Ah, the “exit strategy”. Wikipedia defines it as, “… a means of leaving one's current situation, either after a predetermined objective has been achieved, or as a strategy to mitigate failure.”
“Exit strategy” is mostly employed in the context of war, and it’s the notion that a smart national leader or top general compiles a pullout plan ahead of time in case conditions on the ground don’t go as anticipated once the shooting starts. How many times have we heard the term since last February when Russia’s Vladimir Putin launched his numerically superior and better equipped fighting forces into Ukraine, again, supposedly figuring on a quick suppression of the smaller and vulnerable neighbor?
It didn’t work out that way, though Putin exhibits no signs of giving up. Eventually the Ukrainians will run out of money and bullets unless the Joe Biden-led United States commits to resupply after resupply of the distant ally. But that’s a topic for another time.
In politics, it’s safe to say, few office-seekers ever embark on a campaign intending to pull the plug early if things don’t go right – or at least before a party primary ensues to separate the wheat from the chaff. One never knows what will happen during a campaign, be it good things like lots of free and positive media publicity or bad events like bankruptcy or the crooked business dealings of a subordinate.
Needless to say, former president Donald Trump has encountered more than his share of unfortunate – and negative -- media coverage since he set off on his third presidential run over a month ago. Much of the criticism directed at Trump has been well-earned and some hasn’t, but his campaign’s vital signs aren’t strong right now. It has some of his enemies thinking he may implement an “exit strategy” before the real shoutin’ even starts, sometime next summer.
In a piece titled “The question Republicans dare not ask: Will Trump drop out of the 2024 presidential race early?”, the always critical of Donald Trump establishment Republican Myra Adams wrote at The Hill:
“Looking ahead to 2023, what if Trump is indicted by the Justice Department (more likely every day) and the 2024 GOP nomination polls continue to boldly favor DeSantis? While Trump fears losing, what course of action is available to him before the primaries begin? Surely not a traditional campaign withdrawal speech.
“Instead, Trump could play the poor health card and withdraw, a plausible excuse after he turns 77 in June. That way, Trump saves face by not being called a ‘loser’ — only a victim of bodily maladies beyond his control...
“…Health problems, real or manufactured, could be used offensively, allowing Trump to maintain control of his non-defeat if he is careening toward inevitable primary defeats. Most importantly, the health card protects his winning persona, allowing him to play kingmaker from the sidelines.”
The final factor Adams listed could end up being the most important one for Trump. Having followed Trump’s political career since the beginning (or, full disclosure, about a month after he announced his run for president in June of 2015), I’d wager there’s next to no chance a man like the bombastic New Yorker would ever cut and run from any challenge just because the odds appeared to be stacked against him.
Adams was definitely correct when she asserted that Trump hates to lose. That is certainly true, and her idea that he could use health as an excuse to quietly and legitimately remove himself is the most likely scenario, should it ever come to pass. Trump himself suggested earlier this year that a doctor-generated cautionary message was the only thing that might keep him from running again. And after all the stress of late, maybe the rigor really could be getting to the man.
But as has been said a lot recently, Trump still possesses a potent arsenal of political weapons, not the least of which is himself. Trump commands the loyalty and backing of a significant percentage of the 75-or so million who voted for him in 2020, and even if millions have already decided to head towards DeSantis, there’re many left to provide a solid floor of support.
These “diehards” will be with Trump come hell or high water. They might’ve started following Trump when he championed the “forgotten Americans” or latched on later when they witnessed him battling the swampy establishment like no other Republican ever has. Trump’s troops admire his combativeness and willingness to throw elbows in the crowded mosh pit of politics. They also don’t care if Trump’s jabs result in real injury to the opposition in the form of eternal enmity and a “never” designation like Adams herself has adopted.
Whereas most politicians give lip service to notion of “politics by addition rather than subtraction”, Trump subscribes to a more abusive and hard-edge form of campaigning. His nicknames for his opponents, fondness for making it personal and complete acceptance of mudslinging has won millions of adherents.
And it’s made Trump popular. Unlike the more recent Republican establishment nominees and presidents, Trump’s loyalists are not beholden just to the party itself. George W. Bush wasn’t a well-regarded man when he left office, but the non-ideological Republicans still backed him simply because he’d tried hard and was the victim of bad circumstances. They’d write checks to the RNC and the party campaign committees no matter what Bush did.
Trump’s follower group is different entirely. They’re loyal to the man and couldn’t care less about the party succeeding, which explains the difference between Trump’s and other Republicans’ vote totals. The million-dollar question is whether this segment of Trump-only advocates will turn out for DeSantis or any other GOP winner.
But it seems clear that if a non-Trump Republican were to succeed in his place, he or she will need to convince these folks to participate rather than return to their low-propensity voting habits pre-2016. It will largely depend on how Trump handles his “exit strategy”, if indeed he’s prepared one. I personally think it would take wild horses to drag Trump away from politics for two reasons:
One, Trump honestly believes he’s the only one who could lead the MAGA movement against the establishment, and two, Trump loves the day-to-day give and take of rough-and-tumble politics. Where the incessant media fixation on him would bother most people, Trump thrives on it. Politics provides Trump the platform to always be in the conversation. Not even his social media activity or celebrity could offer the same opportunity.
Therefore, Trump will weather this recent drop in popularity and prepare his next moves without an exit strategy. As the months go on in 2023 and the potential Republican field starts to take shape, Trump can almost divide and conquer – taking on, or taking out – each one as they announce. Trump has drawn a lot of flak for announcing very early, but right now, he’s the only game in town.
His political brand is well established and he’s got enough resources to get through some down periods. The Democrats and senile Joe Biden can be counted on to go to extremes so Trump can present himself as a welcome contrast, something that will be hard to do for any Republican not named Trump – and maybe DeSantis. The economy will continue to struggle under higher interest rates and elevated fuel prices, so Americans will be hungry for an alternative.
Of course there’s always the possibility Trump will lose heart and seek a way to exit the race. Or, should a criminal indictment (legitimate or otherwise) actually happen, the dip in public favor could be so precipitous that it will force him to make a new plan, which might include a face-saving ending.
Time will tell how the Republican presidential race evolves next year. At this point it’s premature to speculate who might join the fray – and it’s definitely too early to start planning Trump’s exit. Trump’s enemies will continue arguing that the former president is on his last political leg, but the process will play itself out.
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