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The proverbial cemeteries are filled with conservatives who thought they could beat Donald Trump. Some Republicans, like Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador, who launched a presidential bid this week, were against Trump before they were for him. Now she is against him again. Others, such as Mike Pence, the former vice-president, cannot bring himself to criticise the ex-president even after the latter incited a lynch mob against him. Trying to come back from the political dead will be no picnic.

America has seen this movie before. In 2015, like today, the Republican establishment was largely united against Trump. Big donors parked their cash. Party figures withheld their endorsements. Strategists cast around for those likeliest to beat Trump. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were identified but came up short. Neither is giving any hint of wanting to run that gauntlet again. Each warned that Trump posed a toxic moral threat to the nation. Having been humiliated, each then jumped on the Trump bandwagon. As Haley is likely to find out, the Maga base does not admire flip-floppers.

The Republican party’s Trump dilemma is acute. Almost everybody associated with him has been badly diminished. In her video launch, Haley proclaims that she does not “put up with bullies”. Yet she served Trump loyally for two years. The most direct criticism she can make of Trump is that Republicans need a younger leader. Haley’s content-free candidacy is the fruit of having submitted meekly in spite of knowing better. She cannot disown her past. Similar quandaries confront Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, and Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state. Each were loyal henchmen. The only candidates who could beat Trump are those who never served him. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, South Carolina’s senator, Tim Scott, and Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, are the most plausible. Of these, only DeSantis — the tip of the conservative anti-woke spear — so far has the profile to compete with Trump. He also has the support of many of the party’s big donors.

In a straight matchup, DeSantis would beat Trump, according to most of the polls. But in a crowded field, Trump could repeat what he did in 2016 when he won primary after primary with less than half the vote. From Trump’s point of view, the more candidates in the race the merrier. In some ways, that understates his prospects. The weaker Trump seems, the likelier others are to enter the race. Call this Trump’s “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy. Such is the familiar dread coursing through the Republican establishment. Few think that Trump could beat Joe Biden, who shows every sign of running again. Most also believe that any other Republican could beat Biden. They are probably right. Trump has never won the US popular vote and is unlikely to start now.

The problem is that there is not much the anybody-but-Trump crowd can do to stop 2016 from happening again. Gone are the days when party grandees could prevail on weak candidates to drop out. Republican elders lost their power to do so in 2016 and are in no better shape now. People such as Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, would love nothing more than to see the demise of Trump. The same applies to plutocratic donors like Charles Koch. But they lack an eject button. The best they can do is persuade DeSantis to run and hope that the less plausible candidates quickly fall by the wayside.

For the time being, the direction is predictable. Trump will continue to appear more vulnerable. As his legal woes mount, so will his temptation to tap small donors to pay his lawyers’ bills on the pretext of saving America, or fighting crime, or stopping socialism. There are many ways to skin that cat. America’s campaign finance regulations are highly fungible. Second, the Republican field will get steadily larger. By my count, there are at least eight names planning to declare, probably more. Of these, DeSantis seems the most diffident. It is by no means a given that he will run.

Yet it is worth stressing that DeSantis is the only potential rival who Trump is regularly insulting. Trump’s latest nickname for DeSantis is “meatball Ron” — though he may have been warned off it because of the implied insult to Italian-Americans. “DeSanctimonious” did not catch on. If you do not have a nickname, Trump does not fear you. Step forward Haley, Pompeo, Christie, Pence and others. Trump wants you to run. So does Biden. The irony of US politics today is that Biden and Trump happen to agree on one big thing. Both want Trump to be the Republican 2024 nominee.

edward.luce@ft.com

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