the national interest

What Ron DeSantis Can’t Fake

Trump’s legal problems reveal an organic connection to the base that his rival is trying but failing to match.

Protesters near Mar-a-Lago. Photo: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters near Mar-a-Lago. Photo: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

In March, as Donald Trump put out word that he was about to be arrested — by a “SOROS BACKED ANIMAL” for “A CRIME THAT DOESN’T EXIST” — Florida governor Ron DeSantis floated a subtle contrast. “Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just — I can’t speak to that,” he told reporters, alluding to Trump’s very extant crime.

To emphasize his own, porn-star-free marriage, DeSantis gave an interview to Piers Morgan in the New York Post. The Post, like most of the Murdoch media empire, has been operating almost indistinguishably from DeSantis’s proto-campaign for president. (“We see him as the future of the party,” a Fox News producer wrote in an email a few years ago.) This article fawned over DeSantis’s family, showing the devoted couple and their adorable children in a series of photos. And yet the weak point in this pitch turned out to be the candidate himself, whose attempted paeans to marital bliss were alarmingly devoid of anything resembling emotion.

“She’d let it be known that she was happy and that we were ready to go to the next level, so I don’t think it was a super-shock, but it was good to get that one in the win column, and I don’t think I could have done any better in life,” DeSantis recalled of their engagement. “Not just to have a friend — we have three wonderful kids, she’s a great mother, she’s a great First Lady. She’s really the whole package.”

Here was a friendly media organ trying desperately to gin up some Camelot mystique on his behalf, only for DeSantis to display less passion about his marriage than he musters for the subject of capital-gains taxation. DeSantis’s description of his wife (the total package, great at being First Lady, big win for Ron) sounds like a series of bullet points written for him by a staffer. You can see why DeSantis believed, in the abstract, this message would work in his favor. But you also wonder if it can compete on an emotional level with Trump’s hysterical denunciation of the endless “witch hunt.”

The DeSantis campaign has been an exercise in trying to wean the base off its Trump addiction and onto what the Republican elite regards as a healthier substitute. DeSantis has worked tirelessly to identify and replicate the components of Trump’s appeal, from his mannerisms to his policies. And while DeSantis’s synthetic version of Trumpism has won over plenty of converts, it has not managed to fully replace the touch and feel of the genuine article.

As the two leading Republican candidates have begun circling each other, they have adopted largely similar platforms: denouncing “wokeism”, questioning Joe Biden’s support for Ukraine, promising to crush their liberal enemies. The main substantive contrast to date has come on two issues. On vaccines, DeSantis has depicted the jabs as dangerous, refused to endorse giving them to kids, and opened an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by pharmaceutical firms. He has so successfully transformed Trump’s once-glimmering achievement Operation Warp Speed into a political liability that Trump not only has declined to take credit for a program that saved millions of lives but is now reminding his fans that DeSantis used to believe in the COVID vaccine himself.

The other issue contrast is DeSantis’s record of endorsing cutting and privatizing Medicare and Social Security. One of Trump’s innovations as a late-in-life political candidate was to recognize that the Republican base, much of which is getting on in years, does not share the conservative elite’s hatred for the New Deal. DeSantis has not yet even defended his positions, which he co-opted at the height of the tea-party wave.

So each candidate has one favorable issue to use against the other. But both of them seem to sense the race is not likely to be determined on the basis of issues. The biggest matter that currently divides them is Trump’s enormous legal jeopardy.

The former president is staring down four potential criminal indictments. The first, which provoked Trump’s claim he was about to be frog-marched into prison, concerns the Manhattan district attorney’s probe into his payoffs to a woman with whom he had an affair. This investigation employs a shaky legal theory and could well result in acquittal. The second is a Georgia investigation into Trump’s efforts to pressure state officials into discarding the election results and declaring him the winner. The remaining two potential charges are being investigated by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith. One concerns Trump taking, refusing to give back, and allegedly lying about and concealing classified documents (the legal case seems cut and dried). The other is for potentially inciting an insurrection on January 6, 2021 (the relevant law in this case is a little less clear since presidents whipping up crazy mobs is not something lawmakers thought they had to directly ban).

How Republicans respond to these legal charges, should any or all of them materialize, will likely determine the outcome of the race. DeSantis’s pitch to the base is that he can endorse more or less the same positions as Trump and attack all the same enemies but do so more effectively and without all of Trump’s baggage. He is a winner, and Trump is a loser. It doesn’t matter if they think Trump lost because Biden, antifa, and Dominion Voting Systems stole the election. DeSantis refuses even to say Trump legitimately lost. All he needs to get across is that Trump did lose in the undeniable sense that he no longer occupies the White House.

By this way of thinking, Trump’s criminal exposure only makes him even more of a loser. DeSantis will almost surely speak of Trump’s legal predicament in sympathetic terms. Liberal prosecutors and the “Biden regime” (as DeSantis calls it) are abusing their power and persecuting law-abiding citizens like poor Donald. That said, wouldn’t Republicans rather have a nominee who has avoided this misfortune? One with the freedom to run a traditional campaign and who will not be potentially confined to communicating to the public via collect calls from prison?

Trump’s message will work at the emotional level. They are after him because he is so dangerous to their power. The fact that DeSantis is not the target of a witch hunt does not make him more clever or more innocent. It shows he is “controlled opposition,” as Donald Jr. put it. Trump has linked DeSantis to Republicans like Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush — sellouts in the eyes of his base. The fact that DeSantis will be able to stump the Midwest without an electronic-monitoring bracelet shows he is less dangerous to the Establishment, not more.

Trump’s theory of the case relies on a series of paranoid fantasies, but that does not necessarily make it any less viable in a Republican primary than DeSantis’s more straightforward rationale. Trump has repeatedly used his own misconduct to bind his supporters more tightly to his cause.

DeSantis is obviously aware of the dynamic, and he has diligently worked to make the libs hate him as much as they hate Trump. He has even conjured his own legal trouble, having overstepped his authority in Florida repeatedly (allegedly misappropriating funds to lure migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, illegally firing a prosecutor, violating the First Amendment with his Stop WOKE law). You can almost imagine a future DeSantis holding a press conference outside a liquor store he just robbed in a bid to get his own mug shot.

All this painstaking work has generated a real upsurge in support for the Florida governor. And yet he may discover that manufactured passion never feels quite like the real thing.

What Ron DeSantis Can’t Fake