Saturday’s acquittal of former President Donald Trump has left the Republican Party in disarray—in such disarray that even politicians from the same state are split on the party’s future. Last week, South Carolinians Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham offered completely different takes. Haley, the state’s former governor, said that Trump “let us down,” while Senator Graham called Haley’s comments “wrong.”
Of course, both Haley and Graham are asking all the right questions. How loyal should conservatives be to a president that largely energized their movement and brought them out of hiding, but also found himself impeached twice and disgraced in defeat? While the ideal answer is somewhere between complete distance and outright loyalty to Trump, I have to agree more with the former approach moving forward.
Most obviously, keeping Trump and his antics at a reasonable distance is the most electable strategy. Yes, I recognize that 2024 is a long way off. But, the memories of this election’s aftermath and the Capitol riot are not going anywhere. In many ways, Trump’s acquittal may have already sealed the fate of any Republican running for the White House in three years. And in those three years, the question of loyalty will persist. If distance from Trump is the agreed-upon strategy and Trump does not win his party’s nomination, he will surely run a third-party campaign out of spite.
Still, most Americans would agree that leaving Trump’s “unpresidential” demeanor behind will only help conservative Republicans rebuild their image. But, the issue of Trump’s policies remains much more complicated. As the 45th president would be quick to tell you, he accomplished a lot in a single term—everything from cutting taxes to brokering peace deals in the Middle East. The fact is that Trump’s “America First” agenda remains popular among conservatives; even in her criticism of his final weeks in office, Nikki Haley identified this.
But if not Trump, then who? There are many ways the Republican Party could turn. Perhaps, other than Haley, the most obvious is to an established Trump loyalist like Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Among the many problems with Cruz (i.e. objecting to the election results) is that he could not beat Trump in 2016. Why would that change, especially if the former president launched a third-party campaign? The same goes for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. After his 2016 bid flopped, a recent poll showed Christie polling at a whopping 0% among Republicans.
Other less established but pro-Trump hopefuls include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose anti-lockdown stance has boosted his popularity immensely. Some have even thrown around DeSantis’ name as a potential vice presidential candidate should Trump run for president again. Apparently Mike Pence upholding his constitutional oath and certifying the election results was just too much for them.
Speaking of Vice President Pence, his nomination remains a strong possibility. But could he convince enough moderates and independents that he distanced himself enough from Trump, while also debunking his “betrayal” to the MAGA movement? Even for a skilled politician like Pence, this is a hard sell.
I have already mentioned Nikki Haley as the party’s antithesis to Trumpism, but there are other options if the party wants to move in that direction. Dan Crenshaw and Tom Cotton are congressmen whose stars are rising; however, both have their issues. Crenshaw is young and probably a bit too moderate for the Trump base, as he has supported red flag laws in the past. Cotton, on the other hand, has come under fire for calling slavery “a necessary evil on which the Union was built.” While I understand the point Cotton was trying to make, downplaying the horrors of slavery is never a good look.
Of course, Republicans have their wild cards. Political commentator and “Blexit” activist Candace Owens has flirted with the idea of running in 2024. And, if Kanye West won’t take another crack at the White House, there is always MyPillow CEO and Trump confidant Mike Lindell. I’m not making this up!
Simply put, the Republican Party must do a lot of soul-searching in the next three years. Only time can measure the legacy of former President Trump, and only time can tell us which of these candidates will take the reins of conservatism’s future.