Donald Trump is already laying the groundwork for a 2024 run for the presidency, with a fundraising email to supporters on Tuesday night asking them if they’d back a bid. And as things stand now, operatives say, there is no political apparatus being put together by the anti-Trump forces on the right to slow or stop him.
Top officials in the party and those in the NeverTrump movement say serious talks have yet to take place about organizing an entity—whether it be a super PAC or political committee—that could serve as a base for efforts to challenge a Trump candidacy. Nor, said one top party donor, have there been fundraising calls to lay the foundation for such an effort.
Some expect one of the party’s 2024 hopefuls to ultimately decide to challenge Trump if he runs again but, either way, the prevailing sentiment is that little can or will be done to encourage that type of run in the immediate future.
“Honestly, nothing much to report—too early,” said Bill Kristol, a prominent conservative Trump critic and perpetual political gossip-stirrer, when asked about nascent plans to head off a 2024 comeback bid. Kristol said he and his allies “have to save the country first from the damage Trump is still trying to [do] in his last five weeks of this term!”
In normal times, talk of the next presidential election would seem wildly premature when the current president hasn’t even left the White House. But Trump has turbo-charged the process by which such considerations need to be made, with the likelihood that he declares his 2024 candidacy in weeks alongside the expectation that an ally—Ronna McDaniel—will remain head of the Republican National Committee.
McDaniel has insisted she will stay neutral in a forthcoming presidential primary, and a source familiar with the RNC’s work pointed out that she had rebuffed requests from Trump to throw the party’s weight behind Republican primary candidates favored by the president.
But among the party’s Trump skeptics, the view is that, if Trump runs again in 2024, few other candidates would bother seeking RNC support due to the perception that she was firmly in Trump’s corner. “She is not a broker at all,” said one top GOP fundraiser who has been skeptical of Trump. “She is co-opted by and wholly owned by Trump.”
Those dynamics have raised the stakes for Trump’s opponents within the GOP tent and those who left it because of Trump’s ascendance. Many fear the president could effectively imprison his party from the confines of his Twitter feed and a TV set in Mar-a-Lago.
“From our perspective,” said Reed Galen, one of the founders of anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, “there is Trump, but as dangerous as Trump running again is how many of these guys, whether or not it’s the 116 members of congress or the Attorneys General or those in the Senate, who will just stay in Trump’s big fat shadow for the foreseeable future.”
The paralysis described by Galen is real, said Jerry Taylor, the president of the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank at the center of an anti-Trump coalition of groups. Though he’s had discussions with people “in the NeverTrump world” about “the best way forward,” no real consensus has emerged.
“About as many of them are as interested about pushing back against Trumpism in the Republican Party as there are those who think throwing in their lot with the Democrats makes more sense,” said Taylor.
But others argued that the natural evolution of politics and Trump’s wandering interests made the need for an opposition movement in the current moment not as pressing. Sarah Longwell, who leads the group Republican Voters Against Trump, made the case that the passage of institutional reforms—like requiring presidential candidates to release their tax filings—could weaken Trump’s appetite for office. So too, she added, would the investigations into Trump that will likely continue after his presidency ended.
“The flood of information that is going to come out about Trump and his dealings, I think it is very likely that we’re gonna learn a lot more about what was going on inside, about decisions that were made,” said Longwell. “I think that there are a lot of people who are going to want to make sure that it’s clear that they weren't the ones doing this, and as a result we’re going to hear about a lot of things.”
Longwell said her organization, which spent about $30 million opposing Trump’s re-election, expects to collaborate with reform-minded groups to push electoral reforms early in the Biden administration. And while RVAT isn’t building a political apparatus to combat another Trump run, it hasn’t abandoned direct politicking entirely. In fact, Longwell said it was possible her group would get involved in non-presidential Republican primaries to oppose Trump family members if they decide to mount their own runs for office (Ivanka Trump and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, have both been talked about as potential GOP Senate recruits).
“For those of us who are just thinking about how do you get the country to a better place, that better place does not include more Trump,” she said. “And I think pushing back against the tactic of Trump trying to have more and more of his family members in power, that is absolutely something we would consider to be part of our charge.”
As for the Trump patriarch, the strategies adopted by opponents will depend largely on whether he actually follows through on his privately stated desire to mount another White House bid. Trump is expected to quickly file paperwork with the Federal Election Commission making himself an official 2024 candidate and allowing him to more freely raise and spend money in support of his political ambitions. But his willingness to actually build the formidable mechanics of another campaign may depend on his mood on a given day.
The specter of another Trump run nonetheless has the potential to freeze out a slate of rising Republican stars that are widely considered potential 2024 candidates—people like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. If the GOP is to be pried from Trump’s grasp, it will likely depend on the political aspirations of those seeking to replace him as the party’s standard-bearer.
“There is very little that overcomes political fear and cowardice, but ambition tends to be the chemical agent that does it,” one veteran Republican operative told The Daily Beast. “The ambition of all these 2024 hopefuls is what's gonna help them overcome their fear of Trump's Twitter account.”
But those who have challenged Trump in the past say that ambition is just one component. Another is standing. And given Trump’s continued hold on the party, any legitimate challenge would have to come from someone whose reputation is solid within the Trump-era GOP, not a NeverTrump dissident who has alienated much of the party’s rank and file.
“Politics is a Darwinian blood sport. All it takes is some business guy out there with some capacity to fund his own thing and sees an opening and sees Trump being a bit too loud or crazy,” said former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford who launched his own long-shot bid to deny Trump the nomination in 2020, a bid he looks back upon as “a total waste of time.”
Though Sanford saw a long-shot path for a businessman with thick skin to take on Trump, he was largely despondent about the prospect of success. He drew an analogy between Trump and Joseph McCarthy and compared the current climate to the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany. And he referenced the famous psychological study “Obedience to Authority,” in explaining why, he believed, so many Republicans complain about Trump but never speak out in public.
“People,” he concluded, “don’t want acid poured on their head.”
Then, rather morbidly, Sanford suggested that his anxieties may be for naught—if, for no other reason, than the frailties of life.
“Trump is working against longevity tables. That’s a savior in this equation,” said Sanford. “He’s got a finite shelf life and whether it extends to the next election cycle or not time will tell. So I think he can stop him.”