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The Only Candidate With a Nickname
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The Only Candidate With a Nickname

One cheer for DeSantis 2024.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the annual Feenstra Family Picnic at the Dean Family Classic Car Museum in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Saturday, May 13. (Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

I come not to bury Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign but to praise it.

The time to bury it will arrive soon enough, I suspect.

Today, though, I feel grateful as the governor prepares to declare his candidacy. The only Republican who threatens Donald Trump enough to have earned a wacky nickname from him will challenge him for control of the party after all.

Trump spent five months trying to intimidate DeSantis into changing his mind about running, an effort that continued until the eve of the governor’s announcement. He failed. If you’re eager for the end of the Trump era, celebrate the fact that we’re a bit closer to it than we would have been had DeSantis waited for 2028.

Some of my Never Trump comrades are less enthusiastic about the launch of DeSantis 2024, which I understand. Half of the governor’s fan base is composed of post-liberals given to warning about “what time it is” culturally in this, America’s alleged “late republic” period. The other half consists of hardcore partisans who chronically downplay or overlook DeSantis’ authoritarian excesses in their desperation to find a Trump-slayer.

Nominating DeSantis means empowering both groups, ending the Trump era but further normalizing Trumpism. How much gratitude can a classical liberal properly feel about “Trumpism without Trump”?

How many bouquets can I throw, in good conscience, at a guy willing to demagogue vaccination to serve his political ambition?

Support for mandating vaccines for public schoolchildren—all vaccines, not just COVID—is down from 79-20 among Republicans in 2019 to 57-42 now. It may yet become a minority position, and if it does DeSantis and his contemptible surgeon general will have contributed considerably to that. Never forget it.

Never forget that he abused state power to punish a private entity for criticizing his policies, forced the hand of businesses that didn’t wish to participate in his anti-vax crusade, and vowed that he wouldn’t help extradite Trump no matter what Article IV of the Constitution might say. Those aren’t minor failings to be waved away, like disagreements over tax policy. They’re DeSantis advertising in blazing neon that, as president, he’ll be more aggressive than Trump 1.0 was in testing the legal bounds of executive authority to wage culture war against the right’s enemies.

Half of his base is counting on it, the other half will rationalize it on “better an autocrat than a Democrat” grounds. Liberals are right to fear President DeSantis, who may not be authoritarian in his bones but is plenty eager to pretend that he is in order to pander to voters who are.

He’s unfit for office. Just not as unfit as you-know-who, the coup-plotter, a man who is an authoritarian in his bones and is getting more comfortable with that fact every day. Such is the state of the American right that presidential primaries are no longer a contest of classical liberals or even of classical liberals versus aspiring autocrats but rather a choice among figures with varying propensities toward autocracy.

Having never attempted a coup, and lacking any cult of personality that he can easily direct toward mayhem, DeSantis has the lesser propensity of the two Republican candidates who might plausibly become the nominee.

So I’m grateful, with many reservations, that he’s taking on Trump.

I should elaborate on that gratitude. Consider the following. 

DeSantis didn’t need to run this cycle.

I think the governor did need to run this cycle. But thoughtful arguments have circulated for months, some as recently as yesterday, that he should step back and reconsider.

As dawn broke on Wednesday morning, Trump was polling at his highest level and DeSantis at his lowest level since Election Day 2022. In late February, DeSantis nosed above 30 percent, shrinking Trump’s lead to less than 13 points; today he’s at 19.4 percent, trailing the frontrunner by 36.9.

It would have been trivially easy for him and his advisers to drink that in and decide that waiting until 2028 made more sense. Flaming out early this cycle suddenly seems more probable than overtaking Trump. By inserting himself into the race anyway and forcing Trump to work for the nomination, DeSantis will antagonize millions of diehard MAGA voters who otherwise might have rallied to him in five years as a post-Trump leader.

He’ll spend the rest of 2023 being brutalized by Trump and his many surrogates. He and his family will be inundated with death threats, as anyone who becomes a major obstacle to Trump’s ambition inevitably is. If DeSantis falls short of the nomination, his populist credibility will never fully recover. He’s gambling a very promising political career on his ability to convince a party remade in Trump’s image to prefer Trump-lite to the genuine article. No other candidate is risking as much.

That takes courage. Or arrogance, if you prefer.

But, realistically, I don’t think DeSantis had much choice. By 2028, he’ll have been out of office for two years. More charismatic authoritarians will have emerged within the party. In five years, he might look back wistfully at his 19.4 percent now the same way Ted Cruz looks back wistfully at his national polling in 2016.

As long a longshot as DeSantis is today, it’s quite likely that he’ll never again be so well positioned to win the presidency. Certainly he’ll never again enjoy the ephemeral vogue he’s experiencing right now among right-wing populists as the ultimate can-do culture warrior.

The context of declining to run matters too. Had DeSantis announced after his reelection last winter that he wouldn’t seek higher office in 2024 and endorsed Trump instead, he would have done so from a position of strength. It would have amounted to a favor to Trump at a moment when it seemed plausible that the governor might prevail in a national primary. Trump fans would have rejoiced. DeSantis would have been a prohibitive favorite for vice president.

Once Trump began attacking him aggressively, that window closed. For DeSantis to announce under fire that he wouldn’t run, declining a de facto invitation from Trump to brawl, would have looked pitifully weak. His reputation as a “fighter” would have shattered. The “Tiny D” nickname would have stuck.

The base wants a fighter? Well, here the governor is, ready to fight. In a party teeming with cowards, there’s some honor in that.

Unlike every other candidate, DeSantis has a theory of the case.

With one exception, Trump’s challengers this year seem intent on beating him by appealing to an electorate that doesn’t exist.

Nikki Haley believes that a woman who radiates “GOP establishment circa 2012” vibes is the secret sauce needed for victory. Tim Scott is gambling angry nationalist movement in a mostly white party will prefer to be led by a cheerful, dogmatically conservative African American. Mike Pence, whom some Republican voters wanted to hang on January 6, imagines that evangelicals will break en masse from the Trump cult they’ve spent eight years assimilating into once one of their own stands for office.

All of this is delusional in the abstract. As a strategy in an election in which Trump himself is available as an alternative on the primary ballot, it feels hallucinatory.

DeSantis is the only candidate who grasps that, to beat Trump, a candidate will need to meet the Republican electorate where it is. That means three things. First, prove that you’re willing and able to wage culture war more effectively than Trump is. Second, convince voters that they stand a meaningfully better chance of defeating the Democrats with you as their nominee than with him. Third, make the case that on issues ranging from lockdowns to immigration to foreign policy, Trump’s presidency failed his populist fans.

This seems logical to me. It might not succeed, and probably won’t, but it’s the sort of play you make if you’re serious about succeeding and thinking clearly to that end.

Never Trumpers recoil instinctively from DeSantis’ strategy because of what it entails. Instead of fighting for a more classically liberal Republican Party, it concedes that Trump’s vision is the correct one and seeks to beat him at his own game. “Remains pretty amazing to me how disdainfully the Never Trump crew treats Republican candidates other than Trump,” Nate Silver sniffed on Wednesday morning, tsk-tsking traditional conservatives who look dimly at DeSantis. But how enthusiastic should a traditional conservative be about a man running as “Trump, except more ruthless”?

DeSantis skeptics don’t need to like his strategy. I don’t. But not liking it and appreciating that it’s the strongest possible line of attack are two different things. A Ron DeSantis who stood onstage at a debate and went full Chris Christie, calling Trump a narcissistic psycho who got bodied by a decrepit old man in November 2020, is not a Ron DeSantis who’s going to be the Republican nominee.

Distaste for the governor’s strategy among his detractors is coloring perceptions of its potential effectiveness even with respect to how he’s chosen to launch his candidacy. Elon Musk is a conspiratorial populist troll who’s spent six months doggedly making Twitter more hospitable to other conspiratorial populist trolls. For DeSantis to reward him for it by announcing his presidential campaign on Musk’s platform is obnoxious, further evidence of the moronic edgelord-ification of mainstream Republican politics. And so his critics are mocking him for being “Too Online,” catering to an unrepresentative niche of the activist right instead of to “normie” voters.

Once again, though, DeSantis’ strategy seems logical to me. Especially considering that no one is more “Too Online” than Trump and that’s worked out okay for him in Republican primaries so far.

The governor can’t win the nomination by consolidating normies. There aren’t enough of them left in a party where Trump is currently polling north of 56 percent. No matter how strong a candidate DeSantis becomes, some smallish but meaningful number of those normies will continue to prefer Haley, Scott, Pence, et al. And so the math becomes simple: To prevail, he’ll need to convince a sizable share of Trump devotees to vote for him instead.

There’s no harder task in modern electoral politics, which is why DeSantis has been willing to champion policies that he knows will prove unpopular in a general election for the sake of endearing himself to voters in a Republican primary. Overcoming Trump is his greatest challenge, greater even than overcoming an incumbent president. And so he continues to execute a strategy to that end, aligning himself with a figure in Musk who’s become a sort of icon to the redpilled droogs who create and consume right-wing media. The governor needs the support of major populist influencers to reassure Republican voters that they’re not committing ideological treason by preferring him to Trump. So he’s courting Elon.

Pretty logical. And in DeSantis’ defense, the online component of his campaign rollout is just a small, if heavily hyped, part of the whole. He has a live interview scheduled with Fox News tonight at 8 p.m., after his conversation with Musk. And his team is planning a mammoth door-knocking operation in the early primary states, aiming to make face-to-face contact with every persuadable voter in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina at least four times.

He’s not neglecting normie voters. He’s just meeting reality where it is, recognizing that winning normies is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of prevailing in a party as abnormal as this one.

DeSantis’ candidacy will set the worst elements of the right against each other.

The GOP’s post-liberal bloc has gotten entirely too comfortable since 2015. 

For eight years, populists who sought war against the left and the diminution of civic niceties that stood in their way had one option on the ballot. Which may have contributed to the cultish dynamic in Trump’s support: When there’s only one champion available to do battle with one’s enemies, little wonder that enthusiasm for that champion might be unusually intense and unified. 

A DeSantis-less field in this cycle would have extended the streak further. The only other figure I can think of who might plausibly divide the grassroots right over whether Trump should continue to lead it is Tucker Carlson, and Tucker is adamant that he’s not running.

Without the governor of Florida in the race, a Mike Pence or Tim Scott might have vacuumed up a swath of the “Anyone But Trump” vote in the end and finished a distant second with a gentleman’s 25 percent, but no one would have threatened Trump’s dominance with populists. He would have remained the undisputed hero of the revolutionary right, unified as ever.

With the governor of Florida in the race, that changes. Populist influencers in DeSantis’ and Trump’s camps are already at each other’s throats on social media. And the infighting will grow significantly nastier as the race wears on.

For instance: Kari Lake, for whom Ron DeSantis campaigned last year, is Team Trump. Jenna Ellis, who represented Trump in court, is Team DeSantis. Lesser figures unknown to well-adjusted human beings but quite well-known to brain-poisoned Twitter junkies began taking sides months ago. (“We have CatTurd, they have Cardillo. We have Jack Posobiec, they have Bill Mitchell.”) Inevitably diehard 2020 election truthers will gravitate toward Trump while more reality-based populists who fear Trump’s baggage will swing toward DeSantis. Longtime cronies whose political relevance depends on Trump’s continued success will aim to destroy DeSantis; aspiring cronies who failed to gain relevance under Trump, now sensing an opportunity to ascend with the governor, will rally to DeSantis’ defense.

The campaign will be dumb, dispiriting, grifty, and vicious—everything the modern online right is. It’s already well on its way.

All of this is good for America. It’s long past time for the Jacobins to start guillotining each other.

One way it’s good is that it’ll divide and weaken the right’s pernicious post-liberal vanguard. Either Trump or DeSantis will prevail in the end, at which point there’ll be half-hearted chatter about coming together behind the winner. But the scorched-earth tactics practiced during the primary will produce enduring grudges. The MAGA right will never be quite as unified as it once was.

A few days ago, I saw one Twitter user who’s backing DeSantis note with alarm how much venom has been sent his way by Trump backers since he announced his support for the governor. It really is a cult, he said with inadvertently comic surprise. There will be more of that.

A Trump victory will also alienate some of DeSantis’ traditionally conservative supporters from the GOP, maybe irreparably. Some Republican voters have hung on since 2016 with growing exasperation, I suspect, hopeful that the governor’s emergence will finally break Trump’s spell. They rationalized Trump’s first nomination on grounds that he was sui generis and his second nomination on grounds that he was an incumbent. With DeSantis now offering Trumpism without Trump—Trump, but smart and capable!—the GOP electorate is all out of excuses.

If they insist on nominating Trump again despite having a perfectly good alternative available, some of those conservatives will finally confront what the party has become. “But the media” won’t cut it anymore.

The divisions and disaffection from all of this might be so intense as to render Trump or DeSantis unelectable as president. Which, since they’re both unfit, would also be good for America.

No one would bet on feral partisans boycotting a general election due to lingering bitterness after a primary in an age as polarized as ours. Most disgruntled Trump or DeSantis fans will talk themselves into turning out against Biden, but not all. Trumpers will allege cheating if the governor prevails in the primary; hardcore DeSantis fans will chafe at the self-destructive pigheadedness of renominating a loser who specializes in personal destruction if Trump does. 

A party divided between two characters as sorry as these deserves to lose. And it well might.

So, one cheer for DeSantis 2024. One way or another, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, it’ll get us a little closer to a healthier GOP.

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Nick Catoggio

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.