Like he did twice before, Donald Trump is yet again campaigning to be “elected” United States president despite having little interest in actually “serving” as president. And this time, his presidential ambitions may well make it impossible for the Republican Party to secure the highest office of the land in the foreseeable future.
In 2016, Trump launched a presidential campaign largely to upset his critics and advertise his many business ventures, and surprised everyone – perhaps even himself – when he fully captured the Republican Party and declared victory. In 2020, he ran again because he needed the legal protection afforded by the office and felt entitled to re-election. When he lost, he refused to admit his defeat and claimed, without evidence, that the result was illegitimate. Now he is back in the ring because he wants to take back what he believes was “stolen” from him.
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It is, however, still far from certain that we will witness a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024. Indeed, it may prove difficult – if not impossible – for the former president to secure the Republican nomination.
By the time Trump became the official GOP nominee in 2016, most “never Trump” Republicans had fallen in line. And those few who continued to publicly oppose him after his election victory either retired or lost office through the course of his presidency. This allowed Trump to enter the 2020 race with a tight stronghold over the party. However, a lot has changed since then.
After the poor Republican showing in the 2022 midterm elections, many prominent Republicans – including some who supported Trump’s “stolen election” story after his 2020 defeat – turned against the former president. Large swaths of Republican voters concerned about Trump’s political prospects due to his countless legal scuffles also started to demand someone else represent them in the next election. Meanwhile, his money-grabbing stunts, such as his bizarre NFT trading-card venture, left even his staunchest allies unable to defend him.
In the face of a diminished Trump, several other contenders for the Republican nomination emerged.
The number one among those new contenders is without a doubt Florida’s recently re-elected Governor Ron DeSantis. In the last few years, DeSantis raised his profile in the Republican Party by placing himself further to the right of Trump and taking stances against vaccines, LGBTQ inclusion and so-called “wokeness” in general. Two major polls already predicted DeSantis would beat Trump in a head-to-head race for the 2024 Republican nomination.
Several other seasoned Republicans are also testing the waters for a potential run, such as former Trump officials Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley. And rising GOP stars like Glenn Youngkin are also waiting in the wings to see whether they should throw their hats into the ring. Many Republican voters and party insiders hope that one of these candidates will be able to carry the legacy of the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement and prevent it from being thrown into the dustbin of history due to Trump’s personal liabilities.
At this point, the best-case scenario for the GOP would be for Trump to drop out of the race, throw his support behind a consensus candidate such as DeSantis, and then remain relatively quiet. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with Trump’s character, however, knows that this is a highly unlikely scenario.
Another scenario that could work for the GOP would be one in which Trump’s mounting legal troubles lead to criminal charges, leaving him practically unable to sustain a presidential campaign. Even this, however, would not be the end of the Republican Party’s Trump troubles.
In such a scenario, both the Biden campaign and Trump himself would force the Republican nominee for president to declare his or her stance on Trump, forcing them to either align themselves with a possible criminal or anger Trump’s still-loyal supporters by attempting to distance themselves from the ex-president.
And that gets to the heart of the difficulty the GOP will face if it chooses anyone other than Trump as its nominee in the 2024 election.
If the party does not nominate Trump, a significant portion of Republican voters, feeling their leader has been betrayed by the party, may suddenly become “only Trumpers”.
From depressing the Republican vote through conspiracy theories about mail-in ballots to fomenting the January 6, 2021 insurrection, Trump has consistently shown that he’s willing to burn down the house rather than hand it over to someone else. So it is almost certain that if he feels slighted by the GOP, he will not hesitate to say and do everything necessary to turn his supporters against the party. Trump could even launch an independent third-party run if he loses the GOP nomination.
Of course, Election Day 2024 is a long way away, and things can still change.
Trump may be truly discredited or even jailed by the end of 2023, which could cause his stalwarts to wash their hands of him and unite behind an alternative GOP candidate.
Even if Trump manages to remain in the game till the election, political partisanship may still win over personal loyalty, and MAGA Republicans could vote for whoever the GOP nominates just to avoid another Democratic presidency.
Of course, another economic downturn or a major foreign policy disaster could also weaken President Joe Biden’s chances at re-election against whoever ends up being the Republican nominee.
As of now, however, the fractures Trump created within the Republican Party appear to be deeper than ever before. With Trump still desperate to be elected president, it is unlikely that the GOP will be able to unite behind another leader and change its electoral fortunes anytime soon. So for the time being, the 2024 election appears to be President Biden’s to lose.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.