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Disloyalty or Pathos
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Disloyalty or Pathos

The DeSantis dilemma.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walks across the stage during a commercial break in the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Alabama Moody Music Hall on December 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In an edition of this newsletter last month, Ron DeSantis got a visit from the Ghost of Campaign Future. Today, he’s getting one from the Ghost of Campaign Present.

If you were the governor of Florida, how would you go about rebuilding your stature within the Republican Party?

“I’d do everything I could to win the Iowa caucus,” you might say, but DeSantis has tried that. For all of his effort, he trails by more than 30 points and stands a real chance of finishing third. Some of the people hired to knock doors for him in the state have reportedly confided to voters that they’re actually supporting Donald Trump. According to the New York Times, DeSantis’ own pollster has told confidants the governor’s inner circle has reached the stage of his 2024 campaign where they’re simply trying to “make the patient comfortable.”

Any chance of avoiding an electoral debacle this cycle has vanished. And so DeSantis and his advisers have a coldly rational decision to make: What can they do in 2024 to maximally rehabilitate his reputation among right-wing voters?

A “good” outcome for him at this point, I think, would involve a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican convention in July, during which he helps Trump’s team unite the party following a bitter primary.

But, for several reasons, that seems unlikely to me.

Becoming an energetic advocate for a second Trump presidency could also be a path back to respectability on the right. Partisans love a team player, and Trump will demand a profuse show of loyalty anyway before restoring DeSantis’ status as a Republican in good standing.

But that strategy has drawbacks, too.

DeSantis’ long-term problem as his campaign winds down isn’t that he was disloyal in challenging Trump, but that the effort looks pathetic in hindsight. If you come for the king and miss but manage to throw a scare into him, you may at least gain stature as a formidable opponent. When you come for the king and miss embarrassingly, you’ll be viewed contemptuously. And I’m not sure contempt ever goes away.

The governor could plausibly use the next year to rehab his “disloyal” image. Or he could use it to rehab his “pathetic” image. I’m not sure there’s a way for him to do both.

The best thing that could happen to DeSantis after he drops out would be for his populist fan base to adopt this attitude en masse.

The larger the cohort of “Only Ron” voters turns out to be, the more respect the governor will command from his critics. It would mean that, within a party that’s largely become a cult, he’d have impressed one sizable bloc so deeply that even the cult leader no longer suffices for them. A politician with an “accept no substitutes” following is a politician to be reckoned with. And Team Trump would need to reckon with him: By definition, only Ron can persuade an “Only Ron” voter to vote for someone else. He’d become an important liaison for the Republican nominee to the DeSantis diehards among the populist base.

The problem is that no one (except Scott Morefield, I guess) believes there’s an “Only Ron” constituency out there. Matt Gaetz knows the truth:

DeSantis’ voters aren’t taking their ball and going home after he flames out in Iowa. The majority of his base is going right back to Trump, while the National Review readers among them are headed to Nikki Haley.

And so the governor has no path back to respectability by helping to reunite the party. There’s no divide of consequence among populists to begin with, so his help isn’t needed. Insofar as there’s a rift on the right that needs mending next year, it’ll be the one between populists and traditional conservatives who clung to Haley rather than support a third Trump nomination. She, not DeSantis, will be the more valuable asset in persuading them to vote like partisans again.

The prime-time convention slot probably isn’t happening either, for similar reasons.

A rival with a meaningful following within the party would get that slot no matter how much Trump despises him, as that person’s endorsement before a large television audience would be worth something to the nominee. Trump got plenty nasty with Ted Cruz before the end of the 2016 primary, but Cruz still ended up with a plum speaking role during that year’s convention, shortly before vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence. Cruz—or what he represented at the time—did have a meaningful following within the GOP, enough so to have defeated Trump in several states’ primaries. Many traditionally conservative voters hadn’t yet capitulated to Trumpism; Cruz’s participation at the convention signaled that the Tea Party wing should unite behind the nominee (even if Cruz famously declined to say so during his address).

Eight years later, with the party at his feet, Trump doesn’t need DeSantis to signal anything to anyone. He’d gain nothing for himself by rewarding the governor for his disloyalty with a prime-time speaking opportunity. The only reason he might do so is the vindictive pleasure of watching a man who sought to dethrone him forced to bend the knee in the brightest possible spotlight.

Trump being Trump, though, I suspect he’ll prefer to demean DeSantis by sticking him in some drowsy midafternoon slot when no one’s watching. And so the governor will be diminished, disrespected once again by an opponent against whom he has no means of retaliating. 

But here’s where it gets really hard for him: Even if Trump were willing to overlook his disloyalty and deputize him as a prominent surrogate, DeSantis would be diminished by that too. There’d be no way to accept the offer at this point without seeming pathetic.

By design.

We’ve all seen the photo of Ted Cruz grimacing while phone-banking for the Trump-Pence ticket after the primary in 2016.

That face is the fate of any Republican candidate—or at least any male Republican candidate—who loses to Trump. You haven’t just been defeated, you’ve lost a struggle for dominance against a man who insisted on ridiculing you while thrashing you. You can’t escape without seeming emasculated or belittled.

With Cruz, emasculation took the form of Trump insulting his wife’s looks. With DeSantis, the belittlement has been figurative at times and quite literal at others. Normally, a man who’s lost a fight and been humiliated in the process will want to preserve what’s left of his self-respect by not giving the victor the satisfaction of groveling before him. But in Republican politics, declining to grovel isn’t an option: When Cruz tried it in 2016, it nearly ended his political career.

That’s the Catch-22 of Trump’s GOP. If you end up at odds with him, your choices are to dig in and be dubbed a traitor by his supporters or to capitulate and come off like a pitiful wimp to, well, everyone. You can be disloyal or you can be pathetic, but it’s one or the other.

And the punchline is that either choice is likely to render you unviable as a potential leader of the party. Republican voters with a cultural taste for masculine dominance that’s been nourished by Trump since 2016 are unlikely to rally in the future behind a weak man who prostrated himself before their hero—even though that’s what they demand.

That may be especially so in DeSantis’ case. Unlike Cruz, the Florida governor’s political stature has always seemed smaller than Trump’s. For one thing, he wouldn’t be governor of Florida today if not for Trump’s endorsement in 2018. He was also presumptuous enough to think he could defeat the undisputed leader of the party in a Republican primary, something Cruz wasn’t guilty of when he ran as a sitting U.S. senator against an upstart game-show host in 2016. Cruz didn’t even know Trump would be a candidate when he entered the race in March 2015.

He did well enough against Trump in that cycle to extend the primary all the way to early May, finishing in second place. DeSantis is unlikely to last past Iowa. And not only will he not be the last challenger standing, he’s going to end up finishing behind—God help us—a woman.

In fact, given his wife’s political notoriety and ambition, it’s not unthinkable that he’ll be replaced as governor in 2027 by his better half. It can’t be much longer until “strength”-fetishizing MAGA bros start deriding him as the future first lady of Florida.

The trouble with having to chart a course between “disloyal” and “pathetic” is that the effort is apt to end up convincing voters that you’re too much of both. Take this notable quotable from DeSantis on the trail recently:

To a Trump supporter, that’s pure disloyalty. How dare he imply that the 2020 election wasn’t rigged? But to Trump skeptics, it’s a reminder of how pathetic DeSantis is. He waited until the final month of the campaign, when he’s 50 points behind nationally, to treat Trump’s conspiracy-mongering with the disdain it deserves.

Same here:

It doesn’t get any more disloyal than Ron DeSantis exploiting supposedly illicit Democratic attempts to knock Trump off the ballot to serve his own electoral ambitions. And it doesn’t get any more pathetic than Ron DeSantis trying to have the Colorado ruling both ways by capitalizing on it politically without addressing what it signifies about Trump’s basic unfitness for office.

One more:

You want pathetic? Imagine complaining about the political opportunity created by the fact that your opponent was indicted, or citing extraneous events to distract from your own shocking lack of managerial skills. You want disloyal? Imagine watching the deep state persecute our beleaguered former president and deciding that the worst thing about it is how it complicated your own presidential campaign. (Seriously, follow the replies online to the video above.)

Any semi-credible Republican challenger to Trump will be forced to try to walk a line between disloyalty and pathos. If you go too far in one direction, speaking frank truths about his unfitness, you end up as Chris Christie—despised by most Republican voters and totally unviable in the primary. If you go too far in the other direction, pandering lavishly to Trump and his supporters, you end up as Vivek Ramaswamy—despised by everyone except the right’s most ardent populists. (And even then, only because you don’t pose any threat to Trump.) DeSantis was destined to get caught in the Catch-22 to some degree.

But the “hybrid” nature of his candidacy, somehow conservative and post-liberal all at once, placed him at special risk of being stuck there, and now I think he is. He thought he could be Trumpy enough to please Trump’s voters and Trump-skeptical enough to please everyone else; instead he became too Trump-skeptical for Trump’s voters and too Trumpy for everyone else. Disloyal to the former, pathetic to the latter.

Not a great position to be in for a future presidential run, as Ted Cruz might tell you.

I wonder how long those perceptions will dog him in politics. Once you’ve lost respect for someone, it tends to color everything you think you know about them:

Is there anything DeSantis can do to repair his image once he’s out of the race?

The most dignified—or least undignified—option for him is to endorse Trump perfunctorily next year but otherwise to keep a low profile during the campaign.

A basic endorsement will check the box of loyalty. Lying low in Tallahassee instead of barnstorming the country on Trump’s behalf will spare him any further pathetic emasculation.

He should revert to the political strategy he followed this past spring before entering the race: Pass as much popular populist legislation as he can and continue to build his reputation as the American right’s most can-do governor. Perhaps there’ll be an opening for him in 2028, although the fact that both sides of the party now have reason to view him as lame makes me doubt it.

There are two problems with that approach, though.

The relatively dignified strategy I’ve described is the low-risk strategy, but with low risk comes little reward. Many young populist politicians eyeing their own national futures will campaign energetically for Trump next year. Even if DeSantis checks the loyalty box by endorsing him, it won’t be forgotten that he didn’t do as much as others did to get the great man reelected.

He’s sacrificed so much dignity for the sake of his ambition already. Why not sacrifice what’s left of it by campaigning aggressively for his master? Granted, it would be pathetic even by the standards of modern Republicans, but it’s probably the only chance he has to regain Trump’s friendship. And no one (with a few notable exceptions) goes anywhere in Republican politics anymore without Trump’s friendship.

If he doesn’t lean into the pathos soon, he’ll probably end up having to lean into it later anyway. That’s the other problem with my strategy: In Trump’s party, there’s always a new litmus test to pass. DeSantis could endorse him after Iowa and then try to keep his head down until the campaign ends, but that restrained approach will inevitably be tested by new crises.

If Trump loses the election, he’ll screech that it was rigged. The governor will need to decide whether to do the disloyal thing by insisting that it wasn’t or the pathetic thing by agreeing that it was.

If Trump wins, the litmus tests once he’s president again will never stop. If he ignores a Supreme Court ruling or abuses the Insurrection Act or pulls the U.S. out of NATO over Congress’ objections, what’ll it be for Ron DeSantis? The disloyal position or the pathetic one?

I suspect he’ll continue to try to have it both ways somehow. That’s what politicians do, particularly when they’ve persuaded themselves they can bridge the divide between traditional conservatives and post-liberals. But if that divide is unbridgeable, as I think it is, then what former congressional candidate Michael Wood told The Bulwark a few months ago is correct: “There is only so much tap dancing you can do on MAGA and Trump. It’s either the full Liz [Cheney] or the full Newsmax and everyone has to choose eventually.”

Ron DeSantis didn’t come this far politically to do the full Liz. So shouldn’t he lean into being pathetic? Tomorrow morning he could walk out to the podium, declare that he’s withdrawing from the race, and ask all of his supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire to support Donald Trump over Nikki Haley on Election Day. There’d be nothing more pathetic than him dropping out before earning a single vote purely for the sake of ingratiating himself to MAGA.

But there’s no grander gesture available to him right now to signal loyalty either.

Disloyalty or pathos: You cannot succeed in the modern Republican Party without choosing. (Again, with just a few exceptions.) Dispatch writers and readers figured that out a long time ago. Isn’t it time for the governor of Florida, allegedly a smart guy, to come to terms with it too?

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.