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Once “Never Trumpers,” These GOP Stars Are Clamoring to Be Trump’s VP

The jockeying for Trump’s vice presidential pick reveals the unvarnished opportunism of the GOP’s biggest stars.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump and attorneys Todd Blanche and Emil Bove attend his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments, on May 16, 2024, at New York City Criminal Court in New York City.

Over the past couple weeks, against the surreal backdrop of former President Donald Trump’s New York trial, the GOP presidential candidate has been very publicly submitting his vice presidential hopefuls to a combination audition for The Apprentice and The Hunger Games. With Trump tied up in court, he has been using these men and women as surrogates to spread his message on every media outlet possible, watching as all of them take turns prostrating themselves to Trump’s peculiarly anti-democratic vision and feed chum to his adoring right-wing base.

Trump’s shortlist includes South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, the governors of both North and South Dakota — though South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has done herself no favors in recent weeks by publishing a book in which she details shooting her dog — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, and several others.

Senator Vance was once a cynic when it came to Trump, calling him an “idiot” and “America’s Hitler,” and saying that he, Vance, was a “Never Trumper.” It turns out that “never” in that context meant “soon-to-be.” In recent years, he’s become best buddies with Donald Trump Jr., and, through him, has entered Papa Trump’s inner circle. Nowadays, Vance is as Trumpy as a politician can get — it’s possible that Vance is even Trumpier than Donald J. Trump himself. His jokes are as crass and as cruel as Trump’s, his adherence to election conspiracy theories and conspiracies about January 6 is absolute, and his political vision of U.S. nationalism and isolationism places him at the forefront of what Politico labels a “New Right” revolution.

Vance’s biggest downside might well be his charisma; unlike many of the other candidates, who are reliably dull in a conventional politician sort of way, Vance is flamboyant, whip-smart and entirely unafraid to shoot from the hip. In other words, he’s the sort of character who might outshine Trump himself — and one thing Trump has shown again and again is that, in addition to wanting unconditional loyalty in his subordinates, he also wants people instinctively aware that he is unable to share the spotlight with anyone else. He wants dulled pennies (think former Vice President Mike Pence) rather than shiny, newly minted coins.

Which brings us to Senators Rubio and Scott, both of whom were also once anti-Trumpers, and neither of whom has a fraction of Vance’s magnetism. The Floridian was famously lampooned by Trump in campaign rallies and debates in 2015-2016; he responded with an ill-fated effort to challenge the size of Trump’s penis during one of the many entirely undignified “debates” of the 2016 GOP primary season, and soon thereafter decided to bow out of the campaign before he parted ways with what little dignity he still had left. In 2021, Senator Scott voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, thus arousing the wrath of MAGAdom. Last year, Scott, who has sponsored a slew of extreme legislation against abortion access over the years, attacked Trump — from the right — for not supporting a federal abortion ban. He also critiqued the endless “grievance” politics that Trump has all but trademarked since the 2020 election.

Both of these senators are now ardent Trump loyalists; Scott, seeking to make amends for his original sin of voting to certify the 2020 Electoral College vote, has been doing the rounds of television shows pointedly refusing to say whether he will accept the results of the 2024 election if Trump loses — an apparent prerequisite for any candidate who wants to be Trump’s sidekick this ugly election season. Senator Rubio, who has been marketing his foreign policy chops, has been working the fundraising circuit, pushing himself as a remade “America First” populist and praising the talent of Trump’s inner circle.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who pitched himself during his primary season vanishing act as a moderate pragmatist, a sober-eyed businessman in an age of extremes, (for which he was rewarded with, well, practically zero votes) is now a firm Trump ally, reputedly serving as part of Trump’s energy policy brain trustread, exploring how to wreck Biden’s environmental policies and steer even more tax breaks and other incentives the way of the fossil fuel industry. His opportunism has paid off; Axios reports that he’s now high up on Trump’s VP list, with the ex-president believing Burgum’s rather bland persona would be a boon with Independent voters whom Trump urgently needs in his camp.

Meanwhile, Representative Stefanik once made a point of saying that Trump’s corrosive behavior and rhetoric was “not who we are as a country.” Unless I’m missing something — which I’m not — Trump hasn’t exactly modified either his behavior or his rhetoric recently. Yet for five years now, Stefanik has served as Trump’s wingwoman in the House, opposing his impeachments, amplifying his baseless election fraud allegations, denouncing his criminal trials, urging the GOP to rally around the boss. These days, it appears, in Stefanik’s glitteringly opportunistic eyes, Trump’s actions are exactly who we are as a country.

Whoever Trump ends up picking, the (un)lucky winner will be expected to be nauseatingly obsequious and as firmly committed to assaulting basic institutional and democratic norms as Trump himself is.

In the fantasy playbook on how to rein Trump in, much ink was spilled by supposedly smart analysts eight years ago on how institutionalists, especially in the Senate, would stand up to a presidential bully. It turns out, those institutionalists were mere opportunists, and the people who were supposed to build the guardrails against a Trumpian assault on democratic norms are, instead, now all too willing to helm the MAGA barricades.

If 2024 ends up being the year that U.S. democracy gets broken beyond repair, it is these Republicans — men and women who know better but can’t resist the allure of power that Trump dangles before them — who will have been the midwives to its demise.