The Republican race
James Astill James Astill | 26 May, 2023
Ron DeSantis at a bill signing event in Florida, May 16, 2023 (Photo: AP)
AFTER A BRIEF and undistinguished spell in the House of Representatives, Ron DeSantis came to America’s public attention when he released a political ad in 2018 so sycophantic towards Donald Trump it was unclear whether he was being serious. DeSantis appeared in the campaign ad building a wall (geddit?) out of toy bricks with his infant daughter and teaching his son how to read Trump’s “Make America great slogan”. The ad, which he cut for Florida’s Republican gubernatorial primary contest, described him as a “pit bull Trump defender”.
The national media ridiculed him. But, with a warm endorsement from Trump, DeSantis went on to bag the Republican ticket and Florida’s governorship. It is one of the most influential offices in the country, because of the state’s size, wealth and importance in deciding presidential elections. And the sometime Trump protégé has milked it for all he is worth. This week, he entered the Republican primary field for next year’s presidential election as the second strongest candidate.
According to punters on Predictit, a political betting website, Trump, the strongest Republican, has a 32 per cent chance of regaining the White House. They give DeSantis a 28 per cent chance. (President Joe Biden is on 44 per cent.)
That is, to be candid, more than DeSantis deserves. Beyond the prominence of his perch in Tallahassee, the governor owes his billing in the Republican race chiefly to a combination of Covid-19 and—again, but in a different way—Trump.
The coronavirus gave him an opportunity to step out of Trump’s shadow. In the early months of the pandemic, in early 2020, the-then Republican president reluctantly promoted the public-health guidelines his advisors foisted on him, despite growing evidence that many of his supporters considered them an assault on liberty. Seeing his chance, DeSantis furiously denounced the measures. He tried to ban Florida’s local governments from imposing mask-wearing. He ridiculed the White House’s chief public-health advisor, Anthony Fauci. It made him an overnight star with Trump’s voters, which encouraged him to launch a wholesale shift to the right.
Early in his term, he had tried to govern Florida from the centre, pushing environmental policy and other sensible measures. Abandoning all that, he entered America’s culture wars with abandon, railing against immigrants and “woke” liberal corporations, including Disney, one of his state’s biggest investors. DeSantis’ popularity on the right is almost entirely down to this flatulent left-baiting and Talk Radio-style tub-thumping. The 44-year-old governor has no significant policy idea or achievement to boast of.
His opportunism has not stopped big-shot conservative donors from backing him heavily. Quite to the contrary. Privately disgusted with Trump, they identified DeSantis early on as their likeliest alternative to the former president. Reassuringly to the moneymen, DeSantis is a much more cerebral and serious individual than he lets on in public. He has degrees from Harvard and Yale. He served in Iraq with the Navy SEALs. He is known to his aides in Tallahassee as a secret wonk, who loves studying complicated policy briefs in private. And yet, irresistibly to the donors, he also seemed able to communicate with the Yahoos of Trump’s base—to “out Trump Trump”, some said hopefully.
Conservative donors poured over a quarter of a billion dollars into DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign late last year— which ended with him winning re-election by a preposterous 19-point margin. That triumph was his zenith. It spurred Trump, sensing a formidable new challenger, to launch his own presidential campaign early, in a bungled and hurried fashion, directly after the mid-terms. At that time, some polls suggested DeSantis—or “DeSanctimonious”, as Trump, entering destruct mode, called him—would beat the former president in a two-horse primary race.
As DeSantis began jetting around Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states, prepping for a presidential run, the donors unleashed another $110 million into his war-chest. That was roughly twice as much as Trump, though officially on the campaign trail, raised in the first quarter of this year.
But if DeSantis’ star billing is arguably more than he deserves, it is probably still not enough to stop Trump. DeSantis’ rise signifies above all the Trumpification of the American right. He is a conservative intellectual, with erstwhile small-government beliefs, who has felt compelled to rebrand himself as a thuggish reactionary. And much as Republican voters have appreciated the effort, there is growing evidence to suggest that, given a choice of Trump or a pretend Trump, they will plump for the real thing.
Privately disgusted with Trump, the conservative donors identified Ron DeSantis early on as their likeliest alternative to the former president. Reassuringly to the moneymen, DeSantis is a much more cerebral and serious individual than he lets on in public. He has degrees from Harvard and Yale. He served in Iraq with the Navy Seals. He is known to his aides in Tallahassee as a secret wonk, who loves studying complicated policy briefs in private. And yet, irresistibly to the donors, he also seemed able to communicate with the Yahoos of Trump’s base
Where Trump originally looked to have jumped into the primary race too early, DeSantis now seems to have left it too late. His months of phoney campaigning have received intense press coverage which he, still officially in listening mode, failed to shape to his advantage. Unenthusiastic press accounts of his wooden political skills have been mounting with his war-chest. He is an awkward campaigner. He looks unhappy in a crowd and ill at ease when speaking to strangers. His fulminating against lefties has started to sound rehearsed (as indeed it is).
A recent statement in which the governor sought to sound a Trumpian isolationist note by dismissing the war in Ukraine as a mere “territorial dispute” was condemned by the Republican leadership. He is no longer within touching of Trump in head-to-head polling. Recent surveys suggest around 55 per cent of Republican primary voters support the former president. Only 21 per cent back DeSantis. Fully 64 per cent of Republican voters say they want Trump to run again. Though it is early days and the former president, now embroiled in several legal suits, could yet be denied his third tilt at the White House (or fourth, if you include a brief run in 2000), it does not seem likely. Expect Predictit’s odds to shift against DeSantis; the smart money is on Trump.
It is worth underlining how extraordinary this is. When Trump ran for president in 2016, it was as a popular reality-TV star and unknown political quantity. He is back on the trail as one of the most manifestly incapable and unfit public figures in American history. His administration was a clown-show, as the many lurid memoirs published by its senior members have revealed.
One by Mark Esper, the last of Trump’s defence secretaries, describes the president’s obsessive concern with the appearance of America’s warships (he wanted them to look more like yachts). Another by John Bolton, a former National Security Advisor, details Trump’s efforts to flatter and coerce foreign leaders, including Xi Jinping, into doing him political favours. And then came Trump’s black-is-white, up-is-down effort to deny that he had lost the 2020 election, culminating in the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, by a mob of his sadly indoctrinated supporters.
That was one of the most egregious events in American politics. Since then, Trump has been under investigation for his role in instigating the violence. His company has been found guilty of tax fraud. He was this month found guilty of sexual assault in a civil suit brought by one of the many women who claim to have been attacked by him. How is it possible that Republicans might once again nominate him for president?
The answer is pretty simple. Many do not believe he was culpable of all or any of the above. Most conservative media outlets say he is spotless. And the fact that the hated mainstream media says he is not is enough to make many Republican voters take the opposite view. The key to Trump’s hold on his supporters has always been his ability to define himself against their biggest bugbears—job-stealing immigrants, preachy liberals, racial justice protesters, the media. With such a firm grip on Republican emotions, he has found it remarkably easy to establish an alternative set of conservative facts among his admirers. Most Republican voters believe the 2020 election was stolen. Most believe Joe Biden is senile and that Trump is the victim of multiple establishment witch-hunts.
ALL THIS MAKES Trump a nightmare opponent for DeSantis and another half-a-dozen somewhat serious Republican primary contenders. Attacking Trump—even to the extent of acknowledging that he lost the last election— would risk alienating roughly half the Republican electorate. That would put any candidate out of contention—unless he could unite the other half behind him. And the increasingly crowded Republican field will make that extremely hard. As well as DeSantis, this week it was swollen by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, an optimistic Reaganite throwback, who is popular with the party’s leaders in Washington.
The key to Donald Trump’s hold on his supporters has always been his ability to define himself against their biggest bugbears—job-stealing immigrants, preachy liberals, racial justice protesters, the media. With such a firm grip on Republican emotions, he has found it remarkably easy to establish an alternative set of conservative facts among his admirers. Most Republican voters believe the 2020 election was stolen
Trump has other advantages, too. One concerns the design of the Republican primaries. Unlike Democratic ones, which use a system of proportional representation, Republican primaries are winner-takes-all affairs. This means a candidate able to command a plurality of votes can clean up, state by state, even if he or she never comes close to winning a majority in any of them. This was how Trump won in 2016 when he had around a third of the Republican vote. It is hard to see him losing with around half of it, his current share.
Especially as the winner-takes-all system hands a particular advantage to the candidate who starts out strongest. After just a handful of state victories, he can build up such an impressive lead as to look unbeatable. Trump looks by far the likeliest candidate to secure that early momentum—however his legal troubles pan out between now and March 2024, when the voting will begin in Iowa.
To be sure, he may self-destruct by some other means. But the former president has assembled a campaign team that may make that less likely. In 2016, he won the presidency with a shambolic team dominated by his overweening son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and largely directed by Trump’s own instincts. In 2020, his team was riven by infighting, churn and reports of lavish spending by some of its senior members. This time round he appears to be spending the millions he has raked in from his supporters relatively carefully. Prominent in his line-up is a respected Republican operator called Susie Wiles—who ran DeSantis’ victorious gubernatorial campaign in 2018.
The Democrats are watching this unfolding circus with mixed emotions. On the one hand, they view the prospect of Trump’s return to front-rank politics with unalloyed horror. Everyone outside America’s rightwing bubble does. On the other hand, they regard Trump as an easily beatable Republican nominee. And Biden, who is expected to win the Democratic ticket essentially unopposed, needs such an opponent.
The 80-year-old president is considered in Washington to have played a weak hand with commendable deftness. His presidency was beset from the start by woeful economic circumstances, a wafer-thin Democratic majority in Congress, a major European war, and the extreme partisanship with which all presidents must now contend. While he can do little about the economic cycle, his administration has succeeded in passing several momentous climate-related laws and maintaining a common Western front against Russian aggression. Yet, American voters, battered by persistent inflation, are not minded to be generous. Only 40 per cent approve of Biden. Winning re-election from such a low base will be hard.
Even if the president were more popular, no one should count on him winning a second face-off with Trump. The strange reality of American politics is that the country’s feuding parties have rarely been so polarised and at the same time so evenly matched. Biden’s victory in 2020 was determined by a combined winning margin of less than 45,000 votes in three states—Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. Trump won in 2016 by less than 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Win the Republican or Democratic ticket, in other words, and you have a more than fighting chance of winning the presidency, almost whatever the merits of your candidacy. Trump looks extremely likely to win the Republican ticket. He could win back the presidency.
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