerity to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory on January 6, has likely disqualified himself for this reason.
The best these challengers can hope for, at the moment, is to gain recognition as Trump’s heir apparent—and hope that pole position in the VP lane can become the real thing if Trump crashes out of contention. That position, it seems, is DeSantis’s to lose, and at the moment he’s doing everything right for a rising MAGA star: fighting mask mandates, shrugging at the thought of promoting vaccines, hawking anti-Fauci campaign merchandise and being quite good on Hannity at blasting media reports about his performance. There’s even “Trump-DeSantis 2024” merch popping up on Trump fan sites, a sign of the governor’s unique and privileged status. There are also indications that DeSantis is eclipsing Trump in popularity, beating him by four points in one favorability poll conducted at the Western Conservative Summit in June.
This also makes DeSantis the biggest target for other would-be veeps. Politico reported this week that Noem has already been seen in Iowa, a must-visit stage for any aspiring presidential candidate, and trying to outflank DeSantis as the more hardline avatar of the anti-lockdown movement. (The issue became more complicated this week, as Noem came out against a ban on employer vaccine mandates, making an enemy of the conservative Daily Wire, while DeSantis doubled down in his opposition to mask mandates in schools, inciting an equally furious response from Florida parents.) Other potential challengers include Senators Tom Cotton, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley, among the aforementioned 19 candidates scraping the bottom of CPAC’s polling.
But even if Trump clears the path, there is no way that his presence doesn’t poison the proceedings. The greatest curveball of the 2024 race will be how these candidates reckon with Trump’s absolute insistence that the previous election was stolen from him—and that, through some extrajudicial witchcraft, he might be reinstated. Can they really run to be his heir while attesting that he never lost in the first place? But over half of Republican voters believe this, too, and Trump is all too eager to boost that number higher. At a rally last Saturday, he went out of his way to give Lindell, fresh off his failed “cyber symposium,” a speaking slot, while heaping praise on him as a patriot “willing to die for his country.”