Opinion | Did No One Tell Ron DeSantis That Trump Was Running, Too?

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Despite the early enthusiasm for his policies and political persona in various corners of the conservative media, it was easy to see from the start that Ron DeSantis would not — and clearly does not — have the juice to defeat or supplant Donald Trump in a Republican presidential primary.

Part of this was the Florida governor’s soft skills or rather lack thereof. He is not a people person. He does not excel at the task of retail politics. He is not, to put it gently, strong on the stump, and he has a bad habit of speaking in the esoteric and jargon-filled language of online conservatives.

Consider his first major performance in Iowa last year, in front of an audience of likely Republican caucusgoers. “We say very clearly in the state of Florida that we will fight the woke in the Legislature,” DeSantis said, as he tried to rouse the crowd to applause. “We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in the businesses, we will never ever surrender to the woke mob. Our state is where woke goes to die.”

There is a relatively small group of people for whom this is a resonant message. For everyone else, it is basically static. It doesn’t speak to the animating concerns of the blue-collar voters who will make or break a campaign in the Republican primary. DeSantis’s inability to craft a compelling message, however, may not have been fatal to his campaign if he had been able to distance or distinguish himself from Trump in any meaningful way. The opportunities were there. DeSantis could have used the multiple criminal indictments against the former president to make the practical case that Trump would not win if he was in jail.

But DeSantis chose to run as Trump’s heir apparent and treated him as though he wasn’t actually in the race. He could not turn on the former president without undermining the premise of his own campaign. And so DeSantis sat silent or even defended Trump against legal accountability for his actions in office. “Washington, D.C. is a ‘swamp’ and it is unfair to have to stand trial before a jury that is reflective of the swamp mentality,” DeSantis wrote on the website formerly known as Twitter after Trump was charged with four felony counts by a federal grand jury in connection with his effort to overturn the 2020 election. “One of the reasons our country is in decline is the politicization of the rule of law. No more excuses — I will end the weaponization of the federal government.”

To the extent that DeSantis tried to differentiate himself from the former president, it was by running to Trump’s political right. The Florida governor in this view would be a more competent Trump — the Trump who gets things done. It was a good pitch for the conservative intellectuals who wanted to support a Trump-like figure without embracing Trump himself. But it was a terrible pitch to the Republican electorate, which did not nominate Trump in 2016 — or turn out in 2020 — because of Trump’s ability to clear a checklist of agenda items.

And the things DeSantis emphasized — especially his record as governor during the Covid emergency — were just not relevant to the current state of politics and could not compete with a former president whose primary message was — and is — a potent, highly emotional promise to get “retribution” on his enemies, real and imagined, and to win this same “retribution” on behalf of his followers.

DeSantis also refused to contest Trump’s election denialism, a choice that almost guaranteed his failure in the primaries. Can you seriously position yourself as a winner and Trump as a loser when the consensus of the voters you are seeking to win is that Trump didn’t lose?

The fact is that the only way DeSantis — or any other Republican candidate — could have prevailed is if Trump were not in the race to begin with. If Republicans had joined with Democrats to bar the former president from future office after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, they might have been able to do just that, and DeSantis might have had a path to the presidential nomination. As it stands, he’s just the latest Republican presidential candidate to bend the knee to Trump after a ritual humiliation at the polls. Nikki Haley will probably be next.

If there is anything else to take away from DeSantis’s failure to launch — besides the apparent truism that what plays in Florida doesn’t necessarily play anywhere else — it’s that nearly a decade after Trump announced his first real campaign for the White House, elite conservatives still don’t understand the source of his appeal or his connection to Republican voters, who were itching to vote for him as far back as the 2012 Republican presidential primary campaign. Trump, in some of the earliest trial heats in that race, led Romney among Republican voters.

Or rather, the two groups ultimately want two different things. Elite conservatives want a president who will reconfigure and consolidate the executive branch to their advantage and cement conservative influence on the federal judiciary and in the federal bureaucracy.

Republican voters, on the other hand, want a fighting champion. They want a spectacle. DeSantis promised a Trump presidency without the drama, but Republican voters want the drama. The chaos isn’t a distraction; it’s the point.

Republican voters like it that Trump is disruptive and unruly. They like it that he alienates and polarizes Democrats and liberals against him. They like it that he crashes through the American political system, indifferent to either the damage or the consequences. Republican voters don’t like Trump despite his failings; they like Trump because he is Trump. And there’s nothing any other Republican can do about it.

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John Doe

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