By all accounts, former President Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican Party nomination, should he seek it a third time. But since he left the White House, conservative talkers and even longtime MAGA loyalists have been calling for someone more authentically conservative and less scandal-prone.
Shortly after the the FBI uncovered a trove of classified intelligence that Trump took with him to Mar-a-Lago, a trio of top conservative commentators argued that it was time for the party to move on from the former president, that he had already gotten them what they wanted and, above all, would be a liability in a general election.
“There is a reason Democrats are eager to keep Trump at the center of the conversation: half of independents say Trump is a major factor in their vote, and they’re breaking 4-1 for the Democrats. Republicans shouldn’t play that game. If they do, they’re cruising for a bruising,” wrote conservative influencer Ben Shapiro in a much-cited Twitter thread posted at the end of August.
“I mean, the country, I think, is so exhausted. They’re exhausted by the battle, the constant battle, that they may believe that, well, it’s time to turn the page if we can get someone who has all Trump’s policies who’s not Trump,” said Laura Ingraham, one of Fox News’ top hosts, in a recent podcast with radio host Lisa Boothe. Longtime conservative pundit Ann Coulter echoed that sentiment a few weeks later.
Even one of the country’s most famous conspiracy theorists, and an on-and-off-again Trump supporter, Alex Jones, said he was decamping for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — though he quickly backed off that claim a few days later.
The chatter can be easily written off as cable talkers and social media influencers making wild claims to garner attention, and a flat-out rebellion of the right against Trump seems highly unlikely.
But cracks in the coalition that helped carry him to the White House in 2016 have been showing ever since the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump's lightly attended departure from Washington.
Republican megadonors have been hosting confabs headlined by potential competitors to Trump in 2024. Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican operative, launched an effort to recruit DeSantis to run for president — something DeSantis’s camp has distanced itself from. Former Vice President Mike Pence, written off as a pariah in MAGA world for not supporting Trump’s attempt to overthrow his 2020 election loss, continues to headline soirees for influential conservative groups and recently hosted a donor retreat in Utah, according to a New York Times report.
Some veteran Republican and conservative operators see a move toward a post-Trump world, where his style of national populism is adopted by other White House hopefuls but Trump no longer carries that flag. Steady support among the Republican voter base for DeSantis as a more stable and effective alternative to Trump in 2024 has fueled much of this talk. Others have floated Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin as the type of post-Trump candidate who can push “Trumpy” policies without completely alienating moderate voters.
But while Trump’s support on the right has slipped since he left office, he remains the overwhelming favorite to win any battle for the Republican nomination.
In a recent survey of Pennsylvania voters by Monmouth University, self-identified “very conservative” and “somewhat conservative” voters overwhelmingly said they would vote for Trump for president in 2024. Conversely, nearly every self-identified “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal” voter said they would not support Trump, and roughly two-thirds of self-identified “moderate” voters said they would not vote for him either.
“Some conservative media personalities want to see Trump in the rearview mirror, but as far as the base of the party is concerned, he still drives the car. Trump’s political future is up to him,” said Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.” “If he decides to run for the Republican nomination in 2024, he will begin as the frontrunner. And Republicans usually nominate the frontrunner — but not before humiliating him first.”
Self-identified social and cultural conservatives have long been wary of Trump, starting from his descent down the golden escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015. Before becoming one of his chief advisers, Steve Bannon oversaw some of the sharpest attacks on Trump as the editor of the far-right outlet Breitbart News. Trump won the support of some key blocs of the Christian right only after then-Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. withdrew support from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and backed Trump. (Falwell’s change of loyalties happened amid a sex scandal involving Falwell, Falwell’s wife, Becki, and their “pool boy.”)
But ever since Trump put down a last-gasp attempt by tea party conservatives and Cruz supporters at the 2016 Republican convention and expelled most neoconservatives from the party (resulting in the creation of a subset of “Never Trump” conservatives), the GOP and the right have been almost exclusively his property.
That dynamic has had longtime conservative groups searching for footholds. Six years after launching one of the earliest attacks on Trump from the right, the conservative campaign operation the Club for Growth linked arms with him in the 2022 midterms and helped him select candidates — until a falling out over the Ohio Republican Senate primary.
Other bulwarks of the conservative movement, most notably the Heritage Foundation, are overhauling their operations to include more populist stances — the group was a top donor to the National Conservatism Conference hosted in Miami last month.
Republican operatives have long noted the functionally transactional nature of the relationship between Trump and conservatives. Trump built an image in New York as a brash, amoral tycoon — and in some corners he turned off conservatives who disapproved, but others found a trash-talking warrior they believed was needed to push their priorities.
One veteran conservative activist said Trump himself has long been soft on conservative priorities like banning abortion, and noted Trump’s reticence in touting the landmark Supreme Court ruling overturning federal abortion protections, despite being able to take the most credit for having nominated three of the justices who sided with the majority.
“He’s never been a true conservative. It’s always been a transactional relationship between conservative voters and Trump,” said one veteran conservative journalist. “I think they’re truly in search of somebody who represents more of their ideology and Christian values.”