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Are Never Trumpers Rooting for Trump Against DeSantis?
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Are Never Trumpers Rooting for Trump Against DeSantis?

The factional rivalry of the coming Republican primary.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

I endorse Ron DeSantis for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

He’s not my first choice. I tend not to support politicians who abuse state power to discriminate on the basis of political viewpoint. I’d prefer Brian Kemp. Or Glenn Youngkin. Or Chris Sununu. In fact, put the names of a bunch of normie conservative politicians in a hat and draw one at random. I’d rather be governed by that person than by DeSantis.

But I’m a realist. There’s only one Republican in the country who stands a plausible chance of defeating Donald Trump. And it ain’t Brian Kemp, alas.

Here’s my official DeSantis endorsement. I’ll vote for him in a primary against Trump. I’ll throw him a few bucks to help his campaign. If not for the fact that I’m shy and unsociable, I’d go knock doors for him.

Had I lived in Florida, I would have voted for him on Tuesday purely to help run up his margin and strengthen his electability argument against Trump.

Given a choice between someone who tried to stage a coup against the duly elected government of the United States and someone who hasn’t, I choose door number two.

Most Dispatch readers will agree, I assume. But if you haven’t given the matter much thought, you should start now.

Because, my friends, the war we’ve all been expecting is finally on.

In a statement of remarkable vitriol and length, former President Trump lashed out Thursday at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose commanding re-election win on Tuesday has, according to some political observers, catapulted him to front-runner status in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

In a preview of what could be a brutal contest for the nomination between the two men, Trump called DeSantis “an average REPUBLICAN Governor with great Public Relations,” arguing that the 44-year-old former congressman was “politically dead” when he first sought Trump’s endorsement in 2017, which the then-president tendered via Twitter.

You can read his statement here. He had the stones to criticize DeSantis for his handling of COVID, the stupidest possible line of attack available to him. Team Ron will relish having the 2024 GOP primary become a referendum on how “the free state of Florida” dealt with the pandemic versus how the Fauci-led Trump White House dealt with it.

It was also stupid of Trump to get off the block so quickly in badmouthing one of the few Republicans in America who had a great night on Tuesday. It’s a neon sign advertising that he doesn’t care about the party, only his own political prospects, in case there are still people left in America who haven’t grasped that. (Some influential populists were forced to feign surprise.) If you’re a Republican voter who likes Trump and DeSantis but loves to beat the libs, Trump’s statement helped clarify which of the two does and doesn’t share your priorities.

It was stupid for a third reason. Trump’s best strategy in holding off DeSantis is to replicate the dynamic of 2016 by prevailing over a splintered anti-Trump field. He has a floor of 40 percent in a Republican primary; so long as the other 60 percent gets divvied up among multiple candidates, no one can touch him. Logically that should lead him to ignore DeSantis and to elevate the Floridian’s rivals for the anti-Trump vote—Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Larry Hogan, even Liz Cheney—in hopes that they’ll pull votes from the governor.

Instead he fired off a statement elevating DeSantis, boosting the odds that GOP voters will treat the nomination as a binary choice between the two.

In fact, by broadcasting his anxiety about DeSantis so soon after the midterms, he betrayed the core appeal of his political brand. Presumably he thought he was showing “strength” by going on offense and ambushing DeSantis, but I don’t think it played that way to most observers. As Liam Donovan said, “Whole thing has the feel of a guy at the last barstool looking up at the tube, seeing the chyron about an old rival’s success, and ranting to nobody in particular about how he Used To Be Somebody.”

Trump seems unsettled, insecure. And that’s making him sound like even more of a head case than usual.

In his broadside at DeSantis, he alleged that he sent the FBI down to Broward County in 2018 to stop Democratic “ballot theft” there and secure DeSantis’ victory, a claim that’s (almost) certainly false. This morning he issued a grumpy statement about Virginia Gov. Glenn “Young Kin,” whose name he noted for some reason “sounds Chinese” when it’s spelled that way. Then he called on CNN to launch a conservative news network and have him as the lone guest. “Fox only made it because of me” he boasted of a network that’s been tops in cable news since 2002.

If he’s this frantic and disjointed already about the possibility of “his people” abandoning him for DeSantis, imagine the sort of spectacular, ferociously nasty public nervous breakdown to which we’ll be treated in the months to come. He’s begun peddling dirt on DeSantis, according to Rolling Stone. He has prized cronies like Kari Lake taking early jabs at the governor to try to turn populists against him. He’ll demand, much sooner than anyone expects, that every Republican official in the country state clearly that they’re for him in 2024 lest he conclude from their silence that they’re against him.

A pathological narcissist will use any weapon at hand to try to retain his pride of place.

He’s going to piss off a lot of Ron DeSantis fans with his antics as those antics turn increasingly vicious. And although DeSantis is now officially My Guy in the coming primary, I must confess that … I’m going to enjoy it. A little.

Okay, probably a lot.

Let me explain.

Regular readers will know by now how I conceptualize the Republican Party. Around 40 percent are devout MAGA, or what we might call “Always Trumpers.” Opposite them are the 10 percent who actively dislike Trump, the “Never Trumpers.” Between the two are the rabid partisans who don’t much care for Trump but will support him if required in the name of keeping the left out of power. I tend to refer to these people as “Anti-Anti-Trumpers” although they might more aptly be described as “Always Republicans.”

Because the Always Trumpers are unpersuadable, neither of the other two factions have much to say to them. You can pity people who are in a cult or you can detest them, or both, but they’re not going to be talked out of believing what they believe. At least not through conventional political debate. Professional deprogrammers might stand a chance.

The Always Trumpers are also foreign to the other two factions in a way that those two factions aren’t foreign to each other. Never Trumpers and Anti-Antis each voted reliably Republican in the Before Times. You’ll never catch either group at a Trump rally wearing “WWG1WGA” T-shirts. You won’t see “Let’s Go, Brandon” signs in their front yards. Ideologically and culturally, they’re kin. The MAGA interlopers in the party are not.

But if there’s one shining lesson from the history of human conflict, it’s that groups with small differences tend to develop the bitterest rivalries.

So too here. Never Trumpers like me have special contempt for the Anti-Antis. They seem to have special contempt for people like me. And that mutual contempt is suddenly on display as war breaks out between Team Trump and Team DeSantis.

For instance, this tweet by staunch Never Trumper Joe Walsh has been attacked repeatedly today by Anti-Antis on Twitter as evidence that the righties who profess to hate Trump most are secretly the most reluctant to see him leave the political stage.

Walsh, we’re told, is a grifter who’s found a lucrative niche in liberal media as a Trump-hating conservative and is now desperate not to see his cash cow slaughtered. That charge has been leveled repeatedly at Never Trumpers since 2016 but it’s gained extra traction since Tuesday as the right’s most devout Trump-haters voice their skepticism that anyone can hope to beat him in a primary.

This clip is getting attention too.

Finally the Republican Party has a potential off-ramp from Trumpism in the person of Ron DeSantis. So why are Never Trumpers falling all over themselves to dismiss the possibility?

I take the accusation that Never Trumpism is some sort of grift personally even though it is mainly aimed at those who might turn up on cable news, not at me. But I’ll give the Anti-Antis this much. When the co-founder of the most infamous Never Trump outfit in America is heard to babble about the “generational wealth” he’s amassing by milking Resistance donors, I can understand why some might conclude that conservative opposition to Trump is always and everywhere a scam.

It isn’t, though. If anything, it should be axiomatic that criticizing Donald Trump stridently as a conservative is not a good career move in an age when most of conservative media is little more than Trumpist propaganda. To those who have the good looks and broadcasting chops needed to parlay their perspective into a recurring gig on MSNBC, congratulations. For the other 99.99 percent of us, we’re destined to see professional opportunities dry up.

I lost my last job because I believe a writer has a duty to tell his readers the truth even when they don’t want to hear it, which meant reminding them frequently that Trump is a menace to America’s civic tradition. They emphatically did not want to hear it, and I knew that and was prepared to take the consequences. I expected to be over at Substack right now rattling my tin cup for donations in hopes of making rent. And if The Dispatch didn’t exist and happened to be hiring when I left, I would be.

If Never Trumpism is a grift, it’s a grift of almost singular stupidity. You don’t take a hard line against Trump on the off-off-off chance it’ll land you a guest shot on Don Lemon’s show. You do it because it’s so obviously the right thing to do that there’s no way to talk yourself out of it in the name of protecting your paycheck.

Walsh can speak for himself but I imagine he’s down on DeSantis’ chances in a primary for the same reason I am. I’ve simply given up hope in the basic decency and sound judgment of the populist Republican base. Given a choice between the successful governor of Florida and a belligerent, amoral, mentally defective blowhard, there’s no good reason to think they won’t prefer the latter.

I don’t want to win that bet. But I fear I will win it. So does Walsh.

If it’s obvious that Never Trumpism isn’t a good career move for most, though, why do Anti-Antis persist in the accusation?

Well, one might reason that people drawn to the “Always Republicans” faction of the party are tribalists by definition. They’ve concluded that an America led by Donald Trump, while not ideal, is preferable to an America led by any Democrat. Under Trump, at least they’ll get policies they like amid the occasional coup attempts.

If that’s your attitude, no wonder you’re furious at Joe Walsh for uttering a discouraging word about Ron DeSantis. Not only is he undermining the last best chance of unseating the orange scourge, he’s going against the tribe again. He’s not Never Trump so much as Never Republican.

And to Anti-Antis, a self-professed conservative who’s Never Republican warrants special contempt.

But as I said, the contempt goes both ways.

Ask any Never Trumper how they feel about Anti-Antis and you’ll get the same reply. “They’re cowards.”

They know Trump is a menace. They’ve always known, which is why they didn’t go full MAGA to begin with. But they’re either too afraid of being ostracized, too zombified in their partisanship, or too consumed with clout-chasing in conservative media to say so clearly. 

Rightly or wrongly, many Never Trumpers suspect the Anti-Antis’ animosity toward them is driven by jealousy. They know what the right thing to do is. But for whatever reason, unlike their Trump-hating kinfolk, they can’t bring themselves to do it. They won’t leave the tribe. And so they project their self-loathing onto those who have.

The most contemptible Anti-Antis are those who assure you they’ve never voted for Trump yet devote all of their considerable energy online to attacking his enemies on the left or the Never Trump right. For six years the Republican Party has been dominated by an authoritarian goblin with enough populist muscle behind him to have sacked the U.S. Capitol in hopes of overturning a presidential election. Even DeSantis, the great post-Trump hope, is less a classical liberal than a post-liberal keen to use the power of the state to punish the right’s enemies. Even so, the Anti-Anti-Trumpers spend nearly all of their time agitating against the enemies of a party that’s dominated by these contemptible figures rather than against the party itself.

After seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil since 2016, some of them are now forced to pretend to have been shocked by Trump’s perfectly characteristic, utterly predictable outburst against DeSantis.

I read somewhere recently that an interviewer told Adam Kinzinger he was brave for working so hard to try to keep Trump and Trumpism out of power. I’m not brave, Kinzinger replied. I just look brave because I’m surrounded by cowards. Every Never Trumper feels that way, I imagine. There’s nothing “brave” about stating a self-evident truth, that Trump is a proto-fascist cretin and a party in his thrall doesn’t belong within 5,000 miles of power. 

But it passes for brave when you’re surrounded by cowards who won’t acknowledge that it’s self-evident.

There’s another reason Never Trumpers disdain Anti-Antis. It’s the Anti-Antis, after all, who are enabling Trump’s hold on power by refusing to ditch the party no matter how Trumpy it gets. I’ve written before about the GOP “hostage crisis” in which Trump keeps threatening to shoot the Republican Party by bolting and taking his voters with him if he loses control of it. There are only two ways to end that crisis. One is for the “Always Republicans,” the Anti-Antis, to call MAGA’s bluff by threatening to bolt the party if Trump doesn’t cede control. The other is for them to offer MAGA an acceptable replacement for Trump as nominee whom both factions of the party can live with.

That’s why they’re so excited about DeSantis. In theory his nomination could end the hostage crisis peacefully, satisfying the MAGAs and the Anti-Antis, without anyone having to shoot the party.

The question is what happens if DeSantis fails. “If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president in 2024, will you vote for him?” asks Jonathan Last of our new Anti-Anti allies. I’ll add a question of my own: If the MAGA base in its nihilism opts to saddle the party with a third Trump run instead of choosing the far more electable governor of Florida, will you revert to spending 98 percent of your time online agitating on behalf of that nihilistic coup-supporting party? After not one, not two, but three Trump nominations, at what point is the Republican Party as an institution no longer worthy of tribalist partisan support?

I don’t know the answer to my question but I have a solid guess at the answer to Last’s. These people aren’t called “Always Republicans” for nothing. It bears repeating here Peter Wehner’s point that nothing, not even an insurrection, made the broader right question Trump’s leadership until the party underperformed at the polls on Tuesday night. Only when his leadership appeared to cost them power did they think twice about him. You can imagine how that attitude will reassert itself in the fall of 2024 if he vanquishes DeSantis in a primary and once again becomes the right’s only option for gaining power in the general election. 

I repeat for emphasis: I hope DeSantis beats him. Not just beats him but crushes him. Ideally, Trump will be routed in the first half-dozen primaries and on his way out of the race before my state gets to vote in 2024. I’ll contribute to the effort however I can.

But if Trump and MAGA want to spend the next year kicking DeSantis’ “Always Republican” fan club in the teeth, I won’t be mad at ‘em. The Anti-Antis created this Frankenstein by opposing his enemies at every turn. Having him smash up their laboratory before he floats away on an ice floe would be just deserts.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.