In politics as in life, new traditions are forever being born. But it takes a few repetitions before they’re recognized as traditions.
Years ago, for instance, some presidential hopeful got the bright idea to show up at the Iowa State Fair and flip burgers to demonstrate his “common touch” to future caucus-goers. That wasn’t a tradition then. It sure is now.
Lots of politicking in presidential campaigns has become traditional. Town halls in New Hampshire; cattle calls at CPAC; photo ops at Pizza Ranch; accusing your opponent of having cheated, even after you’ve defeated them.
I suspect we’ll see that last one again in November from the Republican nominee, win or lose. As I say, new traditions are forever being born.
A fun new tradition that’s developed in Republican presidential primaries in recent years is doomed also-rans finally blurting out the truth about Donald Trump and his enablers as they approach electoral oblivion.
Marco Rubio did it in 2016 shortly before he was annihilated in his home state’s primary and left the race. Ted Cruz followed suit not long after, tearing into Trump as a “pathological liar” on the eve of having his candidacy crushed in Indiana. These were the political equivalent of deathbed confessions: Only when the reaper was at the door did either man feel free to speak with stark candor about their opponent.
Ron DeSantis is the latest Republican to follow tradition by losing to Trump and then truthbombing the rubble of his own campaign.
The bombing commenced last month, as the governor of Florida reckoned with the fact that there would be no last-second groundswell of support for him in Iowa amid Nikki Haley’s national surge. He dropped this ordnance in response to a question about the frontrunner potentially alleging fraud if he lost:
Last week, with defeat impending, the bombing campaign intensified:
As it happened, the most worthless Republican in America did in fact kiss Trump’s ring at a rally in New Hampshire on Tuesday. And Trump did in fact turn on a dime from attacking him a few days earlier to praising him lavishly.
The biggest blast from a DeSantis truthbomb, however, originated with this soundbite:
“There’s as much fake news on the right as there is on the corporate press,” the governor grumbled to an audience in Des Moines the day before. “It’s all a racket—they’re trying to get clicks, they’re trying to do all this stuff.” Upon reading that quote, one colleague wondered if we should invite him to write a newsletter for The Dispatch. Personally, I’m cheered to know that the heroes of right-wing populist media, TrumpWorld included, seem to hold the industry in as much contempt as I do.
Why have deathbed confessions from losing Republican candidates become a tradition?
On paper, Ron DeSantis was set to be the most formidable Republican challenger Trump has ever faced.
He waltzed to reelection in Florida in 2022 on a bad night for his party nationally, raised a ton of money in the process, and piled up one populist policy win after another in executing his strategy to somehow out-MAGA Trump. He also had things going for him that Rubio and Cruz didn’t. He got to face the frontrunner post-coup, post-insurrection, post-impeachment, and post-indictment, after Republican voters had learned the hard way what Trump was capable of. And he had molded his political persona over time to suit the populism of the Trump era, leaving him more in sync with the primary electorate than the conservative challengers of 2016 were.
DeSantis actually led in a few very early polls before the primary campaign began in earnest. Imagine having that much wind at your back at the start of the race only to end up limping to the finish line in Iowa, more focused on eking past Reaganite relic Nikki Haley for a very distant second place than actually winning the nomination. The depth of the disappointment must be unfathomable.
A wise man said recently that to understand right-wing politics in 2024 you’d do better to ask a psychologist than a pundit. But in this case, the psychology seems straightforward: Rubio, Cruz, and DeSantis each enjoyed enormous hype about their national potential yet were ultimately routed by an amateur for whom they feel intense contempt. Rubio was the great young hope of the conservative establishment; Cruz was the fire-breathing avatar of Tea Party populism; DeSantis was the “fusion” candidate who would at last unite populists and traditional Republicans against Trump.
Each had good reason to believe he might really, truly win the presidency. And each ended up squashed by a guy who was recently found civilly liable for rape and who’s begun to refer to Haley by her Indian first name to remind Republican voters that she’s not One Of Us.
We should take care never to impute too much humanity to politicians. But while I hold no regard for any of the three, I’ll pay them the compliment of believing that each is human enough to have felt sincere, monumental exasperation at having lost to such an unworthy opponent. It’s one thing to see one’s fondest ambitions dashed, it’s another to see them dashed by a cretin. The only salve to a wound like that, perhaps, is to speak the truth frankly about him and his toadies. Hence the deathbed confessions.
Rubio, Cruz, and DeSantis have something else in common. They weren’t just beaten by Trump, they were belittled.
You know the nicknames: “Little Marco,” “Tiny D.” Ted Cruz suffered the indignity of Trump ridiculing his wife’s mental health and even her looks before the end of the 2016 primary. The governor of Florida appears to have developed such a complex about his physical stature during this campaign that he’s taken to wearing boots that—allegedly—have lifts hidden inside, which naturally became a punchline in itself.
Trump doesn’t just aim to defeat his challengers, he aims to emasculate them. His obsession with demonstrating “strength” by humiliating rivals doubtless reinforces the cult of personality he’s built around himself. But the wounds he inflicts to their pride in doing so must sting terribly.
The dearth of male pride among Trump’s many toadies in Republican politics and media is one of the most curious and dispiriting phenomena of this political era. No one revels in masculine bravado as much as right-wing activists do, yet no one is more likely to bow and scrape before Trump as some sort of alpha daddy. Last month, Cruz half-joked that liberal women are unhappy all the time because their men can’t satisfy them; yesterday he formally endorsed the candidate who mocked his wife eight years ago. Male Republican elected officials, as a group, have a shockingly high tolerance for self-abasement.
High, but not limitless. Amid the ordeal of a national campaign—the intense media spotlight, the embarrassment of being routed, the heartache of watching a presidential dream die—go figure that Rubio, Cruz, and DeSantis might each eventually hit their breaking point and lash out at the bully once there’s no longer any denying that he’s ruined them. They won’t be president but they could at least be men again, however briefly, by telling truths about him that he’d rather not hear.
There’s one more component to the new tradition of deathbed confessions: omertà, the code of silence about Trump’s unfitness to which all Republicans in good standing must conform.
Rubio, Cruz, and DeSantis weren’t just contending with a more popular opponent. They were contending with a figure who commanded such bizarrely intense loyalty among the grassroots of the party that criticizing him risked hurting the critic more than it did him. Eight years of Trump’s leadership has only made that problem worse; historians will marvel at how DeSantis never dared question his fitness for office in this campaign or tried to use his criminal indictments against him, not even when he finally reached the terminal stage and began truthbombing. Rubio and Cruz spoke much more harshly about their mutual opponent in their own deathbed confessions than the governor of Florida did in his.
But it’s worth remembering how quickly the culture of omertà around the frontrunner developed after he announced his candidacy in 2015.
For much of that campaign, Ted Cruz declined to speak ill of Trump for fear that populist voters who had rallied behind the upstart would hold it against him. Think of that. Cruz was probably the best-known populist in the party at the time, the man who had cynically caused a government shutdown two years earlier to try to block Obamacare from taking effect because he knew how much the Republican base would relish his willingness to “fight.” If anyone should have felt comfortable challenging Trump’s pretensions to working-class-hero status, it was him.
But he didn’t, not until it was too late. As Trump took off early in polling, the senator from Texas recognized that antagonizing Trump’s base by attacking him aggressively likely would have done Cruz more harm than good. Better to sit back, slather on the flattery, and wait for populists to grow disenchanted with Trump organically, he thought. Well, it’s now 2024 and he’s still waiting. “Republicans have spent seven years developing an elaborate framework and vocabulary to explain away [Trump’s] problems—‘the deep state,’ ‘weaponized government,’ ‘partisan prosecutors’—that his base has fully internalized,” Benjy Sarlin recently observed for Semafor, explaining the futility of criticizing him. At this late date, for a Republican to tell forbidden truths about Trump is to take his professional life in his hands.
I chafed at that omertà while covering Trump’s political ascendance for conventional conservative media. But I can’t imagine how much more intense and frustrating it must be for figures like Rubio, Cruz, and DeSantis, each of whom had to find ways to try to defeat Trump while steering clear of some of the most potent, irrefutable criticisms of him available. Imagine spending month after month on the trail knowing that the tepid criticisms you’re allowed to make aren’t helping you, yet the harsh criticisms you’re not allowed to make, if articulated, would destroy you.
In the end, the pure transgressive joy of defying that stultifying culture of omertà as all hope of victory implodes might make a deathbed confession too sweet to pass up. As miserable as this campaign has been for DeSantis, I bet he never enjoyed himself more than when he called conservative outlets like Fox News a “Praetorian guard” for Trump and a “racket” last week. The emperor has no clothes; Ron finally felt free to say so.
I’m glad he did. Take it from a guy who’s fortunate enough to do that for a living: It feels great.
It would be easier to feel happy for DeSantis getting to reclaim a bit of dignity in defeat if not for a few unpleasant facts. One being that he’s a brazen hypocrite.
How seriously can we take a man who grouses about the frontrunner’s transactional nature knowing that he cut this ad in 2018 to land Trump’s endorsement in Florida’s gubernatorial primary?
Lobbyist Liam Donovan remembered that and wondered how Republican voters might parse DeSantis’ accusation. Is Trump really so much more mercenary than the governor himself, or is he just more honest about it?
Another unhappy truth is that DeSantis seemingly has no problem in principle with right-wing media serving as a “Praetorian guard” for Republican candidates, only that they’ve chosen to serve someone other than him. Not so long ago, it looked like things might be different. At New York magazine, Jonathan Chait writes:
One unmentioned irony is that a large chunk of this very same conservative-media apparatus used to work for DeSantis. After January 6, when Republicans assumed Trump was radioactive, conservative media set out to wean the base off Trump and get them hooked on DeSantis. “We want to make Trump a nonperson,” Rupert Murdoch wrote to a colleague. “We see [DeSantis] as the future of the party,” a Fox News producer wrote in an email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. For a period of time from after the insurrection to the middle of last year, conservative media promoted DeSantis infomercial-style.
With Trump momentarily sidelined and the governor riding high for his handling of COVID, DeSantis may well have been the most popular Republican figure in populist media circa 2022. He was so confident that right-wing outlets would rally behind his presidential candidacy that he gave them exclusive access to his campaign early on, cutting off all contact with the dreaded mainstream media to protest their liberal bias.
Now that the Trump cult has reasserted itself and populist media has fallen in line, he’s struggling to contain his bitterness over the apparent betrayal. Like practically every other figure in the party, DeSantis was fine being a member of the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party so long as his own face wasn’t the one being eaten.
A third unpleasant fact is that, for all his truth-telling élan recently, DeSantis will assuredly endorse Trump for president. And almost certainly soon.
That’s an important postscript to the sagas of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Any moral force that their cutting criticisms of Trump during the 2016 campaign might have carried into the future was incinerated by their decisions to reconcile themselves to him afterward. Both men endorsed him for president (again) in just the past few days, in fact, knowing that the longer they delayed the more Trump and his toadies would hold their delay against them in the future. Whatever male pride—or basic civic duty—might have restrained them from doing so disappeared into the ether long ago, discarded as a hindrance to ambition. Their deathbed confessions in 2016 were the last time they told the truth about Trump and will almost certainly remain so forever.
There’s no reason to think DeSantis’ confession will be different, as the governor has many burned bridges to repair if he wants to remain a viable candidate to lead Trump’s party in 2028.
His deathbed confession may have involved a calculation that the frontrunner wouldn’t hold a few harsh words said during the death throes of his campaign against him. He’s no longer a threat to win; who cares what he says at this point? Or perhaps DeSantis’ anger about losing momentarily blinded him to the potential long-term repercussions of criticizing Trump. If so, he’ll think better of it once he cools off, as Rubio and Cruz did before him.
Finally, there’s the small matter of his timing. Instead of waiting until the campaign had reached garbage time to offer his observations about Trump’s mercenary politics and the right’s conspiracy of silence around him, why didn’t DeSantis speak up boldly six months ago?
Anyone can tell the truth on their deathbed when there’s nothing left to lose. As a matter of pride, never mind campaign strategy, he could have taken a risk by starting the truthbombing much earlier.
I’m lukewarm about that criticism of him, though, possibly because I’ve already sunk into deep fatalism about this endless national nightmare. Chris Christie’s fate serves as a lesson in hindsight of how a frontal attack on Trump by a more formidable candidate likely would have played with Republican voters, especially after the first criminal indictment was handed down. The Christie experiment failed. The DeSantis experiment likely would have failed as well, with the governor accomplishing nothing except thoroughly destroying whatever national future he might have had down the road.
And so DeSantis probably did the shrewd thing, which is also the cowardly thing, by reserving his truth-telling for when it would no longer benefit or harm him. The only suspense left in the race now is whether Nikki Haley will also start throwing harder jabs at Trump in the final days of her candidacy or whether she’ll show more discipline than Rubio, Cruz, and DeSantis did by refraining from a deathbed confession of her own. My bet is on discipline: After all, unlike them, Haley is okay with finishing second.