If Donald Trump tries to run for president again, one of his former campaign advisers has a plan to dissuade him. Anticipating that Trump may not know who Adlai Stevenson was or that he lost two straight presidential elections in the 1950s, this ex-adviser figures he or someone else might need to explain the man’s unhappy fate. They’ll remind Trump that if he were beaten in 2024, he would join Stevenson as one of history’s serial losers. “I think that would resonate,” said this person, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “Trump hates losers.”
Trump might not listen to his former campaign confidant. But the mere fact that someone who worked to elect Trump the first time is rehearsing arguments to stop a comeback suggests that the former president’s tight grip on the Republican Party may be slipping. A few other developments in recent weeks point to the early stirrings of a Republican Party in which Trump is sidelined. Glenn Youngkin’s recent victory in the Virginia governor’s race demonstrated that a Republican candidate could win in a battleground state without yoking himself to Trump. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, now making the rounds to promote a new book that counters Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 election, signaled that he might run for the 2024 GOP nomination whether or not Trump enters the race. A poll last month offered encouraging news for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire, the state that traditionally holds the first primary contest of the presidential-election season. Though Trump was the first choice among likely Republican voters, DeSantis’s favorability rating had climbed to 62 percent, eight points higher than Trump’s.
Unlike past presidents who willingly ceded the stage after defeat, Trump has made himself impossible to ignore since leaving office earlier this year. He’s behaving like a candidate-in-waiting. “I’d be shocked if he doesn’t run,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, told me. “I think Trump is our best pick, to be honest with you, because everybody knows his flaws, but his successes are in stark contrast to what we’re experiencing now.” (A pandemic, two impeachments, and an economic collapse don’t sound like triumphs, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Many GOP politicians covet a Trump endorsement in the upcoming midterm races, and he is raising tens of millions of dollars that he can spread among congressional candidates who are protective of his interests. He’s continually in the news as investigators unpack his role in attempting to overturn the 2020 election results. When families gather for Thanksgiving this week, it’s a fair bet that there will be a lot more people stewing over Trump than musing about the sitting president, Joe Biden. “This will be the sixth consecutive Thanksgiving where Trump talk will be on the menu,” Kellyanne Conway, a former counselor to the president, told me. “People are still obsessed with him.”
Trump wants to keep it that way. His status within the GOP helps him command the boundless attention he craves, and he’s not about to lose that dominance without a fight. He lashed back at Christie’s impertinence in suggesting that it’s time to accept that Biden won the 2020 election. Christie, Trump said in a statement, was “absolutely massacred” for such heresy. Privately, the former president has been dismissive of maybe his most formidable potential rival for the 2024 party nomination: DeSantis. When DeSantis’s name pops up in conversations, Trump is prone to reminding everyone in earshot that his endorsement in Florida’s 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary lifted DeSantis over the presumed favorite, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, one person close to the former president told me. Trump “reminds everybody that he made” DeSantis, this person said. “There’s no doubt that Trump made him, and no doubt that Ron resents that he gets reminded of that all the time.”
Trump’s most potent means of retaining his hold on his party is perpetuating the idea that he’ll be back on the ballot in three years. Whether he goes through with launching a reelection campaign may be beside the point. Stepping aside would be tantamount to inviting a slew of Republican candidates to jump in the 2024 presidential-nomination race and fill the space he’s vacating. Trump is not about to let his relevancy plummet.
“Imagine what would happen if he said, ‘After careful consideration, I won’t be a candidate in 2024,’” John Bolton, the former Trump White House national security adviser, told me. “You can hear the spotlight switches turning off. He’ll talk about it [running for president again] right up until the point when he doesn’t.”
Bolton’s belief is that, in the end, Trump won’t run and risk another defeat. On this point, the signs seem mixed. Trump has been coy. He gave an interview to Fox News earlier this month saying he would “probably” wait until after the midterm elections to announce whether he’ll run, though he added, “I think a lot of people will be very happy, frankly, with the decision.” He’s lost some weight, perhaps an indication that he’s girding for one more race, or maybe just the natural result of less stress-eating, as some in his orbit told me.
Earlier this year, a group of Trump-administration alumni started a nonprofit called the America First Policy Institute. It’s a kind of placeholder for the next Trump administration should he run again and win, a second former campaign adviser told me. (Trump’s son-in-law and former senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, is not involved in plotting Trump’s possible return, a person familiar with the matter told me. Kushner is writing a book that is due out next year.)
A more immediate test of Trump’s clout will come during the midterms. He’s so focused on punishing perceived enemies within the GOP that he may wind up endorsing challengers with no real chance of winning. Take Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the only Senate Republican who both voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial this year and will be on the ballot next November. Trump has already endorsed one of her opponents, Kelly Tshibaka. But Murkowski, who has served in the Senate for nearly two decades, has proved a tenacious campaigner. In 2010, she won a write-in campaign against a conservative Tea Party opponent, the first senator to pull off such a feat in a half century. Tshibaka will have trouble deposing the resilient Murkowski, and if she fails, Trump won’t seem like the kingmaker he imagines himself to be.
Much the same dynamic holds true in Wyoming. Trump has targeted Representative Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach him in January and now serves on the House committee investigating the insurrection at the Capitol. He endorsed one of Cheney’s primary challengers, Harriet Hageman, after meeting with other possible rivals at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. Polling shows that Cheney will have a tough race. Yet if she and Murkowski both win, Trump will “look like a fucking dummy because he endorsed the wrong people,” the second former campaign adviser said.
Trump’s bond with the Republican base is emotional, not rational. If it were rational, his voters might recognize that the party struggled on his watch and risks further losses if he remains its putative leader. After all, when he returned to Mar-a-Lago as a private citizen, the House, Senate, and White House were under Democratic control—and they still are. Even Graham concedes that Trump could blow the next election too, if he runs a general campaign that obsesses about his 2020 defeat. “If it becomes a grievance campaign, we’re in trouble,” he said.
Perhaps the Adlai Stevenson example will prove persuasive. If Trump sees his poll numbers sliding over the next couple of years, if his involvement in the midterms backfires, he might stand down, as some of his allies predict. “I don’t think he wants to risk losing twice,” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, told me. “Once, you can argue about the outcome. Twice, it becomes a repudiation.”