Trump Thinks DeSantis Owes Him Everything

Trump made DeSantis. Can he break him if he chooses? Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Like the crime boss he so often resembles, Donald Trump has a quasi-feudal understanding of the loyalty he commands from his vassals — the people he lifted from obscurity into the dazzling sunlight of his reflected glory. When said vassals don’t show him the proper gratitude, it infuriates him. In the case of some treasonous small fry like Michael Cohen or Anthony Scaramucci, you get the sense that Trump doesn’t expend a lot of rage about them; after all, everyone knows they would be nobody losers without their identification with the 45th president.

But for Republican politicians whom Trump believes he has uniquely blessed, there is a definite expectation of public gratitude and obeisance. This is the most evident reason for the “rivalry” (or even “feud“) said to exist between Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Insiders repeatedly tell us Trump has expressed irritation about his governor’s failure to give him proper praise and, worse yet, to decline opportunities to publicly rule out any challenge to a Trump comeback should that be in the cards for 2024. These are the “magic words” that other possible 2024 candidates, such as Nikki Haley and Kristi Noem, have already uttered. DeSantis’s real and imagined debts to Trump explain the growing intensity of this resentment.

In considering how enmity between the two men may increase, it’s useful to compare DeSantis’s situation to that of his Georgia counterpart, Brian Kemp. Like DeSantis, Kemp benefited greatly from a timely Trump endorsement in a 2018 gubernatorial primary (though in Kemp’s case it came during a Republican runoff campaign against an opponent he might have beaten anyway, while DeSantis got an early nod toward the end of 2017 that gave him a huge boost against the dominant frontrunner, Adam Putnam). Kemp’s first big rift with Trump came toward the end of 2019 when he conspicuously rejected the then-president’s instructions for filling an open U.S. Senate seat. More famously, Kemp earned himself a Trump-backed 2022 primary challenge by supporting Georgia secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the Peach State.

It has been all but forgotten that another incident marked the deterioration of the Trump-Kemp relationship between the Senate snub and the November 2020 “betrayal”: a very public April 2020 rebuke of the Georgia governor by the president for reopening key Georgia businesses before getting the high sign from the White House. You got the sense Trump felt Kemp had earned a very short leash and was being reminded to heel. But it was also an indication that Trump was quite (and quite properly) nervous about perceptions of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and counted on followers like Kemp to toe the line strictly.

It’s a lesson DeSantis may want to take to heart, insofar as he is clearly establishing an independent identity as a hard-liner against any public policies that may sacrifice getting and spending (and the God-given freedom to infect your neighbors!) to public-health considerations. Trump is solicitous of all his COVID-19 activities, including vaccines and his on-again, off-again interest in business closures. So even the most indirect disrespect from DeSantis on this subject is going to be deeply resented at Mar-a-Lago.

But you have to figure it’s the sheer gall of DeSantis’s presumption in imagining a national political trajectory for himself — one that isn’t dependent on Trump — that really bugs the former president. Already the Florida governor might have forfeited any inheritance of the MAGA movement if Trump does retire. And if he doesn’t, DeSantis will eventually be made to tug his forelock and submit to Trump’s leadership or risk being squashed like a bug in 2024 (it being too late for Trump to recruit a 2022 challenger, as he did in Georgia). The former president didn’t seem to mind being underrated and openly despised by 2016 rivals like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham; perhaps he even anticipated the pleasure of watching them crawl into his tent once he had vanquished them. But he likely views DeSantis as just another satrap like Cohen or Scaramucci who has now gotten far too big for his britches. The wrath to come could make the vengeance meted out to Kemp look mild by comparison.

Trump Thinks DeSantis Owes Him Everything