Donald Trump’s flirtation with another run for the presidency has elicited a gusher of commentary from politicians and the press claiming that he has “frozen the field” for 2024, silencing would-be contenders who dare not lay the groundwork for their own candidacies because they fear his retaliation.
“Trump blocks out the sun on all of the other prospective candidates,” former Mitt Romney advisor Kevin Madden asserted recently in a Wall Street Journal piece about the freeze-out. “The prospect of a run by President Trump in 2024 will put a pall over other prospective candidates cultivating donors,” GOP contributor Bobbie Kilberg told POLITICO. “If Donald Trump wants the Republican nomination in 2024, that’s his,” Trump stalwart Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) added. “Trump is delaying the start of the 2024 campaign in a significant way,” as Alex Conant, former Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) communications director, put it to the Associated Press. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who patently pines for the presidency, has confirmed that he would endorse Trump if he runs.
But doesn’t all this talk about Trump freezing the field have the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy to it? Trump is said to have frozen the field, hence the field freezes. But is Trump really that formidable of a contestant for the 2024 nomination, or are the presidential hopefuls acting irrationally and permitting him a lead in the race he doesn’t deserve?
Nobody would discount the many advantages Trump has going into 2024. Name recognition. A loyal and growing base, gathering more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. A grip on the Republican National Committee. And a head start in political contributions, having raised more than $200 million since the election for his political action committee, 75 percent of which he’s free to spend on his political future. But is he really that invincible or are his would-be opponents just a bunch of cowards?
The best argument that Trump could win the nomination might simply be that, well, he’s won it before. And the presidency, to boot. But there’s a big difference between possible and what gamblers like to call a mortal lock. The idea that anybody other than an incumbent president could be a cinch for the nomination in four years flies in the face of everything we know about politics. Entire political galaxies emerge and vanish on faster timetables than that, making such long-range predictions equal parts stupid and preposterous. There’s no logical reason that Trump, who was a black swan candidate, could not be supplanted by another rara avis should it flap its wings into contention. In 1972, nobody imagined that a peanut farmer governor from Georgia would storm his party for the nomination. Nobody thought Bill Clinton was presidential material in 1988, especially after that flop of a speech he gave at his party’s convention, and he got two terms. And Barack Obama converted a slim political portfolio of just two years in the Senate into his own two-term presidency. One or more of the candidates—or someone we’re not thinking of—could break out as the non-Trump candidate. A lot of politics can happen in four years.
Other things that should put an immediate thaw on the so-called freeze: Trump is a loser—he lost the 2020 race even more dramatically than he won the 2016 contest. Even losers can stage comebacks, such as Richard Nixon did in 1968 after losing the 1960 squeaker to John Kennedy. But such rallies from defeat are exceedingly uncommon in American politics. Trump can bellow all he wants about how the election was “stolen” from him. He can stage his own counter-inauguration on the pretext that he’s still president. He can even change his first name to “President,” but it won’t scratch out the big “L” next to his name in the standings. It might take a few weeks after he leaves office and takes his political circus on the road and hooks up with (or buys) a cable network, but the loser stink has descended on Trump, and it won’t be easy to wash off.
The idea that Trump sails on huge reservoir of political capital also feeds the freeze-out argument. But is he really that potent of a political figure? Trump did worse in the November election than did down-ballot Republicans, indicating that Trump’s election-night tail is as docked as a Doberman’s. In other words, Republicans are more popular in many places than the erstwhile leader of their party.
Other evidence of Trump’s alleged staying power includes his magisterial powers of endorsement. Yes, a Trump endorsement can rally Republican voters, but according to an analysis in Politico Magazine, his power to swing primaries with just a tweet seems a little padded. Yes, his record of endorsements looks winning, and he boasts about it, but many of the candidates he backs are running unopposed, are incumbents, are cinches to win anyway, or receive his endorsement in the late going when they look like winners.
“Indeed, there have been dozens of Republican primaries in which Trump has not endorsed—primaries of all ilks, from uncontested Senate races in Michigan and Georgia to bitter intraparty battles like those in Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District or New Mexico’s 2nd,” FiveThirtyEight reports. “There was also at least one race, for Senate in Kansas, where Trump was urged to weigh in but didn’t, possibly because he didn’t want to come down on the wrong side.”
The 2024 field didn’t get to where they are by hiding their brains under their pillows, so they at the very least have intuited Trump’s political weaknesses. So why haven’t they reached the obvious conclusion and acted on it? Why should I go first, one can imagine Tom Cotton or Ted Cruz telling themselves. Why should I do something so conspicuous and risk angering Trump and alienating his supporters when I can bide my time and strike after he stops being president and starts being just another voice in the crowd? Why be courageous when chicken-heartedness is the better bet?
Until a Republican in good standing with the party actually challenges Trump, we won’t have an accurate sense of what sort of power he has to recrown himself—or anybody else—president. The fact that none of the imagined 2024 contenders from his will of the party—Cotton, Cruz, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, et al.—have stuck their necks out yet says more about their timidity than Trump power to crush them. Once a Trump opponent lands a punch on him and gets away with it, a Komodo Dragon-style feeding frenzy will ensue.
Who will have the guts to take the first bite of Trump?