Early this month, as Donald Trump delivered his keynote address to the North Carolina Republican Party’s annual convention, the former U.S. president noticed something: His greatest crowd-pleaser of the night didn’t come when he attacked President Joe Biden, trashed Dr. Anthony Fauci, or repeated his lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him. It came when he railed against critical race theory, declaring that it should be banned from being taught to schoolchildren and government staff.
In the days after he left the stage in North Carolina, the twice-impeached ex-president delightedly remarked to those close to him that he drew the biggest, loudest applause from the Republican crowd specifically when he started going after “CRT,” according to two people familiar with the matter.
“He was going to talk a lot about it anyway; now, he mentioned a few times that he wants to talk about it even more,” one adviser to Trump recalled.
The coming days and months should prove no different, with Trump planning on delivering yet another red-meat-hurling speech on Saturday evening, with plenty of time devoted to dumping accelerant on the flames of the culture wars and asserting his continued, solidified sway over the GOP.
But his return to the rally circuit also serves another purpose: scaring off potential competition for holding dominant power over the Republican Party, and keeping himself positioned as the 2024 GOP frontrunner.
“In [recent] conversations that I’ve had with him, he has said that he wants to be everywhere to remind people, not just Republicans, that he’s still in charge,” a person close to the former president said, paraphrasing Trump. “The message is a pretty straightforward one: I am still leading this party, and if you want to try to challenge me for that, it will get ugly.”
This weekend, Trump is set to put that message into action by embarking on a new series of campaign-style rallies, with Saturday night’s event scheduled for Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington, Ohio. He will be there in part to support Max Miller, Trump’s former aide and a current GOP House candidate who is challengingCongressman Anthony Gonzalez, a Republican who voted to impeach Trump in the wake of the bloody Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
It’s not even halfway into the first year of the Biden era, but the ex-president is already behaving, and campaigning, as if he’s preparing to take another run at the White House in 2024. However, no formal announcement has been made about his plans for the next presidential contest.
His overwhelming popularity in the GOP and among the base of conservative voters—even after the deadly MAGA riot, and Republicans’ losing the House, Senate, and White House on his watch—is something that Trump is determined to preserve. And he’s trying to maintain his iron grip on the party and conservative movement just as other prominent Republicans appear to be angling to inherit the throne.
According to a source with direct knowledge of the matter, Trump has repeatedly inquired this month about his standing in the polls of potential 2024 Republican contenders, asking advisers about how his numbers stack up against the likes of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s former VP Mike Pence, ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s onetime ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, and others.
Close advisers have routinely assured Trump that he is a shoo-in for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, should he ultimately run, and that any of the other heavy-hitters in the party would be crushed if they took him on, according to three people with knowledge of such recent conversations. Still, Trump is keeping a watchful eye, in the event any of his current allies end up growing dissatisfied with being relegated to the ex-president’s 2024 running-mate considerations.
DeSantis’s political future, for one, has been of keen interest to Trump, particularly in the past few months, as the former president has watched from afar to see who could emerge as a formidable competitor, if he chooses to seek the GOP nomination, again. In a straw poll of attendees held late last week at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, Colorado, DeSantis actually beat Trump for the top spot, besting the ex-president by nearly 3 percentage points in the question of who they’d prefer to see as the next leader of the free world.
“[DeSantis] would be the first to say that if President Trump gets in, that he would win the nomination and would clear the field, and so I don’t ever see it being a 2016 primary scenario,” Mark Meadows, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, told the Washington Examiner, shortly before that straw poll’s results posted online. “That being said, Gov. DeSantis won’t even—he’s asked over and over and over again every time I’m in his presence—he’s been asked, ‘Are you running in 2024?’ His answer has been consistent: He is running for reelection for governor of the state [of Florida].”