Life, they say, is what happens while you’re making other plans. In May 2016, at a bar during the state Republican convention in Dallas, a senior aide to Governor Greg Abbott was explaining to a conservative friend why Abbott was endorsing Donald Trump. At that moment, Trump was clearly going to win the GOP nomination. But many Republicans would say in private that they found him a phony who was not actually a conservative in the way they had understood conservatism. Abbott had shared his initial thoughts on the New York real estate magnate in a different way: the governor endorsed Senator Ted Cruz, his protégé, in February, even though Trump was dominant and already likely to win. By May Abbott had acknowledged reality and switched horses.
The adviser explained that Abbott, who’d served as Texas attorney general for more than twelve years, cared more than anything about the U.S. Supreme Court. He’d back any Republican nominee for president who’d promise to appoint jurists backed by the lavishly funded right-wing Federalist Society. But, the aide explained, it also looked like Trump would lose in the general election, in which case the party would likely be inherited by those who had been good soldiers, not those who had pitched tantrums. The governor had to back Trump to advance the Abbott brand and his issues and to bring those issues to the national stage.
Back then—it’s hard to remember now, but it’s true—Abbott had dreams and issues he could call his own. The week of the 2016 GOP convention, the governor released a memoir, Broken But Unbowed: The Fight to Fix a Broken America. The book desperately wanted to convince readers its subject was going to be somebody more than the governor of Texas, its promotional copy noting that Abbott was “one of the first prominent politicians to govern from a wheelchair since Franklin D. Roosevelt,” a comparison he would never court again.
The first part of the book explained, briefly, how Abbott had been paralyzed and how he’d persevered. As he had recovered from his injuries, so could America from the injuries inflicted by the Obama administration. But then the book turned to what Abbott really cared about: amending the U.S. Constitution and imposing new rules on the U.S. Supreme Court to constrain its ability to make important decisions. Among other proposed reforms, Abbott argued that a supermajority of states should be allowed to overturn Supreme Court rulings, and that the court should require a three-fourths vote instead of a majority in cases when a decision “alters the Constitution in a way that expands or contracts the rights or obligations of American citizens.”
Abbott had little chance of overhauling the Constitution to bring about a sweeping overhaul of the federal government, judicial review, and the balance of powers even if he were to be elected president, but the plan was revealing about his goals and intentions. While critics have long judged Abbott to be an introverted and wishy-washy politician who could never make it on the national stage, he had immodest ambitions and wanted to be taken seriously. As he was twiddling his thumbs during his first legislative session as governor—a lackluster one dominated by debates over a small pre-K program he didn’t seem to take much personal interest in—Abbott was working on a book laying out how he, personally, would reshape America.
Life comes at you fast. Trump didn’t lose in 2016, as the aide expected he would, and after Trump lost in 2020, he didn’t go away. Trump still sucks all the oxygen out of the Republican Party and out of whatever plans Abbott might have to seek national office. This weekend, seven and a half years after he first announced that he supported Trump for the presidency, Abbott played second fiddle to Trump once again, endorsing him for the presidency in Edinburg, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley.
The endorsement came during a brief speech at an airport near the border, after Trump and Abbott served food to Border Patrol personnel, state guard forces, and Department of Public Safety troopers stuck there over Thanksgiving. (Trump did not, unfortunately, toss any tamales to the crowd.) Abbott deployed those personnel to the border, at a cost of $4.5 billion and counting, and has kept them there despite nearly three years of evidence that they’re not significantly limiting migration.
In front of an expensive backdrop of state assets—two DPS helicopters, a mine-resistant tactical vehicle that looked like it might have come surplus from the war on terror, and a boat with a machine gun mounted to its deck, Abbott repeatedly thanked troopers for being there without taking credit for sending them. “Everyone likes to be with their family during the time of Thanksgiving,” said Abbott, noting that the troopers “cannot be with their family members at home” because “they are called upon to protect and serve the United States and the state of Texas.”
The troopers are stationed in Edinburg because the border is the one of the most important issues these days—among Republicans and independent voters, and increasingly among Democrats, especially along the Rio Grande. Abbott doesn’t talk about overhauling the judicial system anymore. He’s spent the last three years pumping billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers down to the border, and, crucially, few of the soldiers talk back—in contrast to Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives, who seem happy to buck Abbott. He came to Edinburg as his year-long push for school vouchers was falling apart in Austin. He had called four special legislative sessions in a fruitless effort to get legislators to shower taxpayer dollars upon parents to send their children to private school.
Unlike the voucher issue, the border gets Abbott action from the Texas House—which recently advanced a bill that would make crossing the border a state criminal offense. More importantly, it gets him slots on national TV. It’s the only thing that does anymore. But it’s a thin reed on which to turn the Abbott brand into something salable across the country.
Abbott is stuck, for now. “I’m here today to officially proclaim my endorsement for Donald J. Trump to be president again,” he told the crowd. It was an admission that hints from Abbott’s camp that he might run for president were for naught. Abbott was choosing to stay in Trump’s tent.
But to what end? If Trump wins, he’ll control Republican politics till at least 2028. If he loses, who’s to say he couldn’t run again?
After Abbott, Trump got up to speak and engaged in his unique brand of jazzman scatting. “I know almost every one of you,” he told a roomful of troopers whom he didn’t know at all, before clarifying, “individually, and by the fact that I know what you do.” Trump also told the troopers, “You take the hard way out, but it’s also the right way out.” By their whoops and hollers, they seemed much more excited to see him than to see Abbott. Trump said receiving the endorsement was quite an honor, but he spoke for fewer than ten minutes before he took the option to leave Edinburg and the governor behind.
Alongside rumblings that Abbott would have liked to run for president, there have been rumblings that he would be an ideal vice president. You could make a case that he’d be a good VP choice: a relatively popular governor of a big state who is strong on Trump’s core issue, the border and immigration. Skepticism is warranted that Trump would pick Abbott, however, for an ugly reason. A profound contempt for those with physical disabilities runs through Trump’s public record. Most recently, his longtime chief of staff John Kelly confirmed allegations that Trump asked his staff to keep amputees away from him. Trump also reportedly mocked an injured veteran using a wheelchair. The former president seems to think that men and women who aren’t able-bodied are weak. He’s more broken than Abbott ever was, but he’s the man to whom Abbott has chosen to bow.
In a sense, the governor has chosen the only option available to him. Those who have challenged Trump have come off far worse. For a while, Abbott and Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, had a little rivalry going. But DeSantis got too big for his britches—or too short for his boots—and tried to break Trump’s control of the party. He’s being squashed like a bug—down nearly forty points in the polls—and even after he drops out, he will suffer the leader of the party’s wrath. Score: Austin 1, Tallahassee 0.