PHOENIX, Arizona — As Republicans considering White House runs in a post-Donald Trump world assess one another as potential rivals, there looms one name who could complicate all of their planning: the other Donald Trump.
The GOP is set to officially nominate the president for a second term Monday evening, but some in the party are already looking ahead 48 months, to the election of 2024. Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, Texas’ Ted Cruz and Missouri’s Josh Hawley are just some of the senators thought to be eyeing a bid, as are the two from Florida, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and a number of Republican governors.
But in a party that has become more about Donald Trump than what Republicans used to call guiding principles, the president’s most loyal supporters could well belong to his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
At a rally at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in late February, Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, were hands down the most popular warmup speakers, even getting a prolonged roar as they walked to and from the camera riser for a pre-rally interview.
When he took the stage a short time later, a chant of “46” arose from the 15,000 — a reference to the president who will follow his father. Trump Jr. smiled but did not try to discourage them.
“Let’s focus on 2020 first. Eyes on the prize, all right? But thank you,” he said from the stage.
The next day, he and Guilfoyle were at a rally in Las Vegas, again winning over the crowd. “He’s so energetic onstage,” said Nevada Republican Chairman Michael McDonald.
“I’d vote for him in a second,” said Lou Woodward, 57, who runs a construction business in Massachusetts and who saw Trump Jr. warming up the crowd for his father in Manchester, New Hampshire, earlier in February. “If he’s anything like his father, he’ll be fantastic.”
“He’s from the same mold,” said retiree Linda Payette as she waited in the concession line in the Southern New Hampshire University’s hockey arena. “They tell it like it is. They don’t sugarcoat it.”
And since in-person rallies largely ended, Trump Jr. has become even more ubiquitous in the reelection campaign, hosting a weekly livestreamed program and making frequent appearances on Fox News.
McDonald said he can easily picture the son trying to succeed his father in office. “With the following he has right now? No, I would not be surprised,” McDonald said. “He has what it takes, 1,000% he has what it takes.”
Still, what the president and his family might want and what Republican voters want are likely two different things, said John Ryder, a former top Republican National Committee member from Tennessee. “The same reason that Jeb Bush was a bad idea and Hillary Clinton was a bad idea, Don Jr. is a bad idea. The American public is not attracted to dynasties,” he said. “I think that would be very, very difficult to make that case to the American people.”
Trump Jr., who is 42 and works for his father’s family business, the Trump Organization, declined to answer questions last week. “Go through my guys,” he said, but then refused to say which “guys” he meant and then hung up.
Florida Republican consultant and prominent Trump critic Rick Wilson, though, said party regulars who think they will easily regain control from Trump after he is leaves the White House are delusional.
“This is the dawn of the age of the imperial Trumps. He is going to say, ‘Donald J. Trump Jr., my son and heir, is the only one who can continue in my footsteps,’” he said. “They are a dynastic political force now. It’s douchebag dynasty of the Trump family.”
Trump’s Remake Of The GOP
The Republican Party was at a crossroads when Trump commandeered it 2016. The party had, as pointed out in its own “autopsy” of the 2012 defeat of nominee Mitt Romney, lost the popular vote in five of the six most recent presidential elections. It had recommended an aggressive outreach to Latinos and other minorities to make the party competitive for the day in the not-too-distant future when white people will no longer make up a majority of the country.
But Trump, a reality TV game show host who had never so much as served in a local precinct when he ran for president against what had been considered a strong field of contenders, instead took the exact opposite approach. He played to white grievance politics and shouted aloud the racially based appeals that previous Republicans since 1968 had referred to with winks and nods.
“Most openly racial campaign by a president since Andrew Johnson,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who recently published “It Was All a Lie,” a history of the party’s reliance on Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” over the last half-century. “Trump ran openly on racial grievance. It was expanded beyond the Southern Strategy, as it was hatred and fear of Muslims, Hispanics and Blacks.”
Trump quickly locked up the segment of the Republican primary electorate for whom worries about America’s changing demographics were a major concern – and wound up riding that group to the nomination, as a dozen other more traditional Republicans carved up the remaining voters.
His unexpected win made many of the same party leaders who had signed on to the 2012 “autopsy” decide that perhaps Trump had found a better path to a majority: appealing to white, working-class voters in northern and Midwestern states.
One top RNC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended the party’s abandonment under Trump of its long-held principles like free trade and close alliances with NATO. He pointed out that Trump, unlike the previous two Republican nominees, had actually become president. “Our job is to win,” he told HuffPost in 2017. “We won.”
Since then, Trump’s hold on the party machinery has grown ever more complete. Republicans live in fear of a Trump remark or a Twitter post disparaging them because of his still-powerful hold over his supporters. At the local and state party levels, longtime Republican activists have been forced out and replaced by Trump loyalists. And the RNC has essentially become an arm of Trump’s family business and a benefactor to his children.
A firm owned by Brad Parscale, jointly funded by the RNC and the Trump campaign proper, secretly pays Guilfoyle and Lara Trump, the wife of middle son Eric, $15,000 a month each. The RNC also has been purchasing large quantities of books written by Trump Jr. as premiums to give to donors, earning him many tens of thousands of dollars.
And the party, Trump’s campaign and their two joint fundraising committees have, from the time he took office through June 30, spent $6.9 million at Trump properties — even though they are typically more expensive than competing hotels and resorts in the same area — putting donor money right back into Trump’s cash registers.
When asked, RNC members have told HuffPost they enjoy visiting Trump properties.
“It’s no longer a party. It’s a cult,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who ran against Trump for the 2020 nomination.
Another Trump In 2024?
Now, 10 weeks out from Election Day, the Republican Party faces an existential moment. A Trump win will almost certainly consolidate further his hold on the 166-year-old organization and likely make it easier for him to choose his own successor, including his own son.
“I think Don Jr. would be the favorite for the nomination,” said Stevens, who worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
Even a Trump loss, though, does not necessarily end his hold over the party. Unlike previous presidents who lost after one term — Democrat Jimmy Carter, Republican George H.W. Bush — there is no indication Trump would simply walk away from politics.
“He will not stop tweeting. He will not stop talking. He will go on Fox all the time, or he will form his own TV network,” Wilson said.
He added that the Republican senators who have been pandering to Trump’s base by speaking like him and praising him are in for a rude surprise. “It’s a hideous landscape of wannabes who will be posting up against the son of God,” he said. “Just see what happens. It’s a family-centric cult.”
One former White House aide predicted a brutal fight between the wing that has fashioned itself after Trump — Cotton and Hawley, for example — against the more traditional Republicans like Rubio or former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. “I think it goes into a civil war. They’re all going to be at each other’s throats,” he said on condition of anonymity, adding that he doubted Trump Jr. would make a serious play for the nomination. “I think he’s smart enough to stay away from it.”
But an informal White House adviser close to Trump said he definitely could see Trump Jr. jumping in. “I think he’s really good at it. I think he’s good for the base. I wouldn’t underestimate him in 2024,” he said, also on condition of anonymity. “What are we going to do, roll in a Pence or a Rick Scott or some boring-as-shit white guy and get our asses kicked? So there’s a part of me that says, sure, why not.”
Of course, depending on what happens in November, Trump Jr. is not necessarily the only Donald Trump that might want to run in 2024.
Brian McDowell, who appeared on the third season of President Trump’s reality TV game show “The Apprentice” a decade and a half ago and now sells Trump merchandise at rallies, said the president losing this autumn just means he has the opportunity to run again.
“If Trump loses? He runs again in four years,” McDowell said.