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Will DeSantis Stay on the Attack Against Trump?
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Will DeSantis Stay on the Attack Against Trump?

It might be more truth-telling than Republican voters want to hear.

Ron DeSantis speaks during one of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' "fair-side chats" at the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So, Ron DeSantis gets it after all.

“A movement can’t be about the personality of one individual,” DeSantis told the Florida Standard. “If all we are is listless vessels that’s just supposed to follow, you know, whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning, that’s not going to be a durable movement.”

He prefaced his “listless vessel” line, by noting that the case for Trump has been “totally detached from any type of substance.” Conservatism and the Republican Party, he said, have got to be about the question, “What are you trying to achieve on behalf of the American people? And that’s got to be based in principle.”

It’s a bit frustrating that DeSantis is only saying this now, as some of us have been saying this for the better part of a decade. Years of listlessness have created an environment where Republican voters now say they think Trump tells the truth more than religious leaders or their own families. I’m not convinced they actually believe this, but the response certainly speaks to the dysfunction on the right.

Even more annoying: DeSantis is himself a recovering listless vessel. His most famous ad in his 2018 bid for governor showed him reading bedtime stories to his baby about Donald Trump and teaching his daughter to read with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” yard signs.

The Trump world’s response to DeSantis’ “listless vessel” line—which was clearly not intended as an insult, given that he referred to “we”—was not only predictably whiny, it largely proved his point. All weekend, with ample boosting from Fox News, Trump surrogates tried to spin the comments as a replay of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” moment. The spokesperson for the aptly named MAGA Inc. declared, “DeSantis must immediately apologize for his disgraceful insult.”

Given that DeSantis’ campaign motto is “Never Back Down,” one would hope he won’t give in to Trump’s patented crybullying.

But that’s not assured. A debate prep memo from a super PAC supporting DeSantis was made public last week. (Super PACs can’t directly coordinate with campaigns, so this was apparently seen as a clever work-around.)

In the hothouse world of campaign nerds, it has already earned a spot in the Hall of Fame of unforced errors, given that it’s a pas de deux of banality and listlessness. Drafted by the shop of Never Back Down PAC’s chief strategist Jeff Roe, it advised DeSantis to: “1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State (DeSantis’) positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”

The first problem is that by making this advice public, it’s much harder for DeSantis to follow it. It’s almost an in-kind donation to Christie, who will surely monitor DeSantis’ attacks and sarcastically point them out.

Second, DeSantis shouldn’t need to be told points 1 and 2, while points 3 and 4 reveal how scared his campaign is of Trump.

Of course, DeSantis is not alone. With the exception of Christie, Asa Hutchinson, and the underrated Will Hurd, the other candidates are all desperately running to come in second to Trump. Hence the advice to DeSantis to defend Trump and “take a sledge-hammer” to Ramaswamy, preferably with Trumpy nicknames like “Fake Vivek” or “Vivek the Fake.”

Mike Pence, by his own book-length eyewitness account of the events that led to Trump’s federal and state criminal indictments, argues that Trump tried to violate the Constitution and overturn the election. Yet now he says Trump should be given the “presumption of innocence” and that he “would have preferred that these matters be left to the judgment of the American people.” That’s fine for legal punditry, but rhetorically weird for someone running against the quarce-indicted Trump.

To one extent or another, all of the candidates—Christie included—have been complicit in turning the GOP into a vast armada of listless vessels. But at least Christie’s trying to atone by honestly, and full-throatedly, addressing Trump’s unfitness for office.

The rest are waiting for a deus ex machina to remove the runaway frontrunner for them. It’s the only way to explain why DeSantis’ brain trust wants him to “hammer” Vivek the Fake while defending Trump. Of course, the only plausible mechanism for that deus ex machina is the criminal justice system, which all of the candidates have spent their days attacking and delegitimizing.

I’m glad DeSantis sees the mess he helped create so clearly, but identifying the problem is only the first step to remedying it. What’s required is more truth-telling and listfulness than the GOP crowd wants, which is why both qualities are in such short supply.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.