Building a Better Trump

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Remember the 2016 Republican presidential candidates? 

Yeah, we don’t either. Other than Donald Trump and Chris Christie – the former governor of New Jersey who plans on running against Trump, again – it feels as though most of them have dropped off the edge of the earth.

But now a new variety act is in town. The 2024 GOP presidential lineup may be a bit more of a mashup, but it comes with a smattering of historic firsts. The presence of Trump, as has been widely observed, marks the first time a former president has sought the Oval Office after being criminally indicted while facing a slew of additional criminal and civil investigations. 

Maybe Trump, who turns 77 in one week, really wants to be president again. Perhaps he relishes the idea of spending the healthiest years of the rest of his life back in the White House, presiding over global tensions as commander in chief. Or maybe, as some have pointed out, he sees the presidency as his best chance of dodging some of the legal travails ahead.

“Some people say he’s not even interested in running anymore,” Maria Gallego, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, told Power Corridor back in March. “But he doesn’t want to be out of the public eye, because he wants the protection of being a candidate. If he drops out, he cannot collect campaign money, he cannot raise funds to pay for his legal battles or support himself so, in a way, he cannot stop running for president.”

Trump also cannot assert, in the event there are further charges, indictments, or findings against him, that his woes amount to nothing more than a political witch hunt. As long as he runs, every single battle can double, technically, as a proxy for the presidential race he lost, with the focus on whether he will be allowed to run and win again, or have his hopes dashed, wrongly, as he believed they were in 2020.

Next up is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced his candidacy via Twitter last month and may be best known – at least among non-political junkies – as the politician who got married at Disney World, but is now leading the attack on the Magic Kingdom as a centerpiece of his “anti-woke” culture wars. (The full, freakish story of that would be too long to relate here, but for those of you who believe DeSantis cannot hold a candle to Trump’s propensity for appalling legal messes, this may change your mind.) 

While DeSantis represents Trump’s biggest competition so far, he’s lost his momentum in recent months, and Trump is pulling ahead of the increasingly crowded GOP field to win more than 50 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. DeSantis’s support is around half that.

That could change, however, if Trump’s legal problems strike a definitive blow before he can win the primary or be re-elected. According to a poll out this week, 62 percent of Americans said Trump should not be allowed to take office as president again if he is convicted of a “serious” crime. 

Among other GOP hopefuls are Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who lambasted both DeSantis’s showdown with Disney and Trump’s own tempests at a CNN town hall this week, remarking, “All this vendetta stuff, we’ve been down that road.” 

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who announced his presidential candidacy last month, attracted headlines for appearing on television show ‘The View’ to quibble on systemic racism in America as the only Black Republican in the Senate. He also defended DeSantis’s fight against Disney, which seems to be everybody’s favorite topic of debate and the definitive anti-woke litmus test. 

In addition to Christie, who announced his candidacy Tuesday and seems to be promising to personally kick the living daylights out of Trump in the primary (Christie may be oddly suited to this, as he did help Trump with his debate prep in 2020 until Trump gave him a life-threatening case of Covid-19), a number of additional presidential hopefuls have surfaced. 

They include: entrepreneur and former pharmaceutical executive Vivek Ramaswamy, who has labeled himself a self-styled “nationalist”; Dallas businessman and non-denominational pastor, Ryan Binkley, who wants America to be “unified and reconciled to God and each other”; former conservative media personality Larry Elder, who tried and failed to unseat California Gov. Gavin Newsom; anti-Trumper and two-time governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson; and Perry Johnson, who attempted to run for governor of Michigan last year, in vain.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who announced his candidacy Wednesday via an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, says he believes up to 60 percent of Americans make up a “silent majority” who are sick of ideological debates dominating political discourse. “There’s definitely a yearning for some alternatives right now,” he said. He is a long-shot candidate, pushing for new leadership with a focus on the “changing economy.”

Then there is Mike Pence, former Republican governor of Indiana, evangelical Christian and Trump’s former vice president, who announced he is running for president Wednesday. “It would be easy to stay on the sidelines,” he said in a launch video that did not mention Trump. “But that’s not how I was raised. That’s why today, before God and my family, I’m announcing I’m running for president of the United States.”

Along with Christie, Pence has accused Trump of endangering his life, marking another first for a GOP presidential run.

Pence refused to go along with what, to the eyes of many, looked like a failed coup d’etat as Trump left office, culminating in the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. That decision turned off a large number of Trump supporters, who thought Pence should have leveraged his role as vice president to block the victory of President Biden.

While Pence certainly is in need of a job, it seems unlikely he will be looking to cozy up to Trump again, let alone be his running mate. 

This spring, Pence denounced Trump’s behavior and rhetoric during the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol following the 2020 election, saying the former president was “wrong” to pressure him to halt the certification of Biden as president. “I had no right to overturn the election,” Pence said, adding that Trump’s “reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day and I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable.” 

Pence’s refusal to allow alternate presidential electors during the certification of Biden as president by Congress on Jan. 6 infuriated some Trump supporters who flooded the Capitol, chanting “hang Mike Pence.” According to multiple accounts, Trump was aware of the threats to Pence, saying, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea,” and Pence “deserves it.”

In light of the excessive baggage among GOP hopefuls, it’s staggering that, rather than defining themselves as the anti-Trump, most of the candidates will need to distinguish themselves as Trump-plus – that is, a candidate that can capture the Trump base, only perhaps with more virtues than vices. 

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of The Daily Upside, its editors, or any affiliated entities. Any information provided herein is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as professional advice. Readers are encouraged to seek independent advice or conduct their own research to form their own opinions.