Here’s the illusion: Trump runs again, but GOP voters are persuaded it is time to turn the page; then, after a series of losses in states ranging from New Hampshire to Georgia to Florida, Trump realizes that there is no mathematical way for him to win the nomination, and throws his support to the apparent nominee, pledging to do all he can to ensure a Republican victory.
OK, now let’s return to planet Earth.
It is the fundamental belief — or tropism — of Trump that he is incapable of losing an election honestly. The loss itself is proof of fraud, and even a potential loss is grounds for rejecting the results. In one of the first debates of 2016, he was the only Republican candidate who would not pledge to back the party’s ultimate nominee. When he lost the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz, he tweeted: “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.” He claimed he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of the “millions” of aliens who voted illegally.
“I think there was tremendous cheating in California,” he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “There was tremendous cheating in New York and other places.” Since Election Night in 2020, he has claimed to have won “by a landslide” in every contested state. (This instinct is not confined to the political world. Trump claims he was cheated out of an Emmy when he hosted “The Apprentice” and constantly asserts that the 58-story Trump Tower is really 68 stories high).
Given this core character trait, what do you suppose will happen if Trump faces a serious competitor for the nomination in 2024? Is he likely to accept the vote count that shows him losing a primary or caucus? Is it likely he will forego the temptation to challenge every convention rule that poses a threat to him? (If you want to see what a genuinely contested GOP convention looks like, check out the Taft-Roosevelt fight in 1912, or the Eisenhower-Taft confrontation of 1952.)
Most important, a Trump who is denied the nomination — which, by his account, must have been the product of horrible, disgusting cheating the likes of which nobody has ever seen — is a Trump with the inclination and the resources to run an independent campaign for president. And he’ll have enough true believers to doom whoever the GOP nominee is.
In his famous 1860 Cooper Union speech, Abe Lincoln condemned Southern Democrats for threatening secession by charging: “you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please. … You will rule or ruin in all events.”
For Trump, “rule or ruin” may sound less like a critique than a campaign pledge. And the same Republican Party that has been content to dismiss the mountain of evidence about his character and fitness for office may find itself in two years facing the very credible threat of blackmail. In enjoying the political benefits of Trump’s appeal, they have sowed the wind. In two years, they may reap the whirlwind.