Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
the national interest

Why DeSantis Is on Track to Beat Trump

The main Trump alternative has learned the lessons of 2016.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

As they watch Donald Trump launch his third consecutive presidential campaign, many Republicans have been gripped by a sickening feeling of déjà vu. The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins believes the only plan is to sit around and hope Trump dies of natural causes. “Somebody is going to have to make the case that he cannot be the nominee in 2024 in the Republican Party,” urges John Podhoretz.

After the trauma of 2016, it is easy to see why Republicans fear a repeat performance. And it is certainly possible Trump’s rivals will either chicken out or once again devote all their energy to attacking one another until it’s too late to stop him. But the picture of the race I have in my head is very different. I see Ron DeSantis taking all the necessary steps to win the nomination. I think his chances of winning the nomination, while hardly certain, exceed Trump’s.

The Florida governor has spent the past year locking down the national Republican donor base and amassing a gigantic pool of money. Trump, by contrast, is reportedly strapped for funding.

In the past, Trump has managed to overcome a resource deficit by exploiting his command of the national media. But the conservative media is now overwhelmingly favorable to DeSantis. Trump retains some corners of support on the right, and very few conservatives will criticize him in any way that validates a critique from the center or the left.

But large segments of the conservative media are repeating the theme that Trump is played out, and essentially the entire conservative media apparatus is fawning over DeSantis. Even American Greatness — a publication named after a Trump slogan — runs stories with headlines such as “DeSantis Is the Night’s Big Winner” and “Only Ron DeSantis Can Win in 2024.”

Conservative media personalities are working directly with DeSantis payroll or vying for his approval and hand-fed scoops. The conservative media routinely runs stories that merely transmit DeSantis messaging to its audience unmediated. This Fox News story, for instance, consists almost entirely of a strong of quotes from his staffers:

Photo: Fox News

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rapid response director Christina Pushaw accused Politico of “media malpractice” on Thursday for publishing a misleading headline exaggerating the concern among local doctors over DeSantis’ medical “free speech” initiative.

… Pushaw, also emphasized that the story includes “about a half dozen” additional sources who expressed support for Ward….

“Media malpractice: Journactivist @Mdixon55 writes @politico headline that ‘Florida doctors’ are ‘worried’ about @dermatophyte speaking at Gov. DeSantis’ presser. Story quotes: - 1 doctor in Michigan - 9 anonymous sources against Ward - ‘about a half dozen’ sources supporting Ward,” she wrote on Twitter.

Pushaw slammed the headline as “intentionally misleading” in a subsequent tweet.

“The @Mdixon55 @politico headline is intentionally misleading. ‘Florida doctors’ are not a monolith. As the article itself admits, they have different opinions, which is good and exactly why we need protections for medical professionals’ freedom of speech,” she wrote.

An atmosphere of panic, or perhaps a desire to concentrate the minds of the non-Trump alternative, is causing Trump critics to inflate his current standing. A Bulwark poll finding that less than one-third of the party’s voters are committed to him — a horrible number for Trump — presents the finding like so: “A large majority of GOP voters is ready to move on from Donald Trump. But a devoted minority might not let them.”

“For all of Trump’s supposedly diminished political clout,” writes Coppins, “he remains a strong favorite in primary polls, where he leads his nearest rival by about 15 points.” For a candidate with the advantages of having served as president, a 15-point lead against a divided field — with a year to go before the first votes — is a very poor showing. At this point in the 2008 cycle, Hillary Clinton, who had never served as president, had a much bigger lead.

Unlike Trump’s 2016 opponents, who cycled through a series of unsuccessful attacks, DeSantis has also clearly prepared a winning contrast over Trump’s support for COVID-19 vaccines. Anti-vaccine sentiment has exploded on the right, and DeSantis has seized its leadership. “I think the blood-in-the-water knockout blow is the vaccines,” former conservative radio host John Ziegler told Matthew Lewis, “because Trump is so deluded into believing that the vaccines — because he wants to take credit for them — were the greatest thing ever. That’s where, with way more than 50 percent of the Republican base, DeSantis can strike a knockout blow.”

It is obviously perverse that Trump’s most impressive, life-saving accomplishment in office would be his biggest political vulnerability. But this is the reality of the party, which DeSantis has clearly grasped.

And the confusion over his intention may reflect the fact that Trump’s moderate critics have lost touch with the thinking of the base. They see Trump as a terrible person with dangerous authoritarian tendencies who nevertheless had positive accomplishments. DeSantis grasps that Trump’s character and authoritarianism are his greatest strengths within the party. He has mimicked Trump’s bullying, mockery, and disdain for democratic norms.

Trump’s 2016 rivals tried to use his character as a disqualification. But most Republican voters saw those traits as a positive, as evidence Trump would do whatever it took to win. This is why the most paranoid and authoritarian elements of the right, which flocked behind Trump in 2016 as a blunt-force weapon in their twilight struggle against the left, see DeSantis as the stronger strongman. Rod Dreher has touted DeSantis as the American analogue of his model Viktor Orbán. “Given the Left’s successful Gramscian ‘march through the institutions’ chokehold on all of the major institutions of civil society, that means using crass political power,” proposes the semi-fascist writer Josh Hammer. “It means, in other words, following the example of Florida Republicans and Disney.”

It may seem to some panicked Republicans at this moment that Trump is running unopposed because he has formally announced his candidacy before DeSantis or other rivals. But, generally speaking, an early announcement indicates weakness rather than strength. DeSantis can afford to delay his announcement until spring because he already has the media attention and elite support required to run a first-tier campaign.

Why DeSantis Is on Track to Beat Trump