Here’s some good news for the sizable number of Republican megadonors and the handful—only a slight understatement—of Republican voters desperate for an alternative to Donald Trump: It’s still August in an odd-numbered year. That means voters will not start casting ballots to decide the next GOP presidential nominee for more than five months. Between now and then you can expect, per Trump himself, two more indictments (at least!) and, it goes without saying, a whole lot of bad press. There will be debates (probably?) and, with them, the potential for other candidates to have star turns (maybe?). There is, at least in theory, still time to turn all of this around.
Here’s the bad news: everything else. On Monday, The New York Times and Siena College released their first 2024 Republican presidential poll, and it’s brutal. Trump leads the Republican donor class’s handpicked candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, by 37 points—54 percent to 17 percent. No other candidate in the poll topped 3 percent, with South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the likeliest home for those ready to jump ship from DeSantis, polling at the same level as Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, who may very well be the most hated man in American politics.
It somehow gets even worse from there. Just look at this paragraph from the Times’ writeup of the poll:
In the head-to-head matchup, Mr. Trump was far ahead of Mr. DeSantis among Republicans who accept transgender people as the gender they identify with, and among those who do not; among those who want to fight corporations that “promote woke left ideology,” and among those who prefer to stay out of what businesses do; among those who want to send more military and economic aid to Ukraine, and among those who do not; among those who want to keep Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are, and among those who want to take steps to reduce the budget deficit.
Presidential primaries are usually dominated by the discussion of “lanes”—specific avenues of appeal that candidates might try to occupy to ease their way into the competition—but it’s clear that there is only going to be one lane in the 2024 Republican presidential primary: the Trump lane. Running an overtly ideological campaign, as DeSantis has, is clearly a mistake, but it’s not clear that there’s anywhere else he can go. It is, similarly, unclear if another candidate can emerge as a viable alternative. Right now, Donald Trump is crowding out every other candidate.
What is clear at this point, however, is that the Republican establishment’s preferred theory of running against Donald Trump—that the best way to beat him is to run candidates who resemble him in many key respects but are less volatile—has failed remarkably. Republican voters like Donald Trump. A lot. And the anti-Trump establishment has wasted years trying to concoct a strategy to defeat him based upon this notion.
“Trumpism without Trump” is the name for this nominal approach to electoral politics. DeSantis is its most prominent adherent, but there are others. In Virginia, there’s Governor Glenn Youngkin, who is less bombastic than DeSantis (who is, in turn, less bombastic than Trump). Many of Trump’s ostensible rivals for the 2024 nomination, like former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, have adopted Trump’s positions and, in Ramaswamy’s case, his outsider persona, and largely refrain from criticizing him.
The working theory behind “Trumpism without Trump” was that you could essentially reverse-engineer much of Trump’s appeal, pushing pugilistic culture-war policies that placate his voters while also taking a more disciplined—and donor-friendly—approach to politics itself. The base would still get the culture-war stuff they thrill to, in a less improvised and somewhat sanitized fashion. The donors would get someone less liable to fly off the handle and, for that matter, less likely to pursue personal pet policies (trade wars) and vendettas. The thinking was that everyone could get what they wanted: The donors get an electable candidate; the base gets a candidate that is programmed to sound and act like Donald Trump. Everybody wins.
There are two big problems with this theory. The first is that it is, by its very nature, highly dependent on the “Trumpism without Trump” candidates being extremely solicitous to Donald Trump. It is required that you praise Trump’s presidency and his policy record. Candidates adopting “Trumpism without Trump” must argue that they are best suited to carry on his legacy and agenda, despite the fact that the genuine article is sitting right there, running for president.
This has the obvious effect of only reinforcing that Trump’s presidency and approach to politics are the ideal while also failing to do the one thing you are supposed to do when running a campaign: Draw a contrast with your opponent. The subtext—and occasional text—of this argument is that these candidates would be more effective at accomplishing this agenda. But because it is also dependent on winning over Trump voters, candidates rarely say why Trump is ineffective—namely that he is world historically scandal-prone and inept. No matter how you try to navigate this lane, you’re burdened with a question: All things being equal, why not just elect Donald Trump?
This leads to the second problem: Republican voters have stuck with Trump for a long while; they’ve heard his critics say that he’s reckless and ineffective, and they’ve become used to tuning out these discouraging words. This self-reinforcing phenomenon has only been helped along by Trump’s two arrests, something anti-Trump donors couldn’t anticipate. But it has also been aided by the field’s steadfast refusal to actually criticize Donald Trump or frame his legal troubles as an obvious reason to invest in a Trump alternative. DeSantis is Trump’s main rival for the nomination but has largely been muted in his criticism. With the exception of long-shot candidates like Pence and Chris Christie, the same is true of the rest of the field.
But this also gets to an arguably more important point: Voters like Donald Trump the person more than they like Donald Trump’s policies. They like his combative, reckless, often very chaotic and stupid approach to politics. They do not want a disciplined version of it. They do not want a knockoff version of it. There is no place for an “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Donald Trump”—at least not while the real thing is around. Thus far, the various plastic Trumps, DeSantis most of all, have had the unanticipated effect of reminding voters why they like the real thing.
That’s not to say that “Trumpism without Trump” might not eventually supplant Trumpism. Hey, at some point Trump will either retire from politics or mortality will make that decision for him. It is possible—though I remain skeptical—that the law will catch up with him or that his various legal problems will reach a kind of critical mass with GOP voters, who will decide enough is enough. But the Republican Party is already being remade in his image, and there has been so much progress so quickly to this end that it is almost certainly irreversible. But this too is a failure of Trump’s opponents. Rather than attempting to present themselves as a genuine alternative, they have tied their hopes to the idea that they can trick voters into believing that they’re a better version of Trump than Trump himself. They failed spectacularly.