Republicans’ 2024 Magical Thinking
Lots of Republicans want Donald Trump to disappear from politics. Their main strategy is hope.
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Press them hard enough, and most Republican officials—even the ones with MAGA hats in their closets and Mar-a-Lago selfies in their Twitter avatar—will privately admit that Donald Trump has become a problem. He’s presided over three abysmal election cycles since he took office, he is more unstable than ever, and yet he returned to the campaign trail this past weekend, declaring that he is “angry” and determined to win the GOP presidential nomination again in 2024. Aside from his most blinkered loyalists, virtually everyone in the party agrees: It’s time to move on from Trump.
But ask them how they plan to do that, and the discussion quickly veers into the realm of hopeful hypotheticals. Maybe he’ll get indicted and his legal problems will overwhelm him. Maybe he’ll flame out early in the primaries, or just get bored with politics and wander away. Maybe the situation will resolve itself naturally: He’s old, after all—how many years can he have left?
This magical thinking pervaded my recent conversations with more than a dozen current and former elected GOP officials and party strategists. Faced with the prospect of another election cycle dominated by Trump and uncertain that he can actually be beaten in the primaries, many Republicans are quietly rooting for something to happen that will make him go away. And they would strongly prefer not to make it happen themselves.
“There is a desire for deus ex machina,” said one GOP consultant, who, like others I interviewed, requested anonymity to characterize private conversations taking place inside the party. “It’s like 2016 all over again, only more fatalistic.”
The scenarios Republicans find themselves fantasizing about range from the far-fetched to the morbid. In his recent book Thank You for Your Servitude, my colleague Mark Leibovich quoted a former Republican representative who bluntly summarized his party’s plan for dealing with Trump: “We’re just waiting for him to die.” As it turns out, this is not an uncommon sentiment. In my conversations with Republicans, I heard repeatedly that the least disruptive path to getting rid of Trump, grim as it sounds, might be to wait for his expiration.
Their rationale was straightforward: The former president is 76 years old, overweight, appears to maintain the diet of a college freshman, and believes, contrary to all known science, that exercise is bad for you. Why risk alienating his supporters when nature will take its course sooner or later? Peter Meijer, a former Republican representative who left office this month, termed this strategy actuarial arbitrage.
“You have a lot of folks who are just wishing for [Trump’s] mortal demise,” Meijer told me. “I want to be clear: I’m not in that camp. But I’ve heard from a lot of people who will go onstage and put on the red hat, and then give me a call the next day and say, ‘I can’t wait until this guy dies.’ And it’s like, Good Lord.” (Trump’s mother died at 88 and his father at 93, so this strategy isn’t exactly foolproof.)
Some Republicans are clinging to the hope that Trump might finally be undone by his legal troubles. He is currently the subject of multiple criminal investigations, and his detractors dream of an indictment that would derail his campaign. But most of the people I talked with seemed resigned to the likelihood that an indictment would only boost him with the party’s base. Michael Cohen, who served for years as Trump’s personal attorney and now hosts a podcast atoning for that sin titled Mea Culpa, grudgingly told me that his former boss would easily weaponize any criminal charges brought against him. The deep-state Democrats are at it again—the campaign emails write themselves. “Donald will use the indictment to continue his fundraising grift,” Cohen told me.
Others imagine a coordinated donor revolt that sidelines Trump for good. The GOP consultant told me about a private dinner in New York City that he attended in the fall of 2021, when he saw a Republican billionaire give an impassioned speech about the need to keep Trump from returning to the Oval Office. The man said he would devote large sums of money to defeating the former president and urged his peers to join the cause. The others in the room—including several prominent donors and a handful of Republican senators—reacted enthusiastically that night. But when the consultant saw some of the same people a year later, their commitment had waned. The indignant donors, he said, had retreated to a cautious “wait and see” stance.
This plague of self-deception among party elites contains obvious echoes of Trump’s early rise to power. In the run-up to the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, a fractured field of feckless candidates spent time and money attacking one another, convinced that the front-runner would eventually collapse. It was widely believed within the political class that such a ridiculous figure could simply never win a major party nomination, much less the presidency. Of course, by the time Trump’s many doubters realized they were wrong, it was too late.
Terry Sullivan, who ran Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me that Trump’s rivals failed to beat him that year in large part because they were “always convinced that his self-inflicted demise was imminent.”
“There is an old quote that has been attributed to Lee Atwater: ‘When your enemy is in the process of drowning, throw him a brick,’” Sullivan told me. “None of Donald Trump’s opponents ever have the balls to throw him the damn brick. They just hope someone else will. Hope isn’t a winning strategy.”
For conservatives who want to prevent a similar fiasco in 2024, the emerging field of GOP presidential prospects might seem like cause to celebrate. After all, the healthiest way to rid their party of Trump would be to simply beat him. But a sprawling cast of challengers could just as easily end up splitting the anti-Trump electorate, as it did in 2016, and allow Trump to win primaries with a plurality of voters. It would also make coalescing around an alternative harder for party leaders.
One current Republican representative told me that although most of his colleagues might quietly hope for a new nominee, few would be willing to endorse a non-Trump candidate early enough in the primary calendar to make a difference. They would instead “keep their powder dry” and “see what those first states do.” For all of Trump’s supposedly diminished political clout, he remains a strong favorite in primary polls, where he leads his nearest rival by about 15 points. And few of the other top figures in the party—Ron DeSantis, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley—have demonstrated an ability to take on Trump directly and look stronger for it.
Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump after January 6 and went on to lose his 2022 primary to a far-right Trump loyalist, attributes Republican leaders’ current skittishness about confronting Trump to the party’s “ideological rootlessness.” The GOP’s defenestration of long-held conservative ideals in favor of an ad hoc personality cult left Republicans without a clear post-Trump identity. Combine that with what Meijer calls “the generalized cowardice of political figures writ large,” and you have a party in paralysis: “There’s no capacity [to say], ‘All right, let’s clean the slate and figure out what we stand for and build from there.’”
Even if another Republican manages to capture the nomination, there’s no guarantee that Trump—who is not known for his grace in defeat—will go away. Last month, Trump caused a minor panic in GOP circles when he shared an article on Truth Social suggesting that he might run an independent spoiler campaign if his party refuses to back him in 2024. The Republicans I talked with said such a schism would be politically catastrophic for their party. No one had any ideas about how to prevent it.
Meanwhile, the most enduring of GOP delusions—that Trump will transform into an entirely different person—somehow persists.
When I asked Rob Portman about his party’s Trump problem, the recently retired Ohio senator confidently predicted that it would all sort itself out soon. The former president, he believed, would study the polling data, realize that other Republicans had a better shot at winning, and graciously bow out of 2024 contention.
“I think at the end of the day,” Portman told me, “he’s unlikely to want to put himself in that position when he could be more of a Republican senior statesman who talks about the policies that were enacted in his administration.”
I let out an involuntary laugh.
“Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part,” Portman conceded.