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What If DeSantis Collapses?
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What If DeSantis Collapses?

Be afraid.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 5, 2023. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The news of the day—well, the other news of the day—is that one guy from Florida who’s starting to hit back at that other guy from Florida.

I use the term “hit” loosely.

Read Piers Morgan’s account of his new interview with Ron DeSantis and you’ll find him, true to tabloid form, straining mightily to sensationalize a few light jabs at Donald Trump. “A blistering attack” is how Morgan describes DeSantis’ comments in his introduction. Later he celebrates the governor for having “slammed” the leader of his party, then breathlessly pronounces the conversation “explosive” in his closing teaser about the video to come tomorrow.

Here’s the sort of blistering explosive-ness you’ll find in DeSantis’ quotes.

When I asked if he meant to be as censorious as he sounded when talking about Trump allegedly paying off porn stars, he doubled down and replied: “Well, there’s a lot of speculation about what the underlying conduct is. That is purported to be it, and the reality is that’s just outside my wheelhouse. I mean that’s just not something that I can speak to.”

The message was clear: I’m nothing like Trump when it comes to sleazy behavior.

“DeSantis has finally taken the gloves off,” Morgan proclaims unpersuasively. We know what it looks like when the governor and his team stoop to bareknuckle political brawling, after all, and this ain’t it. The only people who think DeSantis has hit Trump hard thus far are the populist parasites permanently affixed to Trump’s rear end, whose duties require them to frame any unflattering word about the bully-in-chief from a Republican as an unthinkable breach of cult etiquette.

But I don’t mean that to sound like criticism. On the contrary, reading through Morgan’s piece I was struck by how DeSantis’ restraint reflects my own strategic thinking.

I’ve made the case that he should follow the Brian Kemp approach to handling Trump. Don’t wrestle with a pig; you know what Shaw said about that. Instead, take Trump’s attacks with good humor, decline to get personal in response lest you offend MAGA voters, and tout your record as governor. Stress that you’re laser-focused on defeating a mutual enemy, the Democrats, to make Trump’s internecine shots at fellow Republicans seem petty and selfish by comparison. Limit your critique of him to grievances which the populist base is likely to share. He was too credulous toward Fauci and (sigh) vaccines; he created too much managerial chaos within his administration; his endless personal dramas are too distracting to the business of competent right-wing government. In short, DeSantis will give you everything you like about Trump minus the stuff you don’t.

Above all, stress your electability. Most populist Republicans prefer Trump to the governor on a gut level, I’m sure, but convince them that DeSantis has a far superior chance of winning a general election and they might reluctantly choose self-interest. You can’t own the libs if you can’t beat the libs, right?

I won’t quote from the interview at length but read it and you’ll find DeSantis making variations of all of those points. (Fine, one quote on electability. When Morgan asked him about Trump’s new nickname for him, the governor replied, “I mean you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner because that’s what we’ve been able to do in Florida, is put a lot of points on the board and really take this state to the next level.”) He’s playing it smart, in my humble opinion.

But what if I’m wrong? What if DeSantis is already on his way to collapsing as a candidate?

What would this primary look like come fall?

The possibility that Republicans aren’t as Ready for Ron as we might suppose has been kicking around the commentariat for months. DeSantis’ nascent campaign has been compared to Scott Walker’s 2016 disaster so many times that Nate Cohn of the New York Times felt obliged to debunk that thesis with polling data last month. By the numbers, Walker was never as formidable as the governor already is.

For that reason alone, it’s hard to imagine anything resembling a DeSantis “collapse” in the near term. Some 20 percent of Republicans are strongly committed to him, I’d estimate, and many more might come around once he launches and they get their first look at him. It feels ridiculous to speculate in March 2023 that he’s “flaming out” when he’s still weeks away from entering the race.

Let’s wait to pronounce him dead politically until after he’s been born politically.

But, having said that: It’s later than you think. And the polling trends are not encouraging.

That’s the lowest level of support DeSantis has seen since Morning Consult began tracking the race in December. Monmouth, a well-regarded pollster, is also tracking the primary and likewise finds the governor’s support deteriorating.

From a 53-40 DeSantis lead a month ago to a 47-46 Trump lead now. In a four-way race, with Nikki Haley and Mike Pence included in the polling, Trump’s lead over the governor opens to 44-36.

That’s not a “collapse.” There’s even some good news for DeSantis insofar as he leads comfortably among Republicans who support MAGA “somewhat” (61-32) and those who don’t support MAGA at all (57-31). If he can cut into Trump’s nearly 50-point lead among “strong” MAGA supporters, he’s in business.

But maybe he can’t. The trendline isn’t great.

We can only speculate as to why Trump is gaining as DeSantis gradually becomes better known to Republican voters. Maybe calling him the second coming of Paul Ryan, an entitlement-reforming “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy,” is working. Maybe DeSantis’ weaselly equivocation about the “territorial dispute” in Ukraine has alienated hawks who were previously in his corner. Maybe the Republican lizard brain is responding to the “dominance” Trump has displayed by attacking DeSantis viciously with little pushback. Or maybe the prospect of Trump being indicted at any moment by Manhattan’s progressive district attorney has ignited a “rally ‘round the accused felon” effect among the increasingly amoral GOP base.

Absent a scandal, I can’t imagine DeSantis’ base of 20 percent eroding in the near term. But I can imagine him jumping in and stalling out quickly at around 25 percent while Trump’s share of the vote grows as criminal indictments pile up. Come fall, primary polling could stand at something like Trump 60, DeSantis 20, with the remaining 20 percent split between Pence, Haley, and Tim Scott. And if it does, some of the politicians, party apparatchiks, and media figures who gambled by endorsing the governor early might abandon ship, desperate to make amends to Trump by sucking up to him again.

Not everyone who’s with DeSantis now will stick with him forever, after all. Some are true “Ron or bust” groupies but another chunk of his support comes from righties of different ideological stripes who have settled on him as the most viable Trump alternative. I’m one of them. If I were polled, I’d say I’m supporting DeSantis purely because he looks like the only candidate with a chance to slay the dragon.

But that could change. Imagine that Scott impresses at the first few debates this summer while the governor disappoints. Come September, the polls might show Trump at 50 percent, DeSantis at 20, and Scott bouncing out to the high teens. What’s the play for the “Anyone But Trump” faction in DeSantis’ corner then? Keep flogging a horse who seems to be faltering or switch to the up-and-comer and hope for the best?

All of this might sound exciting if you’re the sort of right-winger who loathes Trump but also dislikes the governor. “DeSantis collapsing would open the race up! New candidates might jump in and make a game of it!”

Really? Who?

Brian Kemp? There’s no reason to think he’d have more luck against Trump than DeSantis did. There’s less reason, actually, since Kemp is forever tarnished by the disloyalty he showed in 2020 by placing the rule of law above Donald Trump’s corrupt self-interest.

Tucker Carlson? A media-savvy nationalist demagogue would, admittedly, be a better fit for the modern Republican primary electorate than an accomplished conservative governor. (A media-savvy nationalist demagogue has led the party for years, after all.) But even Tucker would struggle to out-demagogue a rapidly decompensating Donald Trump. And Carlson has sounded eager to reingratiate himself to the top dog lately after his texts about “hating” Trump in 2020 were published. In that context, turning around and challenging him in a primary in a longshot bid to unseat him is unlikely.

I suspect that if DeSantis can’t make a serious move on Trump in the polls, no Republican can. Especially if Trump’s recent polling surge really owes to right-wing voters rallying behind him as he faces a mountain of legal trouble.

The “Kemp approach” to defeating Trump that I described earlier is based on a questionable premise, that Republican primary voters are basically rational.

“Of course they’re rational,” you might say. “Kemp beat Trump’s proxy, David Perdue, by more than 50 points in Georgia’s primary last fall. Given the choice between sticking with a governor whose policies they liked and settling a grievance for Donald Trump, they chose rationally.”

Maybe. Or maybe Perdue was a poor proxy.

I do think the “Kemp approach” of showing restraint toward Trump was shrewd and important in navigating the tender sensibilities of Georgia’s MAGA snowflakes. But I also suspect Kemp would have had a harder time had he faced a more charismatic, authentic populist capable of galvanizing Trump’s voters rather than an aging establishment businessman repackaged as a populist like Perdue. If, say, Kari Lake had taken on Kemp in that primary and attacked him passionately for certifying Biden’s victory, does the governor still win?

Probably. But not by 50 points.

The “Kemp approach” assumes that Republican voters will choose the candidate who’s best aligned with their political interests. In Georgia, that meant renominating an effective incumbent who’d already beaten the Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, once before.

What does it mean in a national primary?

DeSantis is gambling that it means the same thing, more or less. He’s governed competently, he’s fighting the sort of culture war MAGA voters want to fight, he’s proved he can win big in a swing state—oh, and he doesn’t have half a dozen personality disorders. What more do you need to know? If you want to maximize your chances of winning the presidency in 2024 and enacting a national populist agenda, he’s your guy.

Consider the possibility, however, that the Republican Party is no longer a traditional political party. A traditional party prioritizes policy and electability. A party that’s become something more like a cultural identity or religious movement will have different priorities. Ross Douthat considered the politics of Trump getting indicted, possibly more than once, in the next few months and foresaw how it might work to his advantage against DeSantis.

There’s an alternative story, in which our Republican swing voter is invested not in specific candidates so much as in the grand battle with the liberal political establishment. In this theory the DeSantis brand is built on his being a battler, a scourge of cultural liberalism in all its forms, while Trump has lost ground by appearing more interested in battling his fellow Republicans, even to the point of hurting the G.O.P. cause and helping liberals win.

What happens, though, when institutional liberalism seems to take the fight to Trump? (Yes, I know a single prosecutor isn’t institutional liberalism, but that’s how this will be perceived.) When the grand ideological battle is suddenly joined around his person, his position, his very freedom?

“The cardinal virtue of modern conservative populism is spite,” a wise man once said, and “the essence of spite … is being willing to damage yourself for the sake of antagonizing your enemy.” A traditional political party would consider it irrational to nominate a candidate who’s facing criminal charges from an array of prosecutors, however sympathetically it might regard him. It would consider how swing voters might react and choose differently.

But a party that exists only to spite the libs and to exult in its victimization at their hands might deem the prospect too alluring to pass up. Trump reportedly has told advisers that he wants to be handcuffed in court if he’s indicted in Manhattan and will insist on appearing personally, even at the risk of assassination. “He later added that if he got shot, he would probably win the presidency in 2024,” sources told the Guardian, adding that he’s willing to become, in his own words, a “martyr.” Some of his nuttier fans have taken to comparing him to the most exalted Christian martyr of all, adorned with the belief that he’s suffering on behalf of the faithful.

This is not politics as usual. If Republican voters would rather spite Democrats by nominating their sacred victim knowing that he’s likely to lose in 2024 than rationally nominate an electable governor with populist policies who stands a solid chance to win, DeSantis’ (and my) entire theory of the case in the 2024 primary is up in smoke. No one will threaten Trump for the nomination.

And if that happens, American politics will get quite volatile.

Some analysts have always thought Trump would hold off DeSantis in the end. Others believe DeSantis will edge Trump out. Either way, the consensus expectation is that the primary will be competitive. There’ll be real suspense come New Year’s about how Iowa will shake out.

What if there isn’t, and a twice-impeached coup-plotter who’s under indictment (possibly in multiple jurisdictions) leads by something like 40 points all this fall?

At that point, I suspect, a meaningful share of Republican voters who were committed to one of his opponents will begin to face the hard reality that the base of their party no longer behaves rationally. If the GOP has a “Trump problem,” that problem can be solved easily enough by nominating a different candidate. If the primary electorate is unwilling to do so even when an accomplished populist like DeSantis is available to them as an alternative, that’s no longer a “Trump problem.” That’s a “Republican problem.”

In fact, one can read the Republican establishment’s romance with DeSantis as a sort of negotiation with the party’s base. They’re not rallying behind Nikki Haley or some other Romney-style pre-Trump conservative; they’re willing to meet MAGA voters halfway (or more than halfway) by supporting the lib-owning governor of Florida. All the base needs to do in return in the name of party unity is make a gesture of rationality by choosing the electable populist over a psychopath who brings chaos to everything he touches.

They might refuse.

If they do, most Republicans will respond the way they usually respond, telling themselves that even an indicted coup-plotting fascist surely must be preferable to a generic Democrat. But many who preferred a different candidate in the primary will, at long last, lose patience. They could rationalize Trump’s nomination in 2016 on grounds that he was an outsider and in 2020 on grounds that he was the incumbent; in 2024, some untold number will run out of rationalizations for the Republican electorate’s persistent perverse priorities.

It’s anyone’s guess what happens when they do. Some will re-register as independents in exasperation. Others will resolve to write in a candidate in the general election rather than support Trump or will bite the bullet and resign themselves to voting for Biden. The donor class will panic and search, futilely, for a last-second “break glass in case of emergency” entrant into the primary who could give Trump a scare. A conservative third-party candidate might foolishly declare their candidacy in the general election to give disaffected Republicans a place to park votes, potentially luring away those who were otherwise prepared to cross the aisle.

The shrinking share of rational right-wingers who still identify with the GOP will finally shrivel entirely and wink out. The party will no longer exist as we know it—which may be unavoidable even if Trump doesn’t prevail

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. A party whose establishment class is rational, more or less, and whose base is not cannot go on forever.

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.