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Silence Is Golden
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Silence Is Golden

Can DeSantis beat Trump by avoiding a war of words?

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis at an event in Florida, 2020. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A few days ago Mark Leibovich tweaked the Ron DeSantis groupies in conservative media with a new piece about the governor’s unsociability. “Standoffish” is how one former colleague describes him. “Aloof” is a word that pops up repeatedly in other profiles. “DeSantis is not a fun and convivial dude,” Leibovich wrote. “He prefers to keep his earbuds in. His ‘Step away from the vehicle’ vibes are strong.”

I sympathize, being aloof and unsociable myself. But unlike DeSantis, I’m not running for president. Yet.

Leibovich wondered how a man who fails the “Would you like to have a beer with him?” test so miserably can win a primary against someone as charismatic as Donald Trump. In a typical “choice” election, I agree that Trump would eat his lunch the same way he ate the collective lunch of an enormous field in 2016. Faced that year with a choice between nominating one of many standard-issue professional politicians or trying something very, very different, Republican voters chose … poorly.

But they did choose. They wanted something fresh, exciting, entertaining. DeSantis wouldn’t have stood a chance.

The 2024 primary won’t be a “choice” election, though, even if the field balloons to 2016 proportions. It’ll be a referendum on the cult leader. Republican voters won’t be choosing among candidates, at least not initially. They’ll be answering a question about Trump.

Namely: Are we really going to do this again? Wouldn’t we fare better with someone else as the face of the party? Aren’t you embarrassed?

DeSantis’ unsociability won’t matter a whit to that calculus. It would matter if the Republican field beneath Trump were unsettled, such that his collapse as frontrunner would lead to a free-for-all between the rest. But the field isn’t unsettled. Check the early primary polling and you’ll find that there’s only one candidate who poses a serious threat to the frontrunner.

A threat that’s growing more serious by the day, incidentally. And not just in DeSantis’ home state of Florida.

In the abstract, Leibovich may be right that DeSantis won’t “wear well” as a retail politician. But within the actual dynamics of the coming primary, where electability is apt to be a high priority after a gruesome midterm performance by the party, the have-a-beer test isn’t likely to matter. Many politicians can pass that test easily, but few can roll to a 19-point victory in Florida.

Besides, since when do MAGA Republicans prefer candidates who are recognizably human?

The challenge for DeSantis in 2024 won’t be convincing populists that he’s a nice, personable guy. (He might do better to convince them of the opposite.) The challenge will be figuring out how to respond to the 800-pound orange gorilla once the feces starts flying. The nastier DeSantis is to Trump, the more he risks alienating Trump’s most devout cult members. And turning out those devotees for the general election might be the difference between victory and defeat in November.

On the other hand, because Trump has mainstreamed the politics of dominance within the GOP, DeSantis can’t afford not to attack Trump. The more he bites his tongue as Trump gives him rhetorical wedgies, the wimpier he’ll look. And populists won’t nominate a wimp. They want a fighter, not a sucker.

In theory.

In practice, I think it might be different. For DeSantis, silence might be golden.

Team DeSantis seems to agree. Per Rolling Stone, it intends to pass on the opportunity presented by Trump’s recent dinner with antisemites.

According to three people with knowledge of the directives, DeSantis’ lieutenants have told his allies not to attack Trump over the now-notorious dinner. Instead, the potential 2024 Republican primary candidate and his advisers have aimed to keep the focus on Trump’s decision to dine with Kanye West, a vocal anti-Semite, and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist agitator.

“In ongoing discussions following his reelection, including this week, I’ve been asked to keep my powder dry,” says Dan Eberhart, a longtime GOP donor — and former big Trump donor — recalling his conversations with Team DeSantis. (Eberhart is now backing DeSantis for 2024). “My understanding is that the DeSantis team doesn’t see upside in kicking off the fight with Trump this early, even if it may be inevitable. Wading into the Fuentes fiasco just isn’t worth it for them. The media will harpoon Trump without Team DeSantis lifting a finger.”

Some would say DeSantis is avoiding the matter because he doesn’t want to anger populists by aligning himself with the dreaded liberal media against Trump and, uh, Nazis. But I think the strategic reasons for not commenting are sound. “Donald Trump is making a mistake, and Ron DeSantis is wisely not getting in the way,” says Dan McLaughlin of the governor’s thinking. If DeSantis keeps quiet, the coverage is about Trump’s repulsive tolerance for racists. If he speaks up, the coverage shifts to DeSantis versus Trump and the primary to come. Which better serves the governor’s long-term interests?

The Munich rally at Mar-a-Lago isn’t the only case lately of DeSantis biting his tongue instead of scoring a point on Trump. Remember how he responded when Trump attacked him as an “average” governor following his reelection landslide? Right. He didn’t.

This week he was teed up with a question about Trump being back in the daily news again as a presidential candidate. His response was a model of saying a lot without saying too much of anything.

Answering a question about Trump by contrasting his own landslide win with the GOP’s underperformance nationally makes it plain as day whom he blames for that underperformance. Yet there’s no mention of Trump. Given another plum chance to wound his rival, DeSantis declined.

He might keep doing that up to 2024 and beyond. Successfully.

A month ago, the idea of that would have been cringeworthy. Had the big red wave crashed down as expected, sweeping MAGA candidates to power, Trump would have treated it as a vote of confidence in his leadership. At worst, the election result would have been evidence that he’s not the drag on the party that his centrist critics are forever accusing him of being. DeSantis’ appeal as a more electable version of Trump would have been diminished. How unelectable can Trump be, after all, if the party he dominates is capable of sweeping a national midterm?

In that context, Trump sneering at DeSantis for being “average” would have played like a test of the younger man’s mettle. It would have been a challenge by the alpha Republican to a beta to engage. If DeSantis had dodged the way he ended up dodging in the clips above, he would have risked looking timid and unready for a fight.

But the big red wave didn’t crash down. And now the complexion of Trump hazing the governor is different.

In six years as head of the party, he’s never looked as politically weak to my eye as he did when he issued that statement calling DeSantis “average.” It reeked of fear. Across the country, his candidates had flopped. Only in Florida, where DeSantis had pointedly refused to ask for his endorsement, did the party win big. In that context, lashing the governor resembled a preemptive attack by a nervous fading power on a rising one, the GOP’s intramural version of the so-called “Thucydides trap.”

DeSantis took Trump’s jab and all but laughed it off. Responding to King Troll wasn’t worth the time of a man who’d just soared to an easy reelection and had serious lib-owning legislative business to attend to.

Who looked stronger there?

If that pattern repeats itself during the 2024 campaign, with Trump swinging wildly at DeSantis and DeSantis barely deigning to acknowledge him, how will it play? Who will seem more afraid of whom?

You might read that and think there’s no way a candidate realistically could continue to grin and bear it, day after day after day, while Trump throws roundhouses at him. Not if he wants to impress a primary electorate filled with right-wing populists. To which I would say: Have you not heard of Brian Kemp, ladies and gents?

It took preternatural self-discipline for Kemp to keep quiet about Trump for a year and a half while Trump set about trying to make him MAGA public enemy number two (behind Liz Cheney, of course). He gambled his political career on an untested hypothesis, that Trump-loving Republicans would grudgingly support a governor with a solid conservative record so long as he refrained from attacking their cult leader. Criticizing Trump would align Kemp with the left, which would be unforgivable, but being criticized by Trump wasn’t similarly disqualifying. 

Kemp won his bet. Georgia Republicans apparently concluded that Trump being mad at Kemp was a beef that was largely between the two of them. Whereas Kemp being mad at Trump would have been a declaration of war against MAGA itself.

Can’t DeSantis follow the same strategy?

Maybe not. In Georgia Kemp had the good fortune to face a bland Trump proxy in the person of David Perdue instead of the man himself. DeSantis won’t be so lucky. The sort of populist who was able to compartmentalize Trump’s grudge against Kemp and support the governor on the merits may find it harder when Trump is on the ballot and a victory by his opponent will send him into retirement. The degree of difficulty in winning the 2024 primary is an order of magnitude greater than it was in Georgia this year.

But DeSantis also has advantages that Kemp didn’t, like last month’s midterm. Kemp took Trump on at a moment when Republican voters had little reason to doubt that Trump’s leadership was a net benefit to the party. (Never mind the result in 2020. That election was rigged, or haven’t you heard?) Once the red wave turned into a “red mist,” the doubt grew. MAGA candidates falling flat across the map would have been bad enough for Trump, but DeSantis romping in Florida on the same night turned it into a nightmare. A month ago, asked if it was time for a new nominee, many populists might have said, “If not Trump, who?” They now have an answer.

It can’t be overstated how much the midterm elevated electability in the minds of Republican voters, I think, and electability has always been DeSantis’ great advantage over you-know-who. An emphasis on electability in 2024 will also make future Trump antics that much more damaging to his chances in the primary. No one much cared what he was posting on Truth Social or saying at his rallies during the Georgia gubernatorial primary campaign. He was Trump being Trump. But when he acts out on the trail as a declared presidential candidate next year—and he will—each episode will be viewed through the lens of the midterms, leading many base voters to conclude that the party would be playing its weakest hand by nominating him again.

And because it will, Ron DeSantis won’t have to say much of anything about it. Just as he’s done with the dinner at Mar-a-Lago, he’ll sit back, raise an eyebrow, and let Trump go about punching himself in the face.

Imagine DeSantis launching his 2024 campaign next spring with some version of this message.

I’m running for president because I care about the future of this country. Let me say it again: The future. You care about it too, whether you’re a young person whose life will be shaped by that future or you’re an older person who wants a better future for your children and grandchildren.

I’m eager to talk about my record in Florida and why I won reelection by 19 points, but otherwise I’m not going to talk about the past and I’m not going to trash my opponents. If we’re going to save this country we need a leader who’s laser-focused on the future and who’ll unite this party against the Democrats. Anyone who fails that test isn’t worthy of your vote.

If I were him, I’d also pledge to support the GOP’s eventual nominee for good measure, just to add some extra oomph to the party-first tone he’d be trying to set.

All in all, call it the “silence is golden” strategy. Not only is Trump not mentioned, it would amount to DeSantis declaring up front that he won’t be baited by reporters into fighting with him on the trail. Feel free to ask him about his soft anti-vaxxism or his fondness for discriminating against private entities that criticize his policies or his record on COVID-19 (especially his record on COVID-19), by all means. But if you ask him about whether the 2020 election was rigged or whether the January 6 defendants are political prisoners, he’s going to no-comment you right back toward his all-important plans for the future.

Would that sort of strategic silence be cowardly? You betcha. But political cowardice in declining to offend the MAGA base is nothing new for DeSantis, as Tim Miller reminded us recently at The Bulwark. It’s also not foolproof. Eventually DeSantis will be asked whether, as president, he’d pardon the January 6 defendants. That’s a question about the future, right? He’ll have to give a no-win answer.

By and large, though, hammering the point that he cares about the next election rather than the last election and that only a unified GOP can prevail in 2024 will weaken Trump. It’ll make his 2020 obsession look more pathetically selfish than it already does. It’ll highlight the fact post-midterm that he’s still less concerned with winning power for the right than with relitigating his grudges and grievances. And it’ll preempt his inevitable sore-loser attempt to destroy the party out of spite if he ends up losing to DeSantis. 

Trump Captain-Queeg-ing his way through the campaign by pushing election conspiracy theories while DeSantis sticks to electability and his 10-point plan to de-woke-ify America or whatever feels like a good match-up for DeSantis to me.

Which brings me to a hot take: If the governor prevails, I’m less convinced than others seem to be that Trump will succeed in burning the GOP down. 

He’ll try, certainly. And it’s not crazy to think that the cult he’s built will morph into a political death cult in the end, staging an electoral Jonestown for the American right by refusing to turn out for DeSantis in the general election. But we should bear in mind that, despite its cultish behavior, MAGA’s core belief is not in the infallibility of its leader, Donald J. Trump.

Its core belief is that the libs are evil and must be owned if America is to be saved. The belief in Trump’s alleged infallibility derives from that core belief, that he’s the only man capable of successfully owning them—never mind the mounting evidence from three straight elections that he’s a weight around Republicans’ ankles.

A DeSantis nomination would put MAGA to the test. Once he rather than Trump is the only thing standing between the country and four more years of Democratic government, right-wing populists will have to choose between their core belief and the corollary to that belief. When Trump is no longer the instrument of lib-owning but an impediment to it, what does the average Trump voter do?

I think nearly all of them will end up sucking it up and turning out for DeSantis, Trump’s howling to the contrary notwithstanding. Granted, a lot rests on the word “nearly”: Elections in modern America are so routinely tight that just a few percentage points’ worth of populists boycotting the general election could be enough to doom DeSantis, as it doomed Mitt Romney in 2012.

But there’s only one way to find out. The GOP hostage crisis won’t end until, at long, long last, Trump’s bluff is called and he’s invited to shoot the hostage. Maybe he’ll misfire and his fans will decide to show up in the general election for a different nominee. Maybe they won’t and the hostage, the Republican Party, will die on Election Day. But at least the crisis will be over. The party can’t move on to something better until it is.

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.