The pandemic is the primary reason former President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. It may also prevent him from returning, but for totally different reasons.
In 2020, Trump was viewed as lax and incompetent in his COVID-19 response by a critical mass of voters. President Biden won among those whose top issue was the pandemic or who prioritized controlling the virus over reopening the economy by at least 60 points. For many of the suburbanites who decided the election, it was the last straw. (This is without getting into whether the COVID voting protocols themselves worked to Trump's disadvantage.)
If Trump runs again in 2024, he may face the opposite COVID critique in the Republican primaries: that he was too supportive of letting the pandemic change the way Americans lived. Although he later chafed at them, Trump backed the lockdowns. (The Biden White House is now presenting them as a Trump policy, not something Democratic elected officials or their preferred public health authorities championed.) He elevated Anthony Fauci into an expert on all things COVID. Even his role in developing the vaccines is an area of disagreement with some allies.
Ambitious Republicans, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, appear to notice that this is a rare Trump vulnerability with GOP voters. And Trump seems to recognize that Operation Warp Speed may not fire up Team MAGA in the same fashion as "build the wall."
Rank-and-file Republicans are over COVID. They are second-guessing the economic interruption of 2020, especially as even some liberal jurisdictions are beginning to relax their policies. There is no guarantee any of this will make the party revisit its steadfast backing of Trump. But it's one of the more promising possibilities for his potential primary opponents than another Evan McMullin-style candidacy.
It's unfortunate that Trump's greatest achievement could hurt him. Some in the GOP have outflanked him on the fight against business closures and mandates. And while vaccine skeptics are a minority among Republicans, they are a persistent one.
COVID is roiling some conservative political parties internationally. Trump's Republicans may be no different.