Why Neither Party Can Escape Trump

One fears his nomination; the other might need it.

A photo-illustration of a donkey and an elephant stuck to a magnet around Donald Trump's shoulders
Getty; The Atlantic

Republicans and Democrats, at odds over so much, share a common dilemma in the 2024 election: Donald Trump. One party still loves Trump but fears him as its nominee. The other party fears Trump’s return to office but might welcome his renomination.

Even though more than half the country says it wants to move on from Trump, we can’t escape his influence on the race.

The problem for Republicans is clear. Trump remains popular with significant elements of the party’s base, even as he is anathema to many voters in the broader electorate. Voters made that point dramatically last year. In several key GOP-primary contests, Trump successfully promoted his election-denying acolytes over more mainstream alternatives. But when put to the test in the general election this past fall, many of those candidates lost, and the Republican Party posted an anemic showing in midterms it had appeared poised to dominate.

Now Republicans are contending with another Trump presidential candidacy. And despite provoking an insurrection, undergoing multiple criminal investigations, and—perhaps most painful for the carnival barker of American politics—enduring a period of relative isolation, the former president retains the seemingly unshakable support of about one-third of the Republican electorate. In a crowded primary field, this might be enough for him to seize his third straight nomination.

Many GOP leaders are at least quietly hoping that Florida’s bully-boy governor, Ron DeSantis, will become the transition drug for Republicans eager to kick the Trump habit—offering the same culture-war high without the injurious effects on the party’s political health. But these same leaders are measured about speaking out, mindful of the long list of Republicans who have crossed Trump in the past, only to see their careers ended when he endorsed their opponents in primaries.

Even more concerning for Republicans is the vengeance Trump could wreak on the party if the GOP turns elsewhere for its presidential standard-bearer. Earlier this month, Trump refused to say whether he would support the Republican nominee in 2024 if the winner were anyone other than himself. “It would have to depend on who the nominee was,” he told the conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt on Hewitt’s radio show.

That comment must have spooked party leaders and prospective candidates, already worried that the world’s most prominent and flagrant election denier might deliberately subvert the party’s chances. In a recent Bulwark survey, 28 percent of Republican-primary voters said they would bolt the party if Trump launched an independent candidacy, more than enough to sink the GOP ticket. Even if all Trump does is bad-mouth the nominee from the sidelines, he could discourage enough Republican voters to cost the GOP the general election.

This is one reason that DeSantis, an unannounced but presumptive candidate and frequent Trump target, along with most of the other aspiring Republican contenders, has remained reluctant to respond to Trump or engage with him in any way. (The other is, as many have learned, that it’s hard to win an insult contest with the world champion of nastiness.) It’s also why so few have followed Trump’s lead by making their candidacy official. Former UN Ambassador and Governor Nikki Haley announced her campaign this week. Her fellow South Carolinian, Senator Tim Scott, is sending signals that he might soon follow. The others figure: Why provoke Trump until I have to?

If the Republicans view Trump as an albatross, Biden has reason to see him as a lifeline. It was the specter of a second Trump term that drew Biden into the 2020 race and put him in a position to win. And it’s the prospect of a rematch with Trump that now seems to factor heavily into the 80-year-old president’s theory that he can win again.

Biden has a strong story to tell for his reelection campaign. Having inherited a country and an economy racked by a pandemic, the president has presided over record job growth that has yielded the lowest unemployment rate in more than half a century. Despite a sharply divided Congress, he delivered a suite of major legislative achievements, including measures to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, undergird America’s advanced manufacturing against China, and accelerate the transition to green energy. His orchestration of the allied response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has won praise. And he indisputably has restored a sense of normalcy and decency to the White House after the grinding and convulsive Trump presidency.

Yet Biden’s job-approval rating has been languishing in the low 40s for 18 months—an uncomfortable place for an incumbent as he sets out on a campaign for a second term. The rating for his economic stewardship is lower, at 37 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in early February. Even with recent positive news on jobs, wages, and growth, inflation has been the big economic story for a year and has soured public attitudes about Biden’s leadership. In the same poll, only 16 percent of Americans said they are better off financially than they were when Biden took office. And in what must be the most cutting finding of all for a president who casts his achievements as historic, 62 percent of Americans opined that Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing.”

Presidents can recover from such numbers. Economies can improve. Factors can change. Burdened by the effects of a deeper economic crisis than Biden has faced, Barack Obama brooked challenging polls two years before he won a substantial reelection victory over Mitt Romney in 2012 (a campaign in which I served as chief strategist). But Obama was 51 years old when he ran for reelection. Biden would be a couple of weeks shy of 82 on Election Day 2024. His greatest challenge is not questions about his record but doubts about his age and fitness that are only natural. Although Biden’s strong performance at the State of the Union last week—including his spirited colloquy with Republican hecklers over Social Security and Medicare—was one of his best, his problems remain actuarial, not political.

That’s why Biden surely relishes a rematch with Trump, even if most of the country does not. While several recent polls have shown the president in a statistical tie with Trump and, concerningly, trailing Trump among independent voters, Biden might calculate that Trump’s many ongoing legal problems and wearying penchant for outrageousness will once again prove too much for voters outside the Republican base. A matchup with a vigorous young candidate, instead of Trump, who will turn 77 in June, could be far more problematic for the president. But even if Trump loses the nomination, Democrats are counting on The Man Who Cannot Concede to undermine any Republican pretenders to the throne.

The president plainly recoils at Trump and everything he stands for. Yet Biden also needs Trump. In the same way, Trump probably views Biden’s candidacy as his best chance to reclaim the White House, despite his own substantial liabilities. They are co-dependents. Like Superman and Lex Luthor, they can’t escape the story line in which they are inextricably bound.

As a result, the parties are frozen in time. Democrats are preparing to march, albeit with some quiet trepidation, behind Biden, their venerable leader, as Trump looms. Republicans are saddled with a disgraced and vengeful former president, who might yet determine their party’s chances in 2024, whether he is their nominee or not.

Much of America might be finished with Donald Trump. But he’s not finished with us.