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High Energy

DeSantis 2024 is off to an encouraging start.

Ron DeSantis, with his wife Casey, speaks during a campaign event in Salix, Iowa, on May 31, 2023. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty images)

Today marks one week since … the incident, making this an opportune moment to take stock. How has Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign fared in its first seven days?

Was “the DeSaster” a sign of things to come or a DeParture from what will be seen in time as a smart and effective effort?

More likely the latter than the former, I think. That’s not to say the governor will win, which remains improbable. It is to say that he’s running the sort of campaign so far that seems to have the best chance of overtaking Donald Trump.

In 2016 Trump dubbed another (former) governor of Florida “low energy.” That was unfair to Jeb Bush, who was enviably audacious while in office at dragging policy in his home state toward conservative priorities. But the term did efficiently capture certain uncomfortable truths about Bush’s presidential candidacy.

One: Trump’s campaign events were orders of magnitude more exciting than Bush’s. Whether Trump or Bush actually held more events, I don’t know, but it felt like the difference was enormous. The charisma gap between them, the saturation media coverage for Trump’s rallies, and the endless suspense about what outlandish thing he might say next combined to create the impression that he was vastly outworking the former governor on the trail.

Two: Trump was more aggressive in attacking his opponents and more effective in doing so. Bush’s campaign infamously wasted much of its time and money tearing down Marco Rubio, believing that was a necessary predicate to consolidating establishment support. Bush himself tended to dismiss Trump as a “chaos candidate,” not realizing until too late that chaos was a feature for Republican primary voters rather than a bug. Jeb plainly lacked Trump’s reptilian talent for insult-comic nastiness aimed at demonstrating dominance. It cost him.

Three: Trump’s candidacy had a raison d’etre while Bush’s did not. Say what you want about the tenets of “Make America Great Again” but at least it’s an ethos: Trump wanted to build the wall, ban Muslims from entering the country, reduce America’s commitments abroad, and start trade wars various and sundry. Jeb Bush wanted to do … what? Bring conservative government back to Washington, sure—another desire he misjudged about Republican primary voters—but for most Americans his family pedigree reduced his argument for being president to, “It’s my turn.”

Low energy. In hindsight, he didn’t stand a chance.

The interesting thing about DeSantis’ first week as a candidate is that he looks to be addressing all three of Bush’s deficiencies.

It should go without saying that Ron DeSantis won’t close the “charisma gap” with Donald Trump.

I’m tempted, in fact, to say that the gap between the two is as wide as it was between Trump and Bush, but it’s not quite true. The current governor of Florida has an ardent populist following thanks to his policies whereas the former governor of Florida did not. Still, in measures of raw retail dynamism, they’re not vastly far apart.

Where DeSantis can draw a favorable contrast with Trump is by outworking the older man on the trail and trusting that Republican voters will come to view him as the “high energy” candidate of this cycle.

His first week was auspicious in that regard. He’s been all over populist media, granting interviews to influencers like Ben Shapiro. He’s scheduled to hold four events in Iowa today alone, including one that’s ongoing as I write this. He’ll be in New Hampshire on Thursday, then South Carolina on Friday. Every time I look up, it seems, there’s a new clip of remarks he’s made on the trail circulating on Twitter or airing on Fox News.

His opponent hasn’t been as vigorous.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the “Events” page on Trump’s campaign website has nothing scheduled. He’ll be in Iowa this week for a radio interview and a town hall hosted by Sean Hannity for Fox News but no barnstorming plans have been announced. Recent clips and photos of him on social media tend to be of three varieties—golfing, posing for thumbs-up photos with guests in the Mar-a-Lago dining room, or delivering direct-to-camera policy statements with no one else around, a la Joe Biden’s “basement campaign” of 2020.

“The plan at this point is to hang out in Mar-a-Largo, golf, rage ‘Truth,’ golf, hope the lead holds, and golf,” tweeted Jay Cost of Trump’s “strategy.” That scans like a joke, but where’s the exaggeration?

Last Saturday Trump hosted a Saudi-funded golf tournament at one of his properties. DeSantis shrewdly exploited the occasion by holding a meeting the same day with families of 9/11 victims who have lobbied Trump to cut ties with the kingdom. Next Saturday the governor will be back in Iowa to attend Joni Ernst’s annual “Roast and Ride” fundraiser at the Iowa State Fairgrounds with some other Republican presidential hopefuls. Trump won’t be there.

Who’s the “high energy” candidate between the two?

If Trump follows through on his plan to skip the first few primary debates while DeSantis shows up to take on all comers, which approach will seem “higher energy” to voters?

Eventually some candidate in the field will remind Republican voters that Trump will be the same age in 2025 as Joe Biden was in 2021. DeSantis will need to tread lightly on that, not wanting to alienate the party’s many older voters, but he might be able to make the point effectively without needing to make it explicitly. The more ubiquitous he seems in right-wing media because of his campaign schedule, the more Trump will seem to have “lost a step” by comparison. The thought of nominating someone in their mid-40s rather than their late 70s to face 82-year-old Joe Biden will grow more appealing.

Even the charisma gap between the candidates seems less stark lately thanks to the presence of Casey DeSantis on the trail. One thing Trump had in spades in 2016 relative to the rest of the field was glamour; sad-sack political nerds like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz somehow found themselves competing for attention with a well-bronzed household-name TV celebrity. Ron DeSantis is nominally in the same position, but his young, glamorous, and self-consciously Kennedyesque wife being front and center might make it easier for casual voters to imagine him as president. 

On Tuesday she introduced herself slyly to a crowd in Iowa by explaining that she’d spent most of the day making sure their 3-year-old didn’t color on the dining room tabletop. It takes high energy to supervise a very young child. The youthful DeSantises have it. Does Trump?

The governor is demonstrating high energy in another way. Unlike Jeb Bush and the sad sacks, he spent his first week as an official candidate training his rhetorical fire on the frontrunner.

Partly that’s a luxury of his standing in the polls. In 2016 the sad sacks spent most of the race competing with one another to break from the pack of non-Trump candidates, believing that once they did the non-Trump vote would consolidate behind them. But DeSantis had already separated from the pack by the time he formally announced his candidacy. He’s been polling at least 10 points better than his nearest competition throughout the race. He can afford to focus on the top dog.

Even so, after watching him take Trump’s jabs in stride for months with no response, it was heartening to see him begin to make the case against the incumbent forthrightly.

He hasn’t accused Trump of being unfit for office, and won’t. You know why. Attacking him as morally or intellectually deficient “codes” as left-wing among Republican voters. The governor would hurt himself more than he’d hurt Trump if he went that route.

Attacking Trump for having betrayed MAGA populism is different. Maybe not different enough to launch DeSantis to the nomination, but different enough that the average MAGA cultist might pause to reflect on the substance of the critique before deciding whether it amounts to treason against the American right.

A taste from DeSantis’ tour of conservative media last week:

“I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump; this is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016 and I think the direction that he’s going with his campaign is the wrong direction,” DeSantis said.

“At the end of the day… he is going left on a lot of the fiscal, he’s going left on culture, he’s even sided with Disney against me,” DeSantis said.

“When he turned the country over to Fauci in March of 2020 that destroyed millions of people’s lives,” DeSantis said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who played a key role in the pandemic response and has since become widely reviled by many conservatives.

When radio host Dana Loesch brought up Trump’s comments in 2018 about taking guns under red-flag laws and worrying about due process later, DeSantis was ready. “That’s unconstitutional,” he said. “It violates the Second Amendment, but I think even more important it violates the Fifth Amendment because they can’t take anything from you without due process. It’s not just firearms.”

Recently he described the criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by Trump as a “jailbreak bill” that undermines his opponent’s law-and-order credentials.

On Tuesday in Iowa he complained about federal spending during the Trump administration and wondered pointedly whether his opponent is too cowed by polls to speak out against Kevin McCarthy’s underwhelming debt-ceiling deal.

He also accused Trump of not remaining “true to America First principles” when he considered an amnesty for Dreamers while he was president. After Trump published a video yesterday calling for an end to birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, Team DeSantis reminded the world on social media that Trump spent his entire term talking about doing that but never actually doing it.

The governor didn’t get really excited, though, until a reporter brought up the fact that Trump last week compared DeSantis’ record on COVID in Florida unfavorably to Andrew Cuomo’s in New York. There’s no greater heresy against right-wing orthodoxy about the pandemic than to suggest that Cuomo’s crooked, inept, strict-lockdown COVID regime was superior to DeSantis’ laissez-faire approach. And DeSantis knew it.

That’s not all. DeSantis also took barely veiled shots at his opponent when he complained of “entertainment” in lieu of leadership, touted the fact that he was born into a working-class family in which he was “given nothing,” and joked about Trump’s dubious decision to cancel a rally in Iowa a few weeks ago due to bad weather that turned out to be not so bad

We all wanted a Republican candidate who’d go at the caudillo directly. Now we have one. 

This, too, is a high-energy strategy. It requires DeSantis to stay on offense, something no Trump opponent has managed to do. And it rushes headlong at the sinister fetishization of loyalty to the leader that defines the modern right. The governor is betting his career that he can convince millions of populist Republicans that Trump has “changed” so meaningfully since 2016 that he’s no longer the best person to lead his own movement. He intends to have an argument with Donald Trump himself over what “making America great again” entails, specifically, and to win it.

I wouldn’t bet my own money on him. But if DeSantis continues to demonstrate high energy and Trump the opposite, that argument could get … interesting.

There’s one more difference between his energy level and Jeb Bush’s. DeSantis’ campaign has an actual raison d’etre.

Listen to the man himself: “I will be able to destroy leftism in this country and leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history.” He’s going to win the presidency, which Trump can’t do, then use the power it grants him to wage culture war ruthlessly. It may not be your cup of tea (it isn’t mine) but it is an ethos.

What’s the Trump campaign’s raison d’etre?

Right, I know—“something something retribution.” The Republican base being what it is, that might be enough to lock down 65 percent of the vote. But in their eagerness to attack DeSantis and his supporters lately, Team Trump has developed a curious habit of throwing roundhouses so wild that they end up punching themselves in the face, leaving some populists to wonder “Wait, whose side are they on?”

Take Trump’s criticism of DeSantis for how he’s handled Disney. At first he complained that the governor risked alienating the company and damaging Florida’s economy. Enough right-wingers complained about that, it seems, that Trump has now changed his stance. Evidently DeSantis’ big mistake with Disney was failing to alienate the company sooner.

Whose side is Trump on? Does he even know?

On Tuesday night the “Trump War Room” Twitter account zinged DeSantis for having voted to confirm the hated Christopher Wray as FBI director in 2017. But DeSantis wasn’t a senator, so he couldn’t have cast that vote. And while he did praise Wray at the time, that was probably because Wray was the handpicked choice of … President Donald Trump. 

Trump, not DeSantis, appointed the great “deep state” saboteur. Whose side is he on?

Praising Cuomo in hopes of damaging DeSantis was another “Whose side is he on?” moment, one amplified by the fact that Andrew Cuomo himself noticed and touted it on social media. So was his bizarre attack on Tuesday night on Kayleigh McEnany, a Trump shill so blindly loyal during her appearances on cable news in 2016 that he eventually made her his White House press secretary. McEnany’s sin was being occasionally complimentary of DeSantis; that was enough for Trump to dismiss her as “milktoast”—his spelling, not mine—and to wash his hands of her: “The RINOS & Globalists can have her. FoxNews should only use REAL Stars!!!”

Conservative reaction online ranged from befuddled to angry. Her colleagues at Fox and her competitors at Newsmax felt wounded on her behalf. Even Kayleigh McEnany hadn’t amassed enough goodwill from eight years of preaching the MAGA gospel to spare her from being excommunicated after saying a few kind words about Trump’s opponent?

What’s the raison d’etre of a campaign in which someone trusted enough to serve as Trump’s mouthpiece to the planet becomes an enemy simply because she holds the same opinion of Ron DeSantis that Trump himself would hold had DeSantis opted against running?

Whose side is Trump on?

You, the reader, might digest all of that and nonetheless feel skeptical that anyone will manage to convince a cult that its own leader isn’t on its “side.” I share your skepticism.

Trump’s approach to political warfare, especially against other Republicans, depends on the fact that a critical mass of right-wingers trust him over all other sources, even if what he says is self-contradictory. If DeSantis handled Disney badly by scaring off business and also handled it badly by not scaring off business sooner, the takeaway for primary voters—or so Trump hopes, and expects—will be that “DeSantis handled Disney badly,” not “Trump is a confused old man who’ll say anything to win.”

The governor will need to puncture that unreality forcefield somehow, which may be the hardest task in politics. So far Trump has managed to convince Republicans that he’s electable because he didn’t actually lose in 2020 and that he’s a talented and competent executive because all of his failures were the fault of establishment saboteurs. Good luck under those circumstances getting them to grasp that it’s DeSantis, not Trump, who has a clear policy vision that he wants to implement if he’s rewarded with a turn in the White House.

But DeSantis is going to try. He might not be the only candidate willing to execute a confrontational, high-energy strategy to that end but he’s the only one with a remotely plausible chance of winning. How’s that for a bit of uncharacteristic optimism for you after one week?

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.