Earlier this year, I wrote a profile of Ron DeSantis, a figure who seemed to point the way toward the party’s post-Trump future. That future, it seemed to me, could arrive much sooner than many people forecast at the time. “If you completely dismiss the possibility that DeSantis could pry the Republican base away from a president to whom it has formed a cultlike attachment,” I argued, “you may not be considering the potential effect of two more years of DeSantis being given the sort of coverage in the right-wing media that Pravda devoted to Joseph Stalin.”
That dynamic has been in effect at gale force since last night. The midterm election could not have set up a more favorable dynamic for the Florida governor. His state, which reported its vote early, delivered a huge victory for Republicans. And then the party proceeded to underperform almost everywhere else, leaving Florida as an outlier.
The Republican-aligned media, which has spent the past year trumpeting DeSantis as the party’s future, has devoted itself to this message almost exclusively since last night. Here is a typical example of the conservative media’s coverage of the elections:
The sentiment that Trump lost and DeSantis won is reflected across the spectrum of conservative media, encompassing those who disdain Trump as a liability but support him anyway and those who embrace him enthusiastically. The anti-anti-Trump National Review has headlines like “Tonight’s Emerging Narrative: DeSantis vs. the Rest of the Nation” and “Casey DeSantis Is the Greatest Political Mind in Modern History.” But even a Trumpist organ like American Greatness is running headlines such as “DeSantis Is the Night’s Big Winner.”
DeSantis has consolidated the support of the conservative movement by courting its most right-wing elements. He wooed insurrectionists, QAnon enthusiasts, and anti-vaxxers, the last of which is a constituency that has allowed him to run to the right of Trump, who is saddled with the liability of having created Operation Warp Speed. At the National Conservatism Conference, the party’s semi-fascist wing believed the American version of Viktor Orbán was not Trump but DeSantis.
The conventional wisdom all this time has held that Trump would simply bully DeSantis or anybody who stood in his path, just as he humiliated the likes of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. But this belief relies on the lazy assumption that whatever dynamic pertained in the last contested Republican primary would automatically continue. DeSantis has the advantage of a unified conservative-movement apparatus behind him, which Trump’s rotating cast of 2016 opponents never enjoyed.
You could see the new dynamic playing out already when Trump, returning to his familiar tools of innuendo and emasculation, told Fox News, “If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.” This attack was met with a chorus of boos from the right.
It might be the case that members of the party base are so loyal to Trump that they follow him regardless of what their favorite media personalities tell them. But conventional wisdom has grown far too sour on the power of the party Establishment. After 2012, political insiders believed the “party decides” thesis showed that voters follow cues from elites. Trump’s victory confounded that thesis, causing a reaction against it. But a more sober reading of the evidence suggests that party elites, while not all-powerful, still have considerable influence, especially when they coordinate.
The Republican Party has run several elite favorites with a mixed record of success in primaries. But the last time it unified behind a single candidate in the primary was in 2000, when the party coalesced around George W. Bush. DeSantis has put together Bush-like support from every corner of the movement: its donors, its activists, its media personalities.
Trump’s greatest advantage over DeSantis, and the one issue on which DeSantis has let Trump outflank him on the right, is the 2020 election. Trump fervently insists he won, while DeSantis (like most Republican officials) refuses to say anything. DeSantis, who appears almost exclusively in party-aligned media, has managed to avoid the topic. In a contested primary, Trump will make it hard for him to dodge the issue and will use it to paint DeSantis as a dissembler.
But I believe DeSantis will have a response. He can call Trump a loser, and if Trump insists the election was stolen, DeSantis will berate him for letting the election get stolen. DeSantis won’t denounce the coup attempt; he will denounce Trump for its lack of success. The promise he will make to the base will be to fight stronger and meaner than Trump and do whatever it takes to win power.
DeSantis will never have Trump’s skills as a television performer. But having the support of a unified party apparatus is a commanding advantage. His chance of beating Trump was always much higher than the skeptics allowed. Now we are seeing those advantages being put to their full use.