How Trump Steamrolled His Way to the GOP Nomination

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Super Tuesday confirmed what’s seemed clear for months: The Republican presidential primary is all but over. With a series of smashing victories, Donald Trump has effectively clinched the nomination. Before all the polls had even closed, the Associated Press called most of the 15 states in his favor.

While it will take at least another week for Trump to officially assume the mantle of presumptive GOP nominee, his ascent is a foregone conclusion. His last remaining opponent, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, suspended her campaign on Wednesday. All that's left is for the rest of the party to fall in line behind Trump, and for his operation to join forces with the Republican National Committee, a process already well underway.

“They call it Super Tuesday for a reason,” Trump said to a crowd of supporters at Mar-a-Lago. “This is a big one.”

Trump’s triumph gets him another step closer to reclaiming the presidency and pursuing a draconian policy agenda unlike any the nation has ever seen. He has vowed to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants; reimpose his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries; purge the federal bureaucracy of civil servants and replace them with MAGA loyalists; force homeless Americans off the streets and into tent cities; and commandeer the Justice Department to exact revenge on his political enemies.  

It also gets him closer to squashing two of his four criminal prosecutions; as President, he could shut down the federal indictments against him, one for election interference and another for mishandling the nation’s secrets.

When Trump left office in January 2021, after unleashing a mob on the U.S. Capitol, few foresaw him engineering a one-sided victory three years later, in one of the least competitive open primaries in U.S. history. But Trump and his allies did. They had a plan, from the start, to kneecap GOP heretics and scare off potential challengers. 

Their success was never inevitable. When Trump launched his candidacy in November 2022, he was under a dark cloud. Republicans had just suffered a disappointing midterm cycle, with many of his handpicked candidates losing critical races across the country. The party’s own top brass saw it as a sign to move on from the former President. Not a single member of Congress attended the Trump campaign kickoff at Mar-a-Lago. 

Trump’s foremost priority was to neuter the man who many presumed his most formidable intra-party threat: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had just won a landslide reelection. Trump quickly went to work—debasing him with nicknames such as “Meatball Ron” and “Tiny D”; unleashing a brigade of online trolls to mock his campaign missteps; and racking up endorsements from his state’s congressional delegation. The attacks not only undermined DeSantis’s attempt to pitch himself as a more competent version of Trump. They sent a message to would-be rivals: be prepared to face the career-destroying wrath of a MAGA onslaught. 

Then came the indictments. Trump found a way to benefit from his legal peril by framing his prosecutions as an attack on his supporters. The maneuver enabled him to rise in the polls and raise millions with each new charge. At the same time, he cunningly used his ordeal to box in his GOP adversaries with a Catch-22: If they claimed he couldn’t win the White House because of his legal woes, he characterized them as part of a conspiracy to derail his candidacy. Yet if they defended him, as most did, they only amplified and corroborated his central argument with Republican voters.

From then on, Trump barely had to make an effort. He faced a weak field of rivals who were too timid to attack his greatest vulnerabilities. When Trump skipped every primary debate, he made the events seem like little more than auditions to be his running mate. That created an aura of invincibility and inevitability around Trump, leading to endorsements from party leaders such as Montana Senator Steve Daines, who runs the Senate GOP’s fundraising arm, and House Speaker Mike Johnson. 

By the time Haley took the gloves off, she had already lost Iowa and New Hampshire and seemed to be mounting more of a symbolic anti-Trump mission than a serious presidential bid. But as she stayed defiantly in the race, she incurred the virulence of America First adherents. Deploying a similar playbook they used against DeSantis, Trump and his allies branded her as war-mongering neocon—even though her main foreign policy experience was serving as Trump’s envoy to the United Nations—and set out to humiliate her. In her home state of South Carolina, Trump won the primary by 20 points. After securing her first primary contest, in Washington, D.C., the Trump campaign called her “the queen of the Swamp.” 

Haley’s minor victory came as Trump had already signaled a turn to the general election. He proposed a revamp of the RNC, installing new loyalists to lead the organization, including his daughter-in-law Lara Trump and senior adviser Chris LaCivita. Last week, he and Biden visited separate border towns in Texas at the same time, creating a rare split-screen moment that previewed the coming matchup.

Trump could not mathematically win the nomination on Tuesday; he needs 1,215 delegates, and fewer than that have yet been afforded. The earliest he could cross that threshold is on March 12, when Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Washington will vote. But with Haley out of the race, the math no longer matters. The only remaining question is whether she will work to unite her supporters around Trump. Over the weekend, she seemed to renege on a previous pledge to back the eventual nominee, and sources say she doesn't plan to endorse her former boss.

None of that seemed to be on Trump’s mind Tuesday night. Or at least, he wasn’t showing it. He never mentioned Haley's name once. His victory speech focused instead on the last man standing in the way of his return to power. "We've watched our country take a great beating over the last three years," Trump said. “We’re gonna take back our country."

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