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Can America First Continue Without Trump?

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

The conservative movement and Republican Party are at an interesting crossroads heading into the 2024 election season. With its dismal performance in the 2022 midterm elections and questions about its future abounding, the right-wing chattering class is abuzz with speculation regarding the direction of the movement and the individuals who will become its standard-bearers going forward.

Former President Donald Trump has already thrown his hat into the ring as a contender for the GOP’s nomination. But there is a growing sentiment in the base among folks signaling that they are ready to move on from Trump’s transformational presidency.

Here’s the question on everyone’s minds: Is America First ready to move on from the former president or will they decide it is not yet time for him to pass on the mantle?

In a piece for Townhall, activist and commentator Gavin Wax made the case for continuing to support Trump. He suggested that “Trumpism” could not survive without the former president still leading the way, but acknowledged that many other conservative commentators are “vocally pining for Trumpism without Trump.”

“They want to retain most of the America First policy proposals he brought to the fore along with the momentum and enthusiasm he garnered with his unprecedented rise through the GOP, but they want to retire the former President and keep him on the sidelines where his controversial musings and magnetic persona will not dominate the public conversation,” Wax continued.

However, he points out that the “personal, emotional relationship between Trump and his base cannot be understated” and that if the former president does not secure the nomination, “at least a million of his supporters will stay home and refuse to vote Republican.” Needless to say, this would deal a serious blow to the Republican Party’s chances of taking back the White House in 2024.

Wax made another excellent point when he predicted that if the America First movement crumbles, “the Republican Party will fall back into the Bush-era neoconservatism of old” and that this would usher in a return to a time when the GOP exploiting socials issues “to keep the base voting Republican.”

Wax is spot on in this prediction. In fact, there is absolutely no way this scenario would not play out if the anti-establishment wing of the party loses influence. Indeed, this is the outcome for which the McConnells and Romneys are fervently wishing.

The author goes on to address the Floridian elephant in the room: Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is viewed by most as the biggest threat to a Trump primary victory, even though he has not yet announced his intention to run. Indeed, polling taken after the midterms seemed to bolster this assessment, with many studies placing the governor ahead of the former president as the desired choice to lead the party going forward. But Wax points out the flaws in throwing support behind DeSantis for 2024:

As effective a governor as Ron DeSantis has been in Florida, he is woefully ill-equipped to carry the banner America First in Trump’s stead. DeSantis is far weaker than Trump on three key issues: trade, foreign policy, and the Deep State. Alongside immigration, these comprise the core of Trump’s America First mandate. This is why the RINO establishment is fine with DeSantis being the 2024 nominee, even though his pseudo-Trumpian style is a bit of a turn-off to them.

With the exception of the commitment to defeat the Deep State, Wax’s other assertions don’t yet hold water. The fact of the matter is that DeSantis has not publicly spoken about his stances on foreign policy and trade just yet. There are certain indications from his days as a lawmaker, but as of now, we do not know where the governor stands on these issues.

But when it comes to the Deep State, while DeSantis might not hold any love for the bureaucracy, he does not have unfinished business with these forces as Trump does. Indeed, the former president wants revenge on those who wronged him when he was in the White House, and this might be a more attractive reality than someone who might not be as aggressive in rooting out these influences. We haven’t yet heard DeSantis say he wants to “Drain the Swamp,” have we?

There is another element in this equation, however. While the America First movement did not start with Trump, he became its figurehead during the 2016 campaign. If Wax is right, and it is dependent on Trump to survive, then that portends nothing positive for the future. A movement based on a man cannot prosper long-term, which is one of the reasons why MAGA is looking for other leaders to carry the proverbial torch.

Of course, those who favor DeSantis would argue that the America First/MAGA movement is bigger than Trump, and they would be right. The base was livid at the establishment long before Trump came onto the scene, and they are even angrier now. If the movement’s infrastructure can get organized enough to continue wielding dominance over the Republican Party, it will not need the former president – at least not for much longer.

However, I still contend that if Trump does not get the nomination, the GOP will not retake the White House, which could signal even more trouble ahead for the movement and the party. The former president would see to it that this happens, which is why the RNC is trying to mitigate the potential fallout. One thing is for sure: The conservative movement and Republican Party are in for some interesting times in the not-so-distant future.

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