Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

If Not Trump, Whom Would the GOP Nominate?

The defeated president might conclude that “being regaled is better than being responsible.”
November 2, 2021
If Not Trump, Whom Would the GOP Nominate?
US President Donald Trump is seen in silhouette against a US flag as he speaks during a "Great American Comeback" rally at Bemidji Regional Airport in Bemidji, Minnesota, on September 18, 2020. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

In Trump’s Shadow
The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP
by David M. Drucker
Twelve, 272 pp., $29

The conventional wisdom holds that Donald Trump is a shoo-in for the Republican nomination in 2024 if he chooses to run again. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) isn’t so sure: “I don’t know that. President Trump is the first president, in the Republican side at least, to lose the House, the Senate, and the presidency in four years. Elections are about winning.” David M. Drucker agrees, and in his debut book he argues that, while Trump has thoroughly transformed the Republican party, the spot atop the party’s ticket is not his for the taking.

In Trump’s Shadow introduces readers to the rogue’s gallery of possible Republican candidates for the next presidential election cycle, detailing their backgrounds, political strengths, and possible liabilities. Drucker, a reporter based in Washington, D.C., draws on a host of Republican and conservative sources—party operatives, right-wing commentators, think tank intellectuals, and such figures as Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Mike Pompeo, and Trump himself. Drucker aims to “suss out the unfolding campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024,” covering all the “secret meetings, sibling rivalries, and political action.” According to Drucker’s reporting, some of the would-be GOP nominees have been planning a run for the Oval Office since the moment Trump bought them into his inner circle; others have been calculating their odds ever since it looked like the 45th president’s re-election bid was plummeting. The book is part journalism, part electoral history, part Republican sociology, and part political punditry.

“For the first time in more than forty years, there will not be a Reagan, or a self-proclaimed Reagan heir, campaigning for the GOP nomination,” Drucker writes. Instead, every single Republican running in 2024 “will be running as the next Trump.” Trump is now the GOP’s “North Star,” Drucker writes, thanks in part to his three Supreme Court appointments, his 2017 tax cut, and the Jerusalem Embassy Act. And while Sen. Cassidy is correct to note that Trump’s tenure saw Democrats take the House, Senate, and presidency, each of those was fairly close, there were plenty of down-ballot victories, and the GOP made inroads with certain minorities voters.

Still, despite this record, despite Trump’s dominance among GOP primary voters, despite the consensus among the commentators, Drucker asserts that Trump would not clear the field in 2024. Even Trump, Drucker says, is going to have to fight to be the 2024 nominee.

And a fighter is exactly what GOP voters want, according to Drucker’s research and reporting. Whether it be about cultural issues, policy pursuits, or the latest outage of the week, the message from Republican voters is that they want someone who fights. The question is, what kind of fighter and who will it be?

Because Drucker can’t possibly cover all conceivable presidential possibilities and paths the Republican party might take, right at the outset he dispatches with the candidates whom he thinks don’t have a serious shot or are unlikely to even try, or about whom it is simply too early to make an educated estimation: Josh Hawley, Ron DeSantis, Kristi Noem, Liz Cheney, and others. Instead, Drucker focuses on a group of Republicans he knows have already begun to make plans for 2024 or are actively exploring the possibility of running for president, and who seem to him to have a chance—namely, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Marco Rubio, and Donald J. Trump.

One by one, Drucker offers sympathetic but studious looks at these presidential potentials, detailing what measures they have taken to begin exploring or even preparing a run in 2024, what strengths and weaknesses voters and operatives detect, and how Trump and Trumpism have influenced their campaigns. Drucker covers Mike Pompeo’s efforts to build an “empire of friendship” across the GOP, Tom Cotton’s fundraising following the backlash to his June 2020 op-ed in the New York Times, and Ted Cruz’s attempts to break his image as a robotic politician by launching an unscripted podcast, “The Verdict.”

Somewhat surprisingly, in Drucker’s estimation Mike Pence is the most underrated of Trump’s many possible heirs; Drucker highlights the former vice president’s underappreciated Machiavellianism and his role in filling in the gap of Trump’s agenda with his own messaging and issues.

Yet Trump still looms large. He remains the known-unknown factor in the lead-up to 2024. Embittered by his loss to Joe Biden, Trump seems eager for another run at the presidency. In Trump’s mind this would be not a rematch but rather a campaign of restitution, as he maintains that the 2020 election was rigged against him. Drucker wonders how much this narrative will resonate when the primaries start: Will Republican voters see Trump as the man who was denied the presidency or as just as a sore loser? More striking though, is that Trump is by now learning that there are perks to not being president but still being the figurehead of a political party. Drucker theorizes that Trump might conclude that “being regaled is better than being responsible.” Furthermore, Trump delights in the power he holds over the GOP and takes every opportunity he can to use it. Republicans not even running for office are coming down to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring—not to mention the host of Trump children, particularly Donald Trump Jr., who clearly loves the campaign trail and rubbing shoulders with key conservative players, and who could be named heir. Yet if Trump were to run again, Drucker says, Trump’s task for the Biden years will be to turn Republicans’ victories over Democrats into Trump’s victories, constantly reminding both ordinary voters and establishment Republicans of his presence and supposed power.

Drucker also breaks down the warring factions of today’s remade Republican party, identifying some of the overlaps and fault lines any presidential contender will have to navigate. One subgroup he identifies is the “Trump skeptics,” who could be described as practically minded businesspeople who enjoyed Trump’s deregulatory policies but disliked his trade wars and unpredictable temperament. But despite these misgivings, they dread the anti-free-market attitudes growing in the Democratic party more than they dislike the Trumpian style and are thus unlikely to be going anywhere.

Another faction is the “Trump now, Trump always” coalition, which relishes Trump’s blistering verbal assaults on the media and the outrage he causes among liberals. It is these voters who are the most convinced Biden stole the 2020 election. Most interestingly, Drucker points to evidence that even among those who have bought into Trump’s Big Lie about the election, there are concerns over Trump’s ability to win (if the system is rigged after all) and especially about his age (Trump would turn 78 a few months before election day in 2024).

Beyond these sycophants, there are plenty of Republicans who don’t particularly like Trump and his anarchic personality but who supported many of his policies and applauded his victories. While not outright describing the 2020 election as stolen, this group is likely to believe that the election was so warped by “Big Tech” and “the media” that it might as well have been rigged. Though many of them didn’t vote for Trump’s re-election, or even unenthusiastically voted for Biden, Drucker makes the case that Trump’s influence can be felt among these rank-and-file Republican voters. Despite being turned off by his crudeness, they still want to see someone with Trump’s charisma and willingness to take on the mainstream media, Hollywood elites, and finger-wagging woke scolds, as well as entrenched Republican leaders.

In his discussion of anti-Trump conservatives and Never Trump Republicans, Drucker explores the various projects and people that organized to criticize Trump—including The Bulwark. He examines the efforts of Sarah Longwell and Tim Miller to encourage moderates to break for Biden during the 2020 primaries and general election, efforts that Drucker argues were significant to Biden’s victory. (This section of his book was recently excerpted by the Daily Beast.) The dilemma for these Never Trumpers is that

the modern Democratic Party is too left-wing for their taste. And besides, grassroots liberals have no interest in making room for a new bunch who opposed abortion rights and revered the Second Amendment. But because they don’t want Trump, the Republican Party, where they still feel most at home, doesn’t want them.

In Drucker’s view, most anti-Trump Republicans’ feelings were best captured by former Texas Congressman Will Hurd’s attitude: “I agree when I agree, and I disagree when I disagree.” Given enough Democratic overreach, woke controversies, and political failures from the Biden administration, these voters might—especially in the absence of Trump—find their way back to a party they agree with less than they used to but more than they do the Democrats. In other words, with enough pressure from the left on issues like abortion or tax increases, Never Trumpers may never forgive but they might learn to forget.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.