Don’t call it a comeback—because God help us, Donald Trump never left.
After 22 months of overstaying his national welcome, Trump officially invited himself back into our lives on Tuesday night with a decidedly low-energy presidential campaign declaration featuring his repellent mix of anger, lies, and grievance.
Trump’s weird act, which he spent the better part of the past week telegraphing, was all the stranger given the context surrounding his decision to suddenly jump into the waters of the 2024 presidential election cycle: The 2022 ballots haven’t even all been counted, and the Georgia Senate race is heading for a runoff, and yet here is Trump, threatening to disrupt the GOP’s chances in 2024 as well as some of its remaining 2022 hopes. The GOP’s vastly diminished midterm performance has the former president’s diminutive fingerprints all over it. This is presumably why, with a straight face, Trump characterized his involvement as an “unprecedented success.”
There aren’t many in the Republican fold who are eager to agree with that assessment. This was the third election running in which Trump did as much to hurt his ostensible party as help it. He primarily touched off a new round of alarms wailing on the right, adding a fresh, keening note of urgency to the latest dump-Trump boomlet—though it truly seems like this iteration is a bit more serious than all the other ones. Even Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is weighing in against Trump (again, anyway).
This is a familiar crossroads for the GOP: Is it time to break with the party’s standard-bearer? Once again, they have arrived back at this fork in the road based on some understandable instincts: Trump is palpably toxic; he is also extremely addictive. But there’s a critical question that the non-Trump GOP hasn’t been able to answer—or hasn’t had the courage to ask—since he started winning presidential primaries back in 2016: What’s the endgame? What’s the path to a viable but Trump-free GOP?
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t exist. This is a suicide mission.
Let’s walk through the possible scenarios, in roughly descending order of likelihood.
Let’s say Trump wins the nomination again. Since well before he even jumped into the 2016 presidential race, the right has entertained a fair amount of anti-Trump grousing. It periodically bubbles into the open when he does something insane like attacking gold star families (repeatedly) or, you know … sending an angry mob to attack the Capitol. Trump nevertheless endures, and it doesn’t take much time before party leaders are prostrating themselves once again.
Axios can cite sagging polls and call Trump an “underdog,” but Trump remains the presumptive front-runner unless and until Republican voters cast him down in actual primaries. Who wants to take that bet? Trump still connects with the GOP base, feeling their pain—and then amplifies and channels it. In this regard, he will have a head start on whatever presumptive primary field arises to try to wrest away the crown.
It’s true—despite his hoary “drain the swamp” verbiage Tuesday and ritual denunciation of “the Washington establishment [that] wants to silence us”—that Trump is no longer an outsider onto whom voters can project their hopes and, especially, fears. But Trump’s appeal was never rooted in policy. His was a presidency built atop mood and resentment and truculence. Building a border wall wasn’t about some tangible outcome of immigration policy, any more than “Lock her up” was about information security policy. This was vibes, all the way down.
Would a 2024 Trump nomination work out for the GOP? He won before and might again. It may be hard to imagine the country would want more Trump after eight unrelenting years, but 2020’s outcome was pretty close when you consider the apocalyptic incompetence Trump demonstrated during the pandemic. But win or lose, the party would only be more enmeshed with the Trump brand.
But what if Trump loses the nomination? Here’s where we can measure the precise sharpness of horns of the GOP’s dilemma. Does anyone believe that Donald Trump will be a gracious loser? That he’d bow out and support the nominee who bested him? This is a guy who denounced both the Republican primaries and general election 2016—both of which he won—as “rigged.” He has a consistent playbook to which he has stuck since well before he pointed a lynch mob at his own vice president. Trump will likely start the “rigged” drumbeat well before he loses the nomination.
It won’t end there. Part of Trump’s longevity stems from his connection with the GOP base (his political human shields). But it also derives from his psychopathic narcissism. Many of the rules of politics just don’t apply to Trump, because they rely on baseline levels of honesty, integrity, loyalty … hell, even shame—what he seems to view as sucker qualities. Ordinary politicians admit when they lose, express contrition when caught in a lie, and behave accordingly. Donald just keeps implacably Trumping along, spewing his mendacity and conspiracy theories. The crooked establishment is always somehow depriving him—and America!—of another glorious victory.
It’s impossible to envisage Trump losing a GOP presidential primary without also imagining that he would immediately either launch a third-party run or command his supporters to boycott the general election—or both. Given the polarized nature of the country, he probably wouldn’t need many voters to comply; just a few percent in some key states might doom Trump’s would-be successor. Would violence, perhaps at the 2024 GOP convention, be out of the question? This is a guy who riled up a mob and aimed it at his own vice president and then happily watched it rampage. And got away with it, because these same Republicans forgave it.
He was willing to sell the country out to retain his power—does anyone believe that he’d hesitate to sell out the GOP? No, this would be Trump as Khan at the end of Star Trek II, battered, burnt, bleeding—and vengeful: “You can’t get away. From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee!” (The key differences would be that Trump wouldn’t quote Melville and the GOP wouldn’t be able to warp away to safety.)
Trump could also get indicted. Serious question: Do GOP rules preclude someone from running for office if under indictment or incarcerated? Part of the reason he has announced is because he thinks it will shield him from the investigations he’s facing. He’ll denounce any attempt to bring him to justice as political persecution, and his followers will eat it up. It would probably rally the GOP establishment, such as it is, to the Trump banner.
And who knows? Perhaps Trump will fail thanks to the intervention of some deus ex machina. This is the “underpants gnomes” scenario: Step one: Trump announces; step two: ???; step three: Trump drops out. Maybe his health will force him to leave both the race and the stage. Maybe he’ll have a complete change in personality. Maybe you shouldn’t bet on either outcome. One theory that has endured these many years is that they (whoever they are) will make him an offer he can’t refuse—perhaps an escape from prosecution in exchange for a quiet exit. But what could anyone offer him that he couldn’t achieve himself once back in the Oval Office?
But if there’s one constant, it’s the lack of a good scenario for the GOP. Win, lose, or draw, the party is going to need a substantial amount of time to unwind itself from the Faustian bargain it made in 2015—and there’s every reason to suspect that this is a concern it’ll endeavor to avoid rather than confront. Trump is a parasite so enmeshed with its host that it can neither be safely removed nor left intact. He is a human political suicide pact from which the Republican Party cannot presently escape.