The Trump/DeSantis War May Start Sooner Than You Think
The best defense is a good offense.
Donald Trump is not a patient man. Patience is a virtue, after all, and Trump has never had much regard for virtue. But he’s been surprisingly patient with his one serious rival for the 2024 Republican nomination, a man on track to win decisively in Florida six weeks from now and establish himself beyond dispute as a formidable national figure.
I wonder if he’s been too patient. And whether his patience might finally have run out.
Rolling Stone has published a series of stories this summer about Trump’s exasperation at the rise of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, all of which have the air of Yosemite Sam gradually working himself into a fit over Bugs Bunny. At one point Trump allegedly wanted to launch his 2024 campaign in Tallahassee to spite DeSantis, a brilliant example of his sense of politics as a pageant of dominance. More recently he’s been heard to complain about DeSantis mimicking his hand gestures and body language, joking at an event earlier this year that he should sue the governor for copyright infringement.
His latest grievance is more substantive, though. One senses this may be the last straw:
Since the Florida Republican — possibly under false pretenses — flew migrants from the Texas-Mexico border to Massachusetts, Trump has pointedly complained to some of his closest associates that DeSantis is attempting to take the national news cycle away from him, two sources with knowledge of the matter tell Rolling Stone.
Trump has fumed over all the praise DeSantis’ action has been receiving in influential conservative circles lately — such as on right-wing media like Fox News — and has privately accused DeSantis of doing this largely to generate a 2024 polling boost for himself among GOP voters. (Earlier this month, Trump and his political operation blasted out a brief statement claiming, “Mar-a-Lago raid gave Trump a 10-point boost over DeSantis with Republican primary voters, poll shows.”)
Reporters who cover the Trump beat often note how much he dislikes seeing others profit from his image when he’s not getting a cut. That helps explain, for instance, why his super PAC continues to compete aggressively with party organs for donations despite the fact that we’re in a midterm cycle and Trump isn’t on the ballot. Trump doesn’t want “Trump donations” going to the RNC or NRSC when they blast out an email with his photo on it. He wants “Trump donations” going to Trump.
His resentment toward those who profit from their association with him at his expense seems to have turned personal with respect to DeSantis. It’s not just a matter of the governor imitating Trump’s mannerisms or “stealing” his ideas for publicity stunts. Unfailingly, when he’s asked about DeSantis, Trump will remind the interviewer that DeSantis owes his victory in the 2018 gubernatorial primary to Trump’s endorsement. “I made Ron,” he’s been known to say privately, per Vanity Fair. DeSantis hasn’t just profited from Trump’s image; to hear Trump tell it, he matters politically thanks purely to Trump’s largesse.
The sense that DeSantis owes Trump an enormous debt yet refuses to show him the deference due a creditor permeates the reporting on Trump’s view of their relationship. Earlier this year, Trump grumbled to friends that DeSantis hadn’t pledged not to run in 2024 if Trump entered the race, the so-called “magic words” that other contenders like Nikki Haley had been willing to utter. As of June, despite Trump’s endorsement being eagerly sought by every other Republican candidate in the country, DeSantis had pointedly declined to ask for it, a de facto declaration of independence from the man who “made” him.
Now, with the Martha’s Vineyard publicity stunt, DeSantis has begun to muscle in on Trump’s signature issue, immigration. Florida’s geography had limited his ability to grandstand on MAGA’s favorite culture-war front, leaving it to lesser political talents in border states, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who pose no threat to Trump in a national primary. With DeSantis plunging into the fray, Trump is now at risk of losing dominance over “his” pet topic to a usurper.
At some point an impatient narcissist will no longer be able to ignore his rival’s effrontery, especially if it’s cutting into his camera time. It’s one thing for DeSantis to steal Trump’s hand gestures, it’s another for him to steal the policy issue on which Trump has made his bones as a “fighter.” The day Trump loses his distinction as “King of the Jerks” to DeSantis is the day we have a bona fide fight on our hands for the 2024 nomination.
Which is one reason I think his patience with DeSantis—his willingness to hold his tongue about the younger man—is about to run out.
But the second reason to attack sooner rather than later has nothing to do with Trump’s foibles. Namely, the stronger DeSantis looks in November’s gubernatorial election, the stronger his claim to the GOP nomination in 2024 will be.
DeSantis’ entire case against Trump in the 2024 primary rests on electability. One can’t get to Trump’s right in a primary on policy—although DeSantis has done his cynical best on the subject of vaccines and may yet convince a few MAGA stalwarts that their hero was too soft on COVID lockdowns and the bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci pushing them. Trying to flip Trump voters by convincing them that their hero, a man who attempted an honest-to-God coup last year, doesn’t “fight” hard enough is a fool’s errand.
Convincing them that a different nominee can fight smarter and more successfully has more promise.
The yardstick for relative electability is destined to be DeSantis’ margin of victory in Florida against Democrat Charlie Crist. Trump won Florida by 3.5 percentage points in 2020; DeSantis would like to double that margin if possible, never mind the obvious differences between the caliber of opponent he and Trump each faced and the dynamics of a presidential cycle versus a midterm cycle. DeSantis wants to be able to stride into a 2024 primary against Trump and say, “Scoreboard.” If he turns a perennial purple state like Florida solid red, even the election deniers in the Republican base may be forced to ask themselves some tough questions.
Such as: How is it that the Democrats were able to rig enough votes for Biden to get within 4 points in Florida in 2020 but couldn’t rig enough to get Crist within, say, 8 points in 2022? Has DeSantis figured out the secret to prevent Democrats from cheating?
Such are the considerations on which the fate of the free world now depends.
The point is this: Because DeSantis will be more or less attractive to Republican voters in 2024 depending upon how gaudy his margin of victory is, Trump has every incentive to do what he can to hold down that margin of victory. That means attacking DeSantis now—before the gubernatorial election—in the hope that some meaningful number of MAGA diehards will decline to turn out for the governor in November in protest. After all, if DeSantis were to beat Crist by only 3 points instead of 7, that might functionally end his 2024 hopes. What would be left of his electability argument if he couldn’t outperform Trump at the polls in his home state against a weaker candidate than Joe Biden?
So the strategic rationale for Trump to attack DeSantis now is clear. Nevertheless, it must be terrifying for him to not know, for once, how such an attack would play with his base. Normally he can start a barroom brawl with a Republican rival, rhetorically toss him through a plate-glass window, and trust that his fans will cheer the display of dominance. If he were to do that with DeSantis, though, I suspect some of his fans might resent his selfishness in choosing to weaken another popular populist “fighter” weeks before a major election. It’s one thing to make fat jokes about despised RINOs like Chris Christie; it’s another to knife MAGA’s second-favorite Republican right before voters go to the polls to decide who should govern Florida for the next four years.
So there’s risk for Trump in attacking, just as there’s a risk for him that DeSantis would win by a landslide despite the attack, handing the media weeks’ worth of stories about how the upstart had taken the champion’s best punch and laughed it off. To the extent DeSantis is still undecided about challenging Trump in 2024, successfully overcoming Trump’s attempt to sabotage his reelection bid might decide matters for him.
There’s another problem for Trump in attacking DeSantis to which he’s unaccustomed. Attack him for what, precisely? Normally Trump can find some heresy against populism in a Republican enemy’s record to dub them a traitor to the party, however insincere. (He often cites Liz Cheney’s history of staunch hawkishness as evidence that she’s unfit for office yet has a limitless ability to forgive the same flaw in toadies like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio.) But DeSantis has been extraordinarily careful as his national star has risen to choose the most ostentatious lib-owning policy at every turn, even going so far last week as to pull a stunt in someone else’s state for the sake of manufacturing a bit of credibility on immigration.
There’s no politician in the party keener to display his ruthlessness whenever an opportunity presents itself. What angle could Trump reasonably take in convincing MAGA voters to turn on a remorselessly grandstanding populist tryhard like DeSantis?
I can think of two possibilities, both of which would carry risks for the party.
One is abortion. For all his usual maximalist bravado, DeSantis is a shrewd politician with the good sense not to press his luck on the ultimate culture-war issue amid an apparent national backlash to the end of Roe. The 15-week ban he signed into law earlier this year is an uncharacteristically moderate compromise designed to prevent the issue from galvanizing Democratic turnout in Florida in November. Also uncharacteristically, DeSantis has ducked questions about imposing a stricter ban, making noises about doing more on abortion eventually but insisting that litigation over the 15-week ban should play out first. That’s his way of dodging the abortion debate until he’s safely reelected.
Trump could challenge him on that. Certainly, if DeSantis runs for president, he’ll be challenged on it by his primary opponent(s). But Trump accusing DeSantis of being weak on abortion would be a double whammy for the GOP, first by broadcasting to a national audience the party’s intentions (in the person of its leader) to impose a strict ban and secondarily by instigating Republican infighting over the issue in Florida, in the thick of an election. Trump himself has reportedly worried privately about a backlash to the Dobbs ruling and may not want to associate himself with an absolutist position on abortion before his next run for president, as if he might somehow scrub his fingerprints off of the three justices he appointed to the Supreme Court for the express purpose of overturning Roe.
And if Trump did launch an abortion attack on DeSantis, it’s unclear how much harm it would do. Pro-lifers would turn out for the governor anyway, fearing that Crist would help enact abortion on demand. And suburbanites who otherwise disdain DeSantis for his firebreathing populism might be cheered by a reminder that he’s more centrist on abortion (so far) than the reviled Donald Trump is.
Which leaves us with the nuclear option, Trump’s second potential line of attack on DeSantis. He could demand that the governor answer forthrightly whether he believes the 2020 election was stolen or not.
DeSantis has practiced strategic ambiguity on that question for nearly two years. He won’t say that the election was rigged, but he will campaign for election deniers. He won’t declare that the election should have been overturned, but he did call on voters to report suspected lawbreaking to their state legislators around the time Trump was trying to convince swing states to certify his electors as legitimate. He has been and hopes to forever remain half-pregnant on the subject, kooky enough to satisfy populist voters that he shares their suspicions yet not quite so kooky as to scare suburban moms who otherwise favor DeSantis because of, say, his COVID policies for schools.
Trump can demand that DeSantis take an election-denial “pregnancy test” at any time, though. Depending on whether the governor passes or fails, he might lose votes on the right or in the center. Even if DeSantis skates to reelection, forcing him to hedge on whether the election was rigged might help Trump retain the loyalty of MAGA voters who currently find themselves DeSantis-curious after his months of grandstanding about populist flashpoints. To the diehard cultists, preferring DeSantis to Crist despite his squishiness about the legitimacy of Biden’s win is easy. But preferring him to Trump would become much harder.
Trump proved earlier this year that he’s willing to exploit the subject of 2020 to damage a Republican candidate whom he regards as a liability. DeSantis is a supreme liability, the only member of the party with the stature to defeat Trump—if he’s safely reelected. I suspect many of the governor’s grassroots admirers would be irate at Trump if he thrust on DeSantis an inane litmus test involving 2020 while he’s fighting to defeat Crist, and would hold it against Trump going forward. (For a while, anyway.) Be that as it may, weakening DeSantis near-term to avert a landslide reelection victory makes strategic sense for Trump. And DeSantis will have this litmus test thrust upon him one way or another in time, whether before the gubernatorial election or on a debate stage in 2024. It might be healthy, frankly, for the GOP to confront the subject at a moment when it risks imperiling one of the party’s most successful governors, as that might force some who still cling stubbornly to the fantasy of a rigged election to finally abandon it in the name of protecting DeSantis.
What’s healthy for the party never has mattered to Trump, though. If he attacks before November, it’ll be because he’s concluded that it’s in his own interest to do so—and I think it is. I hope DeSantis is ready.