They are destroying our country. Our country will not survive this. Our country will not survive.” That was former U.S. President Donald Trump in a recent interview with the far-right One America News Network, railing against Democrats and advancing baseless claims about them stealing elections. Trump retains enormous influence over the Republican Party, and he’s teasing another run for its presidential nomination in three years, but what are his actual intentions—and how able will he be to carry them out?

Bill Kristol, a longtime conservative commentator and activist who broke with the Republican Party over Trump, is now the editor at large of the center-right U.S. publication The Bulwark. Kristol sees the former president as likely to run again—and the overwhelmingly favorite to win the Republican nomination—based on a few factors: Trump is way ahead in early primary polling, apparently healthy enough to campaign, and his party hasn’t repudiated him—even after his aggressive lying about last year’s election being stolen led to a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. In fact, Trump’s success in mainstreaming “election denial” on the American right is keeping a lot of focus on him, and Republican voters may be convinced that they need to avenge this fabricated injustice. Kristol allows that Trump could look like “yesterday’s man” in a few years, but he believes that the former president would hate to relinquish the spotlight—or the political movement he built. Kristol warns that Trump’s return may not even be the worst-case scenario for American democracy in 2024, as a different Republican nominee could ratchet up the party’s authoritarianism and nativism even more: “The conventional view is that, if it’s not Trump, we edge back to the center—but it’s not out of the question that, if it’s not Trump, we edge farther to the extreme.”


Graham Vyse: It may not be surprising that Donald Trump would leave his options open for 2024 and continue to call attention to himself, but how serious do you think he is about running again?

Bill Kristol: We may be distracted by the fact that he’s so unusual—he won, he was an incumbent, and then he lost—but if you just step back and say, There’s a politician in good health who’s run a couple of times, is ahead in the polls within their party, and is in hailing distance in general-election polls, does that person not run for their party’s nomination? Occasionally they don’t, but pretty often they do. It’s the safer course to assume he’d like to run again, he’d like to be president again, and that—all things being equal, in terms of his health or any events in the next few years that might make it less likely he’d win—he will run.

Vyse: As you’ve watched how he’s handled himself this year, including his public statements, in interviews and at rallies, is there anything specific that stands out to you as an indicator of his plans?

Kristol: To get to that, let’s think about what would make it unlikely that he’d have a good chance of being the Republican nominee in 2024, given how much he’s dominated the party since he won the nomination in 2016. Aside from health and personal idiosyncrasies, there are two scenarios.

Aryan Singh

The first would be that the party repudiates Trump. Some of us thought that might be possible at different stages over the last five years. As we’re speaking in late September of 2021, you can’t say the Republican Party has repudiated Trump, and it’s hard to see conditions in which there’s a full-on repudiation. That scenario, which would be by far the best for American democracy and the future of the Republican Party as a healthy party, is unlikely.

The second scenario—what people who hope Trump won’t be the nominee in 2024 have retreated to—is that he won’t be repudiated but he’ll kind of fade. Now, that’s not crazy. He’s not the president anymore. He’s not on Twitter. Some of these rallies give the feeling of being sort of forced. He doesn’t dominate the news. Others have stepped up and gotten a lot of attention in the news, often by doing Trump-like things. If you think about the anti-mask and anti-vaccine stuff—especially the anti-vaccine stuff—Trump hasn’t been very visible on that. That’s been [Republican Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis, a bunch of candidates, and people almost emerging spontaneously from the grassroots. On critical race theory, Trump is certainly on board with demagoguing racial issues, but it’s not like he invented it.

You could make a case that other Republican leaders emerge. We’re going to go through a whole election cycle in 2022. Say Ron DeSantis is re-elected governor of Florida, the third-largest state. Greg Abbott is re-elected in Texas, the second-largest state. Republican primary voters would follow those campaigns. Senators would step up. You could imagine, by mid-to-late 2023, Trump looking a little like yesterday’s man.

Say Ron DeSantis is re-elected governor of Florida, the third-largest state. Greg Abbott is re-elected in Texas, the second-largest state. Republican primary voters would follow those campaigns. Senators would step up. You could imagine, by mid-to-late 2023, Trump looking a little like yesterday’s man.

You could imagine a scenario in which we have a normal presidential race, Trump becomes a frontrunner who’s vulnerable, and maybe he even gets defeated. Think Hillary Clinton in 2008, though it’s not fully comparable. By far the more likely scenario is that the person who’s now at 48 percent in the [Republican presidential primary] polls—30 points ahead of everybody else—seems to be in good health; is making endorsements that seem to matter a lot; would start with a big lead in money and name identification; and doesn’t have to govern for the next two years, is pretty likely to be the nominee.

As to the question you ask, the big story is that Trump put all his chips on the big lie about the election being stolen. It’s now become pervasive in the Republican Party. That’s an impressive—or depressing—showing of strength by Trump. It’s clever, because it’s about himhis victory being stolen. It’s about avenging an injustice done to him, and the best way really to avenge that, presumably, is to renominate and reelect him.

Bogdan Kupriets / The Signal

Ron DeSantis can ban critical race theory in Florida. [Missouri Senator] Josh Hawley can propose legislation to destroy Facebook. [Florida Senator] Marco Rubio can introduce legislation saying you can sue a corporation if you don’t like what it’s doing on social justice. Those in the Senate or the House of Representatives can demagogue the mistakes or alleged mistakes of the Biden administration, maybe more effectively than an ex-president can. But the election denial is distinctively Trumpian, and it was clever of him to make that his calling card. Insofar as everyone’s going along with it, it points toward a renomination of Trump.

Ultimately, if Trump is running, do Republicans really sign up for one of these other people? Some would. Especially the business types would be very eager to find a Christie or DeSantis or even a Pence. Maybe there’s enough money for those people to run for a while. But when it comes to it, does the movement turn its back on the original charismatic demagogue who led it? Possibly, but not likely.

One of the striking things we’ve seen since Trump left office is that Trumpism—what’s been unleashed—clearly has momentum of its own. The degrees of hatred of established authorities or anyone who’s a “liberal," the demagoguery, the mean-spiritedness—it’s all out of control in a certain way, beyond where Trump has been in some respects.

By far the more likely scenario is that the person who’s now at 48 percent in the [Republican presidential primary] polls—30 points ahead of everybody else—seems to be in good health; is making endorsements that seem to matter a lot; would start with a big lead in money and name identification; and doesn’t have to govern for the next two years, is pretty likely to be the nominee.

Now, which way does this cut? Trumpism being so strong without Trump in office mostly suggests he’ll remain the leader and be the nominee in 2024, though you could argue it suggests that Trumpism is now liberated from Trump as a person. You could have a sense among Republicans that Trump was a great guy to get us going down this path, but now we need Stalin, not Lenin; or Stalin, not Trotsky—now we need the more hard-headed, disciplined, quasi-fascist authoritarian to implement everything—but I still think that requires the original demagogue gracefully stepping aside or being incapacitated. It’s hard to repudiate that person.

Vyse: To your point about Trumpism moving beyond Trump, you could argue that the far-right “great replacement” conspiracy theory—this idea advanced by people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and right-wing activist Charlie Kirk, saying the left is bringing in immigrants to replace white people in the U.S.—goes beyond even where Trump went.

Kristol: That nicely points to another issue. If he decides not to run for whatever reason, I’m not entirely confident that the Republican nominee is someone more committed to democracy, or less nativist and willing to play with racial fire, than he is. You could have a flat-out “great replacement” candidate. Are we entirely confident that, if Trump doesn’t run, Tucker Carlson or a Tucker Carlson wannabe isn’t the nominee? The conventional view is that, if it’s not Trump, we edge back to the center—but it’s not out of the question that, if it’s not Trump, we edge farther to the extreme.

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