Donald Trump hasn't said for sure if he will run in 2024. But he's having a hell of a lot of fun teasing it.
"We are going to take back that beautiful, beautiful White House. I wonder who will do that. I wonder, I wonder," he said to roaring applause at a Saturday rally in Florence, S.C.
More than a year after he left the White House, Trump is still the center of the Republican universe. And that's truest of all for his most committed fans. Thousands of rallygoers waited for hours on Saturday in frigid, gusty weather for Trump to speak.
"It shows the love people have to be out in this," said Rhonda Moore, from Columbia, in the rain as the temperature plummeted. It would still be more than 5 hours until Trump took the stage. She turned around to show off the flag she had wrapped herself in.
"It's President Trump dressed like a gladiator. So I thought I'd let him keep me warm," she said with a laugh.
A Trump rally is the easiest place to see just how much of a cult of personality has built up around Trump in the party. But as he works to sway Republican primaries — and oust incumbents in the process — it also is an opportunity to see not only how much he has changed the party, but how much he is shaping the future of the party.
Gain a Better Understanding of Today
MPR News is not just a listener supported source of information, it's a resource where listeners are supported. We take you beyond the headlines to the world we share in Minnesota. Become a sustainer today to fuel MPR News all year long.
RINOs draw lots of attention
Moore, holding her flag tightly around her head, said she doesn't consider herself a Republican, despite her support of Trump.
"I classify as an American conservative. Republicans have been disappointing in some things that they've done. They're part of the swamp. Some of them, I think, they're RINOs," she said.
RINO — meaning "Republican In Name Only" — is a decades-old Republican epithet that has gained new currency in the Trump era. He uses it not so much to indicate a lack of ideological purity as to slam Republicans who've been critical of him. And it was used liberally at this rally.
"Unfortunately for the patriots of South Carolina, you currently have two atrocious RINOs — they're bad people in the House, who went to Washington, sold you out and partnered with the Democrats to stab the Republican Party and frankly, to stab our country in the back," Trump said in his speech.
He was referring to Republican Representatives Nancy Mace and Tom Rice. Mace criticized Trump sharply after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and Rice subsequently voted to impeach trump.
In response, Trump is supporting their Republican primary challengers, and the rally was an opportunity to give them high-profile guest-speaking gigs. State Rep. Russell Fry is challenging rice. Former State Rep. Katie Arrington is challenging Mace.
"Let's not forget those RINOS. Let's not forget those turncoats," she yelled in her speech. "And you know who I'm talking about — the Liz Cheney of the South, none other than Nancy Mace. Nancy Mace is who I'm here to take out. She turned her back on President Trump, she turned her back on me, and she turned her back on you."
When loyalty matters more than a voting record
Some voters in the district have taken this to heart, according to Jerry Rovner, the chair of the 7th-district Republican Party — Congressman Rice's district.
"I'll never forget — I was in a Lutheran church, and this little lady took her mask down," he said. "And I said, 'Yes?' And she goes, 'What are you gonna do about that Tom Rice - he voted against Donald Trump, you know.'"
Talking to Rovner, you understand just how much loyalty to Trump can outweigh ideology in the GOP these days.
"When I talked to Tom, he said, 'But I had 50,000 votes, I only did one thing,' and I said, 'Well, look: I'm 70 years old, I've never killed anybody, but if I did, I'd be a murderer,'" Rovner recounted.
Trump's meddling in primary elections has added a dose of chaos to how the party runs, according to Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist who worked as an aide to House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner.
"Oh, this is entirely unprecedented," he said.
"It makes a lot of people really uncomfortable, that incumbents are seen as expendable," he added. "And of course, Donald Trump only thinks in terms of what's good for him or who's slighted him."
Indeed, Trump's endorsees were not the real focus of the rally; Trump was, with an hourlong speech that hit on all the usual points – the lie that he won in 2020, for example, and insulting his perceived enemies.
And while he's not on a ballot, he had the potential to win still more support at this rally for a potential 2024 run. Robin Herbert, a dental assistant from Florence, came with a coworker and said she considers herself "liberal" ... but she added that her feelings about trump have been shifting recently.
"They were negative to start with," she said. "I thought he was just kind of harsh, but then the more I've heard him talk, I'm trying to feel a little different about it."
She elaborated why she's "trying" to come around to Trump in particular.
"I have not been happy with Biden at all," she said. "I just don't think he has been together at all. I think he's just I don't think he knows what he's doing."
Biden's approval rating has been underwater since fall. The upshot for the Republican party is that people like Herbert, who are disappointed with Biden, will either have to come around to Trump or get hooked by someone else.
For many rallygoers, the No. 1 alternative is clear: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. And it quickly became clear why: they see him and Trump as similar. Anthony Barber, a petroleum inspector from Somerville, talked about what he likes about the two men.
"They like to punch back. They don't sit there and take it, take it, take it — show weakness," he said. "You know, to run a country, you've got to show strength."
Others echoed the comparison.
"He's just like Trump, he says it like it is," said Shannon Reynolds, an Air Force veteran from Sumter. "He puts people in their place when they're wrong. He calls them out, but he's there for the people."
Trump and DeSantis have traded swipes at each other in recent months. But DeSantis' popularity in this crowd, and the fact that it's because many Republicans see him as distinctly Trumpy, is also proof of Trump's power.
While Trump keeps wondering aloud whether he will be on the 2024 ballot, it's clear that he has created conditions for people like him to hold sway in the GOP for years to come.
In other words, the conditions are ripe for Trumpism to outlast Trump himself.
Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.