The Race to Inherit Trump's MAGA Base Is Already On—And the Knives Are Out | Vanity Fair
Category: News & PoliticsVia: hallux • 2 weeks ago • 6 comments
By: Conde Nast (Vanity Fair)
On the evening of July 19, several dozen Republican donors gathered for dinner in a private room at the St. Regis Aspen to hear Nikki Haley deliver a speech. The former South Carolina governor had been invited by the Republican Governors Association, which was holding its typically drama-free summer meeting at the exclusive Rocky Mountain resort. It would be a prime platform for Haley to court 27 red-state governors as she lays the groundwork for a future presidential run. But when Haley took the stage, attendees noticed that Florida governor Ron DeSantis was conspicuously absent. According to an attendee, DeSantis was holding his own fundraiser 20 miles up the road in Basalt, Colorado. "Ron was pissed he didn't get asked to speak," the attendee later recalled.
Welcome to the 2024 Republican presidential primary.
At this nascent stage, it's common for prospective candidates to compete fiercely for donor dollars and Fox News airtime. But the 2024 contest is playing out like no other in memory. That's because the race is either entirely wide open or over before it begins. The outcome hinges on the whims, grievances, and obsessions of one Donald J. Trump.
The 45th president retains a psychic grip on the MAGA-fied Republican base more than six months after leaving office despite two impeachments, the horrors of the January 6 Capitol riot, and nearly 350,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths. In July, Trump dominated the Conservative Political Action Committee straw poll with 70 percent of the vote. (DeSantis came in a distant second, with 21 percent.) "It's a metaphysical impossibility that anybody, even a senator named Jesus H. Christ, could beat Trump in a Republican primary if he runs," said Michael Caputo, a veteran of Trump's 2016 campaign who briefly served as spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The candidates know this. Haley, who served as Trump's U.N. ambassador, told The Associated Press in April that she wouldn't run if Trump did. Others, such as DeSantis, Texas senator Ted Cruz, and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, tell reporters they're merely focused on the midterms. But just because candidates won't openly challenge Trump doesn't mean they're not testing the waters in the event Trump doesn't jump in. "If Trump doesn't run, you're going to have 2016 on steroids. There will be 25 to 30 people running for president," a prominent Republican said. Could the field include Tucker Carlson? Sean Hannity? Even congresswoman conspiracist Marjorie Taylor Greene? Anything's possible.
Given Trump's long history of turning will-he-or-won't-he speculation into a media spectacle, there's little chance he'll declare his 2024 intentions until after the midterms at the earliest. "I think that people will be very happy with my decision," Trump told me when we spoke in mid-August. He was on the phone from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Removed from office, his mood was relaxed and upbeat. "I think MAGA is stronger than it's ever been before," he said. Trump particularly relished New York governor Andrew Cuomo's resignation, announced two days before. "I thought he was a tough guy. Maybe he wasn't," Trump said.
Mostly, though, Trump seemed to enjoy watching his potential 2024 rivals being forced to anticipate his next move. "Knowing Trump, he'll dangle it right up to the New Hampshire primary filing deadline," a Trump confidant told me. Which means candidates are stuck waiting for Trump to get in or get out while they pretend not to be campaigning even as they knife one another behind the scenes. "It's a holding pattern," a frustrated Haley adviser said. "It's unlike any previous race."
After Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican National Committee famously commissioned an "autopsy" to diagnose the party's problems with voters. The internal review produced a 100-page report that advised candidates to broaden the party's appeal to Hispanics, Blacks, and women. Three years later, that blueprint was blown up when Trump descended his golden escalator and labeled Mexican immigrants "rapists." "The Republican Party became a cult of personality," said Sally Bradshaw, a former Jeb Bush adviser who coauthored the 2012 RNC autopsy. (Bradshaw quit the GOP in 2016. She now runs an independent bookstore in Tallahassee, Florida.)
Republicans didn't even bother with a self-assessment following Trump's loss to Joe Biden. "The reason there wasn't an audit this time is the people left in the party don't care about solving problems," Bradshaw said. If anything, the party's takeaway from 2020 is that the base wants it to become more Trumpian. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in May reported that 61 percent of Republicans agree with Trump's big lie, that Biden stole the election. A Politico poll in June found that 3 in 10 Republicans subscribed to the conspiracy theory that Trump will be "reinstated" as president.
In July, I called Roger Stone to hear his take on which GOP candidates are best positioned to inherit the MAGA mantle. Stone, after all, was the architect of Trump's political career, which began when Trump flirted with a presidential run in 1988 to promote The Art of the Deal. "It's very difficult to fill Trump's shoes in the America First movement," Stone said. "It can't be handed off like a baton." Stone also believes the 2024 primary will be the first Republican contest in memory that hasn't been shaped by Fox News. The rise of more strident MAGA outlets like One America News and Newsmax have opened new avenues to connect with the base. "I don't think Fox will wield the same influence that they did in the past," Stone said. "The most loyal and religious Fox viewers have moved on."
If it were up to Stone, Michael Flynn would be the party's 2024 nominee, which, Stone acknowledges, is highly unlikely. (Both Stone and Flynn received pardons from Trump for felony convictions related to the Mueller investigation.) Of the other potential contenders, Stone is most impressed with DeSantis.
Since being elected Florida's governor in 2018, the 43-year-old former congressman has deftly positioned himself as a mini-Trump. He rebuffed public health guidelines during the nadir of the COVID-19 pandemic and kept Florida virtually free of a statewide lockdown in 2020. In May, he signed a restrictive voting rights bill live on Fox News. And in June, DeSantis dispatched Florida law enforcement agents to Texas to "secure [the] southern border." According to one recent conservative poll, DeSantis beat Trump with a 74 percent approval rating. (Trump scored 71 percent.) One former Trump adviser recently texted me a photo of DeSantis merch: a hat that said "DeSantis 2024: Make America Florida."
DeSantis has also built a powerful fundraising machine. According to the Miami Herald, his political action committee raised almost $14 million in April, bringing its total haul to about $31.6 million. Hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin made a $5 million donation. "DeSantis is the most valuable player this year. He's Trump without the negatives," said Scott Reed, the former chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Although DeSantis looks like a front-runner now, a lot can go wrong between now and the New Hampshire primary. For one thing, DeSantis's supposed success at managing COVID is being torched by the delta variant raging out of control in Florida. DeSantis also needs to win reelection in 2022 (a recent poll showed him losing to Republican turned Democrat Charlie Crist). But assuming DeSantis prevails, former staffers told me that his abrasive personality could become a liability under the pressures of a national campaign. DeSantis is known to only trust his wife, Casey, a former newscaster, and his staff has seen heavy turnover. "He has zero relationships. He just doesn't speak to you," one former staffer told me. In May, Politico reported that former DeSantis staffers set up a "support group" to commiserate over their experiences working for him. DeSantis didn't respond to requests for comment.
DeSantis's biggest challenge, though, will be navigating his fraught relationship with Trump. "Trump fucking hates DeSantis. He just resents his popularity," a second Trump confidant told me. ("Ron is a good guy," Trump said.) According to a source, advisers for Pompeo have been promoting DeSantis in hopes of stoking Trump's jealousy. "Pompeo's people are building up DeSantis as the leader of the Republican Party to piss Trump off," the source said.
Part of Trump's irritation with DeSantis is that Trump feels that DeSantis doesn't give Trump enough credit for his rise. "Trump tells people, 'I made Ron.' Trump says that about a lot of people. But in this case, it's actually true," a prominent Republican said. ("He gives me good credit," Trump told me.)
Illustrations by CHRISTOPHER BUZELLI.
According to sources, then Congressman DeSantis cultivated Trump's support during the 2018 gubernatorial election by hanging out at Trump's Washington, D.C., hotel. "He asked me if I'd endorse him," Trump recalled. For much of the primary, DeSantis trailed Florida agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam. But after Trump backed DeSantis in June, DeSantis zoomed 12 points ahead and went on to win by nearly 20 points. "The second I endorsed Ron, he blew through everybody," Trump said.
Once in office, DeSantis irked Trump further by putting his political ambitions ahead of Trump's demand for blind loyalty. According to a source, DeSantis announced publicly in the fall of 2019 that Trump would attend the Florida GOP's annual statesman dinner before the White House signed off on the invitation, which effectively forced Trump to appear. Last year, I reported that DeSantis rejected Trump's pleas to close Florida's beaches as the pandemic raged. In the wake of the Surfside condo collapse in June, DeSantis and Trump clashed over Trump's plan to hold a MAGA rally in Florida while the search for survivors continued. (Trump denied there was a dispute, but DeSantis didn't attend the rally.) On July 1, DeSantis appeared alongside Biden and praised him for the federal government's response to the tragedy. The moment recalled the greeting between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and President Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy.
DeSantis needs to walk a tightrope as he seeks to position himself for a 2024 run. According to a source, DeSantis has told donors that he won't openly campaign in Iowa or New Hampshire before his 2022 Florida reelection campaign. But he's clearly in the strongest position at the moment. "Heading into 2024, DeSantis is primed to push Trump off the throne," former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg told me. "Trump surely sees this coming and will ultimately offer Governor DeSantis a joint ticket."
Of course, DeSantis's 2024 rivals hope he is peaking too early. In 2013, Marco Rubio graced the cover of Time as the "Republican Savior." A Haley adviser pointed out that former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker had also once been touted as the next big thing. (Walker dropped out four months before the 2016 Iowa caucus.)
If DeSantis's star fizzles, a crowded field of candidates are jockeying to take his place. In the Senate, there's 41-year-old Josh Hawley of Missouri, who voted against certifying the 2020 election and cheered the January 6 insurrectionists with a fist pump. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, the GOP's leading China hawk, is another name that gets bandied about. According to a source, Cruz has privately told people that he has the best shot at the 2024 nomination because he would have defeated Trump if former Ohio governor John Kasich hadn't stayed in the 2020 primary. Cruz didn't respond to a request for comment.
In 2016, Trump's stump speeches, for all their racism and misogyny, also contained crude proposals to limit immigration and protect domestic manufacturing with tariffs. But today the Republican base is animated by a mood rather than any specific policies. "[MAGA] means strong borders. It means fight crime, don't let people run around burning down our cities. It means many things," Trump said. That's why you see prospective 2024 candidates appealing to white voters' sense of cultural victimhood by railing against things like expanded voting rights, cancel culture, and critical race theory. So instead of Trump's "build the wall," you get "stop the steal." Instead of the threat of Hillary Clinton's missing emails, you get the menace of the 1619 Project.
DeSantis is a natural practitioner of outrage politics. "Let me be clear, there is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory," he said in March. "Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money." Hawley excels at manufactured grievance too. "The alliance of leftists and woke capitalists hopes to regulate the innermost thoughts of every American, from school age to retirement," he wrote in the New York Post last January. "And they've trained enforcers of the woke orthodoxy to monitor dissent or misbehavior. A 'Karen' who cuts the wrong person off in traffic gets followed home on a livestream and shamed into crying for mercy as her license plate is broadcast to an online horde eager to hound her out of a job."
The irony of the 2024 field is that the candidates working hardest to sell themselves to the base as embattled outsiders are in fact the ultimate insiders. DeSantis, Hawley, Cotton, and Cruz each hold double Ivy League degrees and serve or have served in Washington. Pompeo graduated number one in his class at West Point and attended Harvard Law School before becoming a congressman, CIA director, and secretary of state. Trump may have inherited his wealth and attended the University of Pennsylvania, but he could credibly argue he wasn't a politician.
In mid-July, the annual Family Leader Summit in Des Moines offered a platform for 2024 hopefuls to court 1,200 evangelical voters. Pompeo delivered a 22-minute Trumpian diatribe with lines like "Don't let the woke socialists get you down" and "You all see the garbage they're trying to teach in our schools today." South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, who is being advised by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, boasted about her state's anti-lockdown policies. "We didn't shelter in place, we didn't mandate anything, we just trusted people," Noem said to applause. (The August 2020 Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota has been seen as a contributing cause of a COVID spike across the upper Midwest last fall.)
Former vice president Mike Pence less convincingly threw the audience red meat. "Critical race theory is state-sanctioned racism," he said. Nothing Pence said could change the reality that most top Republicans believe he has no chance of being the party's nominee, because he voted on January 6 to certify the 2020 election. "Mike hurt himself very badly when he didn't send the numbers back to the legislatures," Trump said. Pence's toxicity with the base was on full display in June, when attendees at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference booed and heckled him during his appearance. Pence scored 0 percent in the CPAC straw poll in July. One source close to Pence speculated that instead of running, Pence would throw his support behind his ally Pompeo, whom Pence recommended to be CIA director.
Trump's takeover of the GOP obliterated the party's establishment, but that hasn't stopped Haley from trying to build a centrist campaign atop the rubble. A day after the January 6 riot, Haley threw Trump under the bus during a harsh speech at the RNC winter meeting in Florida—Trump's adopted home state no less. "He was badly wrong with his words yesterday. And it wasn't just his words. His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history," Haley told party elites. A month later, she doubled down, telling Politico: "When I tell you I'm angry, it's an understatement…. I am so disappointed in the fact that [despite] the loyalty and friendship he had with Mike Pence, that he would do that to him. Like, I'm disgusted by it."
"Well, every time she criticizes me, she uncriticizes me about 15 minutes later," Trump told me. "I guess she gets the base."
Surprisingly, Haley's comments didn't exile her completely from Trumpworld. In June, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump visited Haley and her husband at the Kiawah Island beach club in South Carolina. "They think very highly of Nikki. They get along great," a person close to Kushner told me. A few weeks later, Kushner's parents held a private lunch for Haley at their beach house on the Jersey Shore. Kushner's father, Charles Kushner, predicted that Haley would be "the first woman president," according to a source briefed on the lunch.
Christie is also making noises about a 2024 run in the establishment lane. "I'm not going to defer to anyone if I decide that it's what I want to do, and that I think I'm the best option for the party and for the country," he told a podcast in May.
"I don't mind," Trump said when I asked if he was concerned about a primary challenge. "I was challenged the last time too, by people that were, you know, I never thought they were effective." Trump added that his rivals owe him. "You know, many of these people I was responsible for their success to a large extent."
Meanwhile, short-lived Trump communications director turned antagonist Anthony Scaramucci told me that it's still possible a candidate could appear seemingly out of nowhere, much like Obama did in 2004. "People are hoping for a Barack Obama event that's like a meteor strike," Scaramucci said. Who could lead the party's establishment restoration? Some point to Republican Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker. An August 2020 poll found that 89 percent of Massachusetts Democrats approved of Baker's job performance.
Will any of this matter in the end? It all depends on Trump. Inside the GOP, speculating about Trump's future has become a fevered guessing game. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy recently told a Republican that he doesn't think Trump will run, which, in my conversations, is the minority view. "I think Trump running again is more likely than not," said Caputo. Another prominent GOP strategist put it this way: "What does Trump have to lose by running? His business sucks. He's doing tours with Bill O'Reilly."
Trump told me he's focused on electing MAGA candidates in 2022. Beyond that, he's leaving options open. "I'm actually writing a book. You have a lot of publishers that would love to get this book, so we'll see what happens." What about a Trump TV network? "People are calling about that. But I'm not looking to do anything in particular," he said.
Whether Trump runs or not, he's bound to be the single most dominant force in the Republican primary. His rallies continue to draw tens of thousands of MAGA diehards, and he's sitting on a $200 million war chest from his super PAC. Potential candidates seeking his support are already making pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring like they're contestants on The Apprentice. "They all want my endorsement, and they're all being very nice," Trump said.
The problem for Republicans is that Trump looks at every decision through the prism of self-interest. What benefits him—financially, emotionally, politically—may actually damage Republican electoral chances. Trump is fueled by a desire for revenge as much as he is by a desire to win. The nightmare scenario for Republicans is that Trump doesn't run and sabotages the Republican nominee to punish Mitch McConnell and other party leaders for not endorsing his big lie. It's happened before. Trump told people he wanted Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to lose the 2021 Georgia special election so that Democrats would control the Senate. "Trump thought he'd be much more influential if McConnell was in the minority," a Trump confidant said. Trump denied this and said it was McConnell's fault Democrats won in Georgia. "Because of the stupidity of Mitch McConnell, the two senators lost."
Some of Trump's longtime confidants told me Trump wouldn't be able to tolerate a Republican president other than himself. "He's got zero interest in having any heir. It's always been about him," a confidant said.