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The ‘Normalcy’ Candidate
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The ‘Normalcy’ Candidate

Is it DeSantis—or Trump?

(Photo of Donald Trump by James Devaney/GC Images. Photo of Ron DeSantis by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC.)

Last week the Republican presidential campaign was overtaken by a philosophical dispute.

Can the libs be fully and finally owned in four years, or will nothing short of two consecutive four-year terms do?

Of the two highest-polling candidates, the one who’s eligible to serve eight years coincidentally expects it’ll take that long. “It really requires two terms to be able to finish the job,” Ron DeSantis said in Iowa. “I think we could bring George Washington back, and I don’t think he could do it in just one four-year term.”

Also coincidentally, the candidate who isn’t eligible to serve eight years believes the task can be accomplished more quickly. “You don’t need eight years, you need six months,” Donald Trump told a crowd during his own Iowa appearance. “We can turn this thing around so quickly. Who the hell wants to wait eight years?”

DeSantis answered that with the obvious counterpoint. If all Trump needs is six months to achieve his goals, why didn’t he achieve them during his first four years in office?

Beneath this meta-commentary on age and executive impotence lies an important difference between the candidates, though. They’re not offering the same thing to Republican voters.

DeSantis is promising to “destroy leftism in this country and leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history.” You should expect nothing less than an ideological revolution that’ll remake America if he’s elected president.

Is that what Trump is promising?

Consider what he said a few days ago.

“I’ve been watching DeSanctus go out and say ‘I’ve got eight years. It’s going to be eight years,’” Trump said, mocking DeSantis.

“Let me tell you something, you should vote against him,” he continued. “It will take me six months to have it totally the way it was. We’ll have it fast. It’s drilling, it’s the wall, and it’s getting criminals out of our country that have been allowed to come in so freely.”

“Totally the way it was.” The wall, oil, lots of deportations.

That doesn’t sound like a revolution. That sounds like the pre-Biden status quo.

Benjy Sarlin of Semafor was taken aback by Trump’s comment. He’s “running on MAGA where [‘the way it was’] is Feb 2020—jobs, low inflation, conservative judges, mission accomplished. DeSantis sees his mission as a brutal generational war,” he marveled. “Trump running as a former president trying to get back to life under his first term makes him weirdly a ‘normalcy’ candidate in certain ways vs DeSantis. He’s consciously pitching himself as less likely to take a big ideological swing.”

The man has a point. Who’s the real “normalcy” candidate in this primary?

For Never Trump conservatives like me, DeSantis is the “normalcy” candidate, of course—relatively speaking.

He hasn’t tried to overthrow the government. He’s not under indictment. And he began his career in the Before Times, which makes him suspicious to MAGA diehards but preferable to Trump among more conventional Republicans.

Lurking beneath the undue ardor for DeSantis in some traditionally conservative quarters is the hope that the governor might revert—somewhat—to his pre-Trump incarnation once he’s safely past the Republican primary. And not without reason: For instance, while Trump bit his tongue last week, DeSantis harshly criticized Kevin McCarthy’s debt-ceiling bill for not going far enough to balance the budget. Buried beneath all that culture-war palaver still beats the heart of a fiscal hawk.

There’s a foreign-policy hawk somewhere inside there too. A few days ago Trump congratulated his dear friend Kim Jong-un on having a North Korean official elected to the board of the World Health Organization, placing him on the wrong side of conservative opinion with respect to both entities. Asked for comment, DeSantis sounded like his 2013-vintage self. “Kim Jong-un is a murderous dictator,” he told reporters. “[North Korea] just imprisoned for life a family, including an infant, which is just outrageous.”

Already there have been intimations that he’ll govern a bit closer to the center as president than he has as governor. His acrobatics with regard to Ukraine, first pandering to the GOP’s anti-anti-Putin wing and then reversing course, also hint that he might be more receptive to traditional conservatives than his illiberal fans expect. President DeSantis might be more “normal” than you think.

In one key respect, in fact, “normalcy” is his entire brand. His claim to political fame is keeping his state’s public schools and businesses open through most of the pandemic. While most of the country was functioning less normally than it ever has, Florida went its own way. The governor will spend the rest of the primary reminding voters of that, and of who was president when America sank into its protracted COVID abnormality.

Yet Sarlin is right that DeSantis has been more radical rhetorically on the stump than Trump has. On abortion, on vaccines, on immigration, on crime, on gay and transgender issues, on all things “woke,” the governor is running to the incumbent’s right. “I’m not saying that I think DeSantis would be more extreme than Trump,” Tim Miller wrote today at The Bulwark. “I’m simply observing the objective fact that DeSantis’s explicit campaign message is a promise that he will be more extreme than Trump!”

That is indeed DeSantis’ promise, painstakingly designed to wow the diehard Trump voters whom the governor needs to flip in the primary. It’s also why some liberals have convinced themselves (wrongly) that he’d be more dangerous as president. If DeSantis governs the way he’s promising to govern, we’ll get a White House that’s more willing to push the envelope on policy than even Trump’s team was and perhaps more eager to assert executive authority in doing so.

An administration committed to a post-liberal revolution in policymaking by hook or by crook, albeit one that hires conventionally and functions well internally, would not aptly be described as “normal.”

But neither would a second MAGA administration, for essentially the opposite reason. Trump 2.0 is likely to be less ambitious in pursuing policy reforms than DeSantis would be while functioning so chaotically as to make his first term seem professional by comparison.

Given how many competent Republican officials he’s alienated and how eagerly he’s courted conspiracy theorists, Trump’s next Cabinet would surely be the least qualified in American history, grossly unfit morally and intellectually from top to bottom. The Senate might try to force him to nominate more qualified figures but without any guarantee of success. We would end up being governed by a corrupt kakistocracy of semi-lucid authoritarians bent on self-enrichment and centralizing power for its own sake.

But not one that’s highly motivated to use the federal government to remake American culture in many particulars, I suspect.

Trump thinks DeSantis’ six-week abortion ban in Florida is “too harsh.” He complains that the governor obsesses too much about “woke” issues. (He has strategic reasons for that.) By the standards of traditional Republicans, he’s friendly to gays and gay rights. He vows to protect Social Security and Medicare from his opponent’s old entitlement-slashing ways. He champions the COVID vaccines, if not quite as enthusiastically as he did in 2020.

Even his less conventional policy proposals are just warmed-up leftovers from his first term.

Relative to DeSantis, in other words, Donald Trump in many ways is the status quo candidate. He’s not leading a policy revolution. He just wants to get America back “totally [to] the way it was” four years ago, before the virus arrived.

Well … not “totally.” Trump is more likely to revolutionize U.S. foreign policy as president by withdrawing from NATO than DeSantis is, for instance. But it makes sense that a politician whose appeal has always been based on nostalgia would instinctively tailor his bid for reelection to nostalgia for his own administration. He’s going to make America great again—like it was in 2019. 

Nothing about him will ever truly be “normal.” But insofar as some voters remember the first three years of his presidency fondly, when the pre-inflation economy was going gangbusters and no one in the West had heard of Wuhan, he’s borrowing a page from Joe Biden and positioning himself as, of all things, a sort of “normalcy” candidate.

Which makes sense as a matter of psychology and of strategy.

Psychologically, Trump’s narrative of his own presidency is the story of a hero who was forever waylaid by villains while on his epic quest to make America great again. First he was sidetracked by the “Russia hoax,” then by impeachment for his “perfect phone call” with Volodymyr Zelensky, then by the “China virus,” and finally by the “rigged election.”

He needs a second term to finish that quest after being unfairly denied the chance during his first. No wonder that he’s fantasizing about going back to “the way it was” a few years ago, then: For him, the world’s main character, this is just a sequel picking up where the original saga left off.

Trump being Trump, he also can’t help but hype his years in office as stupendous, phenomenal, successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (never mind the “constantly foiled by villains” part). His instinct to idealize his own performance is so grandiose that it sometimes butts up against the logic of his criticisms of Biden. My colleague Sarah Isgur pointed out on The Dispatch Podcast this week that Trump would have Republicans somehow believe that he kept his promise to build the wall, which is working beautifully, and that the southern border has become an unholy disaster under his successor. 

But he’s also being led by strategic considerations to focus on his first term as an ideal “normal” to which America should aspire to return. In 2016 he could and did run as an unabashed swamp-draining revolutionary outsider; in 2023 he has a record to defend. Because it’s highly abnormal for a political party to renominate a candidate who lost the presidency, Republicans need a compelling reason to stick with him.

And so, of necessity, he frames returning to the normalcy of 2019 as the most anyone could hope for in a new administration, a golden age in which the “revolution” against the left was already effectively won.

Still, what best explains his and DeSantis’ different approaches to “normalcy” is the fact that each is running to win a different race. DeSantis is a more or less normal (normal-adjacent?) human being, which is an asset in the general election but not in a Republican primary; Trump is very much not normal, which is an asset in a Republican primary but not in the general election. And so each candidate feels obliged to be the thing that he isn’t in order to impress the electorate he’s having trouble winning over.

For Trump, that means steering toward the middle on policy wherever possible to preempt attacks from the left that he expects from Democrats next fall. He probably believes he has the Republican nomination locked up and can afford to start positioning for November 2024, particularly with respect to issues like abortion and entitlements about which many GOP primary voters hold a more moderate view. The further right DeSantis goes by comparison, the more “normal” Trump seems on the issues.

For DeSantis, it’s the opposite. He’s too “normal” a politician in his mien and professional background to convince Republican voters that he’d disrupt Washington as comprehensively as a loose cannon like Trump would. To counter that impression he’s forced to go whole hog on culture-war policies, essentially pledging that what he lacks in authoritarian charisma he’ll make up for with sheer determination in waging an aggressive ideological revolution. 

His candidacy is a de facto experiment to test what it is about populism that Republican voters truly cherish. If it’s the policies—less immigration, tougher on crime, fewer experts dictating rules—DeSantis can deliver that better than Trump can, with less baggage to boot. If it’s the pathologies—demagoguery, intimidation, extreme violations of virtuous norms—then Trump is invincible. The polls lately point clearly toward one of those theses being sounder than the other. 

“There is a certain kind of Republican who is rooting for Ron DeSantis with the same kind of manic energy one roots for a [five-star] freshman running back because Ron DeSantis getting the nomination would be proof that they still understood what was going on in the world,” the New York Times’ Jane Coaston tweeted recently, and wisely. Trump and DeSantis have plenty of illiberal fans who admire them because of their respective abnormalities, not in spite of them, but the sort of partisan traditional National Review-subscribing conservative who’s backing the governor as a relative return to normalcy for the GOP has a lot riding on this primary.

If the “normal” candidate wins then the Republican Party is still a normal party, sort of, one they can continue to support with a clear conscience. They’ll have been vindicated in believing that they still understand what’s going on in the right-wing world. But if the “normal” guy loses to an aged, impeached, indicted, many-times-disgraced putsch-plotter—if in fact he’s crushed by him—what then?

Whichever path politically they take after that will be quite different from what they’ve spent their lives believing to be “normal.”

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.