Former President Donald Trump is running for president again, an almost inevitable development that still feels a bit surreal. However, in stark contrast to his previous campaign, Trump’s viability within his own party is an open question this time around.
Gone is the 2020 unity behind an incumbent president, the willingness to do without a true primary race or party-sponsored debates or even a platform beyond whatever came out of Trump’s mouth. The New York TimesBret Stephens has stated that Trump is “finally done,” while conservative writer Kevin Williamson claims in the same pages that the former president “remains leader of the Republican Party” and “could win again.”
Both predictions could easily turn out to be correct. Assuming some reasonably convincing challengers—sayFlorida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as widely expected — the question that will determine Trump’s fate in the GOP primary is how exactly Republican voters want to own the libs.
For the sake of discussion, let’s set aside the institutional problems of the GOP would have to get rid of Trump in a timely manner and focus on that vote file. We know that negative partisanship is high (as with the Democrats), and victory is paramount. But within the base, there are two different and sometimes competing dynamics of how the libraries should be owned.
One we could call the troll.
The voters in this camp personally love Trump. Their affection for him is unique and probably not transferable. They enjoy his showmanship, salesmanship and comedic timing. They think his insults are sharp, his one-liners funny, and his continued ability to throw large swathes of the mainstream media into an emotional frenzy is hilarious. They laugh at the New York Timesblack hole for you sad Trump feels right now. It’s exactly the kind of “snowflake” response they’d like Trump to elicit from their political opponents. Victory in this model is performative and cultural. The libs are most possessed when they scream in anguished frustration.
For 2024, Trump is still the obvious choice for voters who want to own the troll. DeSantis — let alone former Vice President Mike Pence — isn’t as fascinating or funny as Trump. A President DeSantis would not reliably produce the same emotional highs that a President Trump could provide. He would be far less quotable even if Trump’s nickname game was in decline. Unless TBEN News host Tucker Carlson unexpectedly enters the race, Trump is arguably the best candidate for Republicans looking for a president who can cause the Democrats to collapse for another four years.
The second camp is interested in a more transactional owner.
They want a prize that is more substantive than feelings, more tangible than a smile. They want acquire and handle government power for specific purposes. They have a real policy agenda: perhaps appointing judges, or banning critical race theories, or tackling inflation, or sticking to Red China, or simply preventing three-fecta democratic governance and the policies that might produce it.
The transactional voter may like or deplore Trump’s offensive antics, but the antics are not a deciding factor—unless they become a hindrance to achieving more practical goals of policy and power. Victory here is formal and legal. The libs are most owned when the elaborate state apparatus they have built turns against them and the causes they hold dear.
For voters making this calculation, the case for Trump is weak and getting weaker. “Whatever purpose they think he was meant to serve: returning working-class voters to the Republican fold; restoration of nationalism in conservative ideology; rejecting the authority of supposed experts – is served,” as Stephens argued. “Others can now do the same thing better, without the drama and division.” Trump may have been useful once, but a more disciplined flag bearer could be even more useful. Get the best tools at hand.
Which dynamics of library ownership will prevail in the 2024 primary remains to be seen. The transactional model is clearly favored by the Republican elite, who run a story about Trump out for costing the GOP election.
See for example National reviewTrump’s new case against Trump’s candidacy, which portrays him as a loser whose erratic behavior during his term undermined Republican goals. Or see The American conservative‘s flagship blogger Rod Dreher, declaring that he is “tired of Trump diehards who care more about admitting their obsession with Trump and rolling into the psychodrama like hogs in mud than about winning actual elections and enacting change.” bring into the world.”
But among the average Republican primary voter whose musings don’t get published in major outlets, the troll’s own is undoubtedly popular. Can a post-Trump politics entertain in the way the grassroots has become accustomed to? Roles in psychodrama are fun!
One prediction, however, seems certain: If Trump lands another nomination, many—probably most—of the transactional faction will once again fall into line. (Dreher promised that just two paragraphs later.)
The pragmatic case against Trump will be twisted into an argument to remake the 2016 deal: Even power badly exercised is better than no power at all.