Imagine a populist leader who enjoyed widespread support among much of his party’s base – but not among the party elite – recently ousted from office and considering an attempt to return to office after his successor flounders. He swears he has the support to reclaim his old job, but rather than further divide the party, he decides to step aside in favor of a fresh, younger face. That was exactly what happened in the United Kingdom in recent weeks as former Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw his successor, Liz Truss, flounder and resign. Johnson immediately attempted to reclaim his old job but ultimately bowed out of the race in favor of Rishi Sunak.

At least, that’s the most pro-Johnson spin on the situation; the reality may be that he simply didn’t have the support to force a contest and decided not to press the issue. In either case, it was the wise move for both the Conservative Party as a whole and Boris Johnson himself. For the party, it gives them a chance to move beyond the controversies of Johnson and unite behind a new leader. For Johnson, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a return to party leadership in the future.

Here in the U.S., the Republican Party may well find itself in a similar situation as we approach the 2024 presidential election, with Donald Trump mulling an attempt to regain his old job.

If the idea of Trump forgoing a campaign for the good of the Republican Party seems unlikely to you, well, you’re probably right. Trump has a history of remembering every slight, whether major or minor, real or imagined, and taking every opportunity to exact revenge whenever he can – even on fellow Republicans.

This applies not only to people like Liz Cheney, who was willing to buck her party to serve on the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, nor just to Republicans who voted to impeach or convict him, whether once or twice. Instead, it also extends to other Republicans who have largely supported him but have grown popular in their own right and become a threat to his dominance of the Republican Party, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and his own former vice president, Mike Pence. Trump’s problem with DeSantis and Pence isn’t ideological (they’ve largely supported his policies), nor is it personal (they’ve avoided fighting with him directly in public). It’s all about their position as potentially viable presidential contenders in 2024.

If Trump indeed does decline to run again, it won’t be to unify the Republican Party in order to reclaim the White House; he’s already shown a lack of interest in that kind of self-sacrifice. Instead, it will be because – for whatever reason – he becomes convinced that he can’t win the nomination again, and wants to avoid the embarrassment of defeat. That’s what usually happens with unsuccessful presidential candidates, whether incumbents or challengers; it’s why Grover Cleveland was the only person ever to serve two nonconsecutive terms in the office.

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The best way for the rest of the Republican Party to convince Trump that he won’t simply run away with the nomination again is to unite behind a single alternative. During the 2016 primaries, this was Trump’s biggest advantage: He never faced a single strong opponent; instead, he gradually picked apart a divided field. Various candidates rose and fell during that race, but none was ever able to sufficiently consolidate their support as Trump did. In the next primaries, that pattern can’t be repeated. Republicans need to largely unify behind a new candidate early in the process.

Whoever that new candidate is will not be someone who either completely repudiates Trump or completely embraces him, but someone who will maintain many of his policies without as much controversy. Democrats and never-Trump Republicans might hope that the Republican Party will make a clear and total separation from him, but that’s unlikely in the extreme.

Not only did Trump win one presidential election, many of his supporters are likely to win Tuesday, so his influence won’t ever be completely eliminated. If they are smart and organized about how they do it, though, Republicans can perhaps move beyond Trump as an individual in the next presidential election, moving the party – and the country – forward. This country is at its best when it has two functional, viable parties, so that’s the outcome we should all be yearning for. Perhaps then we can return to actually debating ideas, rather than focusing on personalities.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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