CULTURE

The Trump Veepstakes Has Begun

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“We need a President who will restore law and order!,” Senator Tim Scott, of South Carolina, bellowed from a stage in Concord, New Hampshire, ahead of that state’s primary last week. “We neeeed Donald Trump!” And Donald Trump, barring a major plot twist, will soon need a running mate. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, and until recently a candidate for the Republican nomination himself, appears to be well aware of that prospect. He’s not the only one. An unseemly crowd of would-be Veeps has been campaigning in Trump’s wake, generating a phantasmagoria of MAGA abasement—rich in ambition, short on shame.

There was a brief time when it seemed possible that prominent Republicans would recoil from the idea of being Trump’s sidekick. The last person to hold the job, Mike Pence, was threatened with lynching after he refused to go along with his boss’s plan for a coup. But the proliferating lists of serious aspirants include governors, senators, and members of the House, in addition to various MAGA hangers-on. (Donald Trump, Jr., told Newsmax that Tucker Carlson would “certainly be a contender.”) Elise Stefanik, the chair of the House Republican Conference, “would be honored,” she said, “to serve in a future Trump Administration in any capacity,” which is just a fancy paraphrase of the declaration by Kari Lake, an Arizona Senate candidate, that she would “crawl over broken glass” for the former President. By the A.P.’s count, thirty current senators have endorsed Trump. The very fact that there is a competition confirms how Trumpist the G.O.P. has become.

In other words, while the veepstakes is a regular feature of the American Presidential process, this round has some decidedly irregular features. For one thing, it is coming quite early; Super Tuesday is still a month away. In late January, Trump stoked the Veep talk by informing Fox News’s Bret Baier that there was someone “that I think I like” and that there was “a twenty-five-per-cent chance” he’d choose that person. He seems to relish both the spectacle and the indirect acknowledgment that he has the nomination tied up. For related reasons, the unwillingness of Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, to drop out of the race after coming in second in New Hampshire seems to enrage him. Last week, he announced on Truth Social that anyone who gave “Birdbrain” Haley money would be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.” And veepstakes is one of the games they play at that camp.

There is another, even stranger, aspect of this campaign. Trump is under criminal indictment in four jurisdictions; separately, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on February 8th about his eligibility to be on the ballot. These cases raise profound questions about the role of the potential Vice-President. (Will Trump’s V.P. pick be the presumptive alternative nominee? If convicted but still elected, could Trump call a Vice-President Marjorie Taylor Greene from prison to order an air strike on a foreign country?) The paradox is that, while the level of Republican unity seems, at this stage, unusually high, so is the chance that the ticket will fall apart. Adding to the uncertainty, for both parties: Trump is seventy-seven and Joe Biden is eighty-one. When Haley was asked last week why she, too—despite it all—still planned to endorse Trump if he gets the nomination, she said, “Because I don’t ever want to see a President Kamala Harris.”

Haley also said, days before the primary, “I don’t want to be anybody’s Vice-President. That is off the table.” There is, no doubt, a mix of pragmatism and principle in her position. She’s unlikely to be chosen, anyway. (In New Hampshire, when Trump said that Scott “must really hate” Haley, Scott said, “I just love you!”) Similarly, Ron DeSantis would not be a practical running mate, because both he and Trump are Florida residents; owing to a quirk of the Constitution, Florida’s electors could not vote for both of them. DeSantis, like Haley, might have his eye on 2028, instead. Representative Byron Donalds also has a Florida problem, but when asked if he would take the spot he said, “I mean, who wouldn’t?”

For the remaining contenders, Politico observed that the challenge is demonstrating “their fealty to Trump” without “overdoing it.” It’s not clear where Trump places the overdoing-it bar. Pence questioned the outcome of the 2020 election, and that wasn’t good enough. Is it necessary to suggest, as Senator J. D. Vance, of Ohio—another name mooted by Don, Jr.—did in New Hampshire, that the truth about January 6th has been hidden from the American people? Vance has also referred to Trump’s legal issues as “sham indictments to protect a failed President.” The veepstakes may devolve into a scramble to impugn both the legal and the electoral systems. Stefanik, making her bid, called people criminally charged for their actions on January 6th “hostages.” She is regarded as a top prospect: at a joint appearance in New Hampshire, Trump praised her both for having attacked Harvard in a recent congressional hearing and for having gone to Harvard herself.

The election, judging from polls, will be close, and it’s possible that a V.P. pick could make a difference with, say, suburban women or Black men. And it’s easy to get caught up in questions of style. What plays best: the relative subtlety of Arkansas’s governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has responded to her inclusion on many lists by saying, “I absolutely love the job I have”; the posturing coyness of Representative Nancy Mace, telling Charlamagne tha God that she finds the idea “intriguing”; or the raw enthusiasm of Governor Kristi Noem, of South Dakota, who said that she’d be Trump’s Veep “in a heartbeat”? (North Dakota’s governor, Doug Burgum, is in the mix, too.) Where the choice almost certainly won’t make a difference is in restraining Trump’s worst impulses.

Even the more absurd moments in Trump’s veepstakes are imbued with disquieting undertones. During his New Hampshire victory speech, for example, Trump asked Vivek Ramaswamy, the conspiracy-prattling businessman and former Presidential candidate, to step forward, in a tone that suggested he saw him less as a campaign surrogate than as a windup toy: “One minute or less! Go do it, Vivek!” Ramaswamy obliged with some rapid-fire words about Ukrainian kleptocrats and Haley putting “America last” and added, of her supporters, “The only thing they’re rooting for is an ugly thing that we don’t want to see happen.” Which ugly thing? It wasn’t clear. Trump, though, looked pleased. Minutes later, he told Scott, who was also onstage, to come up and take his shot. ♦

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