Could President Trump face a 2020 primary from ... Ted Cruz?

A little goodie courtesy of an RNC official to make tonight’s already awkward Cruz speech that much more awkward.

Can you feel the unity, my friends?

Cruz is already laying the groundwork for another run for president in 2020, but a top RNC official told Yahoo News that they expect him to run even if Donald Trump becomes president this fall. That would represent the first major challenge of an incumbent president from inside his own party since Teddy Kennedy ran against President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

“If Trump wins, you better bet your ass Cruz is going to primary him,” the RNC official told Yahoo News.

And so the RNC officials told D.C. delegates that a rules reset would open the door to an effort by a key Cruz ally, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, to close primary contests in several states to independent and Democratic voters. Cuccinelli and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, pushed for the closed primary in the convention rules committee meeting last week.

So that’s how the RNC killed Monday’s floor revolt against the new pro-Trump convention rules. They warned blue-state delegates that rejecting the proposed rules in favor of new ones could lead to — gasp — more conservative influence over the nomination, which in turn might mean — gasp — Ted Cruz as nominee. Makes me wonder if this gossip about Cruz primarying President Trump is on the level or just more RNC nonsense designed to further demagogue Cruz and his grassroots followers as disloyal anti-establishment boogeymen. The RNC’s made it abundantly clear this year that they prefer Trump to Cruz as nominee. Why wouldn’t they start whispering to the media today, hours before Cruz’s unity speech, that he’s a snake in hopes of turning the crowd against him?

Which is not to say that a primary challenge is unimaginable. If the gossip were about any other Republican, it’d be nonsense on stilts: You can’t beat an incumbent president in a primary, even if he’s unpopular, and everyone knows it. If a member of the Kennedy royal family couldn’t do it against Jimmy farking Carter and Ronald Reagan couldn’t do it against Gerald Ford, Ted Cruz isn’t going to pull it off against Trump. But maybe he doesn’t expect to. Cruz is so notoriously calculating, and his presidential ambitions are so insatiable, that he may be treating the prospect of a doomed primary challenge as merely a brand-building exercise, part of the long, long game he’s now playing to win in 2024 (assuming Trump wins in November). No doubt a Trump administration would be guilty of plenty of conservative heresies that Cruz could leverage as grounds for a primary challenge. More dangerously for Trump, it might also end up guilty of some nationalist heresies, such as if Trump breaks his promise to build the wall or undertake mass deportation of illegals. It’s a given that true-blue conservatives will be disillusioned by a Trump presidency to the extent they aren’t already; if nationalists end up disillusioned too then a Cruz primary challenge really could make some noise. Imagine Cruz running to Trump’s right on border enforcement and getting some traction. Where does that race go?

Trump would still win — as meek as party leaders were in submitting to him this year, they’d be twice as meek if he were president — but Cruz could earn a ton of populist goodwill by waging a heroic yet doomed campaign to keep Trump honest, setting him up as the grassroots champion whose time has finally come in 2024. All of this would be in line with his adulation of Ronald Reagan, who waged a quixotic insurgent campaign against Ford in 1976 and then gave a famous unity speech at the convention that set him up for 1980. Cruz would be doing it in reverse order: Give the unity speech tonight, then launch the insurgency in 2020 if there’s an opening. My strong suspicion is that multiple Cruz presidential runs won’t wear well on Republican voters and that he’s got one more decent chance left in him that shouldn’t be squandered on a challenge that won’t go anywhere. But Cruz might not see it that way. This is a guy who, to all appearances, really does seem to believe that the country is primed for a conservative renaissance in 2020. (He used to believe it was primed this year, but oops.) As Ross Douthat said recently, he may think he’s giving his Reagan ’76 speech tonight but what he’s probably giving is the equivalent of Kennedy’s “The Dream Will Never Die” Great Society stemwinder in 1980. The dream promptly died that fall. It stayed dead in 1984 and 1988, then lay dormant for most of the 1990s as Bill Clinton governed from the center-left. As of 2000 and 2004, it was still dead. Only with Obama’s election 28 years later did something like the leftist “dream” really re-emerge. Cruz is heavily invested in the belief that Trump won this year not because he’s a nationalist but because he’s a populist, as if the two can be easily enough untwined and the populist base coopted. We’ll see, buddy. I know how I’m betting.

Here’s Cruz before an audience of supporters in Cleveland today noting that the party now has a nominee — to resounding boos — before being inadvertently buzzed by Trump’s plane. No kidding. Exit question: Will Ted shock the world and formerly endorse tonight? As I write this, his former campaign manager isn’t ruling it out.