Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
the national interest

What I Got Wrong About DeSantis vs. Trump

The personality cult is even cultier than I’d thought.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The conservative pundit Mollie Hemingway recently shared a letter from a listener of her podcast explaining why Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign is faltering. The missive, which she called “a particularly good and straightforward analysis,” attributed DeSantis’s struggles to his decision to disparage Donald Trump:

Keep in mind that supporting Trump came with costs never associated with supporting Bush, McCain, or Romney. Trump supporters lost friendships. Brothers and sisters stopped talking to each other. There are parents whose children disowned them, and grandparents who will never see their grandchildren again because they stood by Donald Trump.

Every Republican has these stories. Every Republican knows Republicans who have these stories.

Attacking Trump was effectively telling every Republican who made real sacrifices that they were stupid for doing so because Trump was just a poser.

Despite its odd premise that DeSantis somehow could have defeated Trump without criticizing him directly, the letter manages to capture the elemental bond that has formed between the Republican base and the candidate it seems determined to nominate as president for the third straight election. Trump’s followers have subsumed their identities to him in a way they never have on behalf of a previous leader.

Last winter, I considered DeSantis the favorite to win the primary. Today that prospect seems remote. His supporters and critics alike attribute the collapse of the DeSantis campaign to a combination of organizational and tactical errors and the inherent limitations of his unsettling speaking style and overall misanthropy.

It would be flattering to my prognostication to blame the failures on small things like DeSantis’s messaging choices. But I think the truth is that I made the larger error of analyzing the primary as though it were a normal party nomination, when in reality DeSantis is attempting the far more difficult task of displacing the leader of a personality cult.

In 2016, Trump dumbfounded prognosticators, who assumed the conservative base was motivated by conservatism, by adopting a series of heterodox positions without suffering the customary penalty. The apparent lesson was that Republican voters cared more about confrontational affect than policy substance. DeSantis, absorbing this conclusion, served up relentless hostility against the left, which he promised to humiliate and destroy, using authoritarian methods if necessary.

But it wasn’t mere pugilism that Republican voters turned out to crave. Trump had redefined the party’s identity around loyalty to himself. That loyalty could mean posing as a champion of gay rights and posing with a Pride flag, as Trump did just three years ago, praising China’s response to COVID, flattering Democratic leaders, or any other act that would normally be evidence of betrayal. Trump has regularly described his own appointees, whom he once lavished with praise, as pathetic losers. His fans have grown accustomed to altering their beliefs about everything and anything to conform to their leader’s ever-changing line.

Evidence of the personality cult is ubiquitous. Mike Pence is now disapproved of by most evangelical voters, his refusal to cooperate with Trump’s coup attempt outweighing an otherwise untarnished record of devotion to Trump and right-wing ideology.

A source familiar with the DeSantis campaign told the New Yorker’s Ben Wallace-Wells that pollsters found 70 percent of Republican voters would agree that COVID lockdowns were awful, but if told that Trump had authorized the lockdowns, 70 percent would approve of them. (It would be illuminating if a pollster tested “shooting someone on Fifth Avenue” versus “Trump shooting someone on Fifth Avenue.”)

DeSantis tried to make the case that it was self-defeating for the party to subject its values entirely to the whims of a single mercurial figure. “If you’re not rooted in principle,” he warned, “if all we are is listless vessels that are just supposed to follow whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning, that’s not going to be a durable movement.” Even this indirect criticism generated blowback, and pretty soon his allies were scrambling to clarify his remarks. Merely alluding to the personality cult was heresy.

The Trump cult is hardly a new development, of course. How did I miss it? My error was to assume the cult could be manufactured by political elites. George W. Bush enjoyed a robust cult following in his heyday. Conservative media figures routinely described him in terms that bordered on the religious, or pornographic, or both — he was the swaggering, clear-eyed Good Man sent by God to lead America through a decisive struggle.

The most striking aspect of the Bush cult phenomenon was how quickly it disappeared. In 2006, after the Iraq War and his failed attempt to privatize Social Security had tanked his popularity, Republican elites quickly and ruthlessly cut Bush loose. Conservative media suddenly sent out the message that Bush was not the true son of Reagan after all, but a heretic who had betrayed conservatism. Some combination of right-wing elites — Rupert Murdoch, the Republican groups convened by Grover Norquist — seemed to have its finger on the button that could turn the cult on or off.

What I took away from the experience was the belief that Republican loyalty to a single leader could be transferred quickly and easily from one object of worship to another. But what may have been true before 2016 seems to no longer hold. Murdoch spent a year overtly trying to build a DeSantis cult through his media empire, only to find the button had stopped working.

Trump supporters have graduated from engaging in displays of obeisance to performing them overtly. Here is Benny Johnson displaying a large, visible tattoo of Trump’s mug shot on his upper arm; here is Trump spokesman Steven Cheung asserting that “Trump is always right,” an echo of Orwell’s Animal Farm (“Comrade Napoleon is always right”).

Obviously this behavior does not represent the entirety, or even the majority, of the Republican electorate. But they are extreme manifestations of what has become its prevailing belief system.

Defeating Trump in a contest determining who can most effectively advance ideological or party goals is difficult but attainable. It is obviously impossible to defeat Trump in a contest of who is most loyal to Trump.

What I Got Wrong About DeSantis vs. Trump