The 2024 Republican primary has hardly begun, but Donald Trump already appears to be on a glide path to the nomination. There are unmistakable echoes of 2016. The so-called conservative movement’s anointed one, dubbed “DeFuture” in the Murdoch-owned New York Post just months ago, looks to be imploding after being puffed up by months of breathless praise.
In the online pundit wars, those favorable to Ron DeSantis, known endearingly as “DeSimps,” have complained about Trump’s incivility and lack of True Conservative™ credentials, as evinced by his bullying of “Meatball Ron” and the Stormy Daniels tabloid fodder that has been dredged up by New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s witch hunt.
It is amusing to see self-described “populists” act surprised at Trump’s behavior. They should know better than to moralize about “decency,” or the rules of political engagement they have righteously shredded—at least before they developed the ambition to challenge Trump.
In any event, these well-worn attacks on Trump’s character have not made an impact. To the contrary, Trump is rising again, and it is Florida’s governor who is deflating.
The turning point came when DeSantis bungled his response to Bragg’s case, which he initially opted to ignore, before taking a gratuitous shot at Trump over his rumored adultery. Here was a chance to set aside personal feuding and demonstrate the statesmanlike qualities so often ascribed to DeSantis by his backers, but instead, DeSantis was petty and reluctant to condemn an appalling weaponization of the legal system.
In some extremely online circles, DeSantis was praised for distancing himself from Trump’s “drama.” Meanwhile, in the real world, his flippant reaction exposed a disconnect with the GOP base, which was electrified by an unprecedented and unjust political attack from “the swamp.” The base was looking for vigorous, unyielding condemnation, but instead what they heard from DeSantis was weak, caveated, boilerplate stuff about law and order.
DeSantis continued to unravel with his vacillations on Ukraine. Initially, he appeared to chase Trump’s coattails by taking an noninterventionist position. This appeared to be an opportunistic shift, given DeSantis’ past comments about Russia and his generally hawkish record. Then, days after calling the Ukraine war a “territorial dispute,” DeSantis told Piers Morgan that his latest comments were “mischaracterized.” Sounding more like John McCain than Trump, he described Russia as a “gas station with nukes” and called Putin a “war criminal,” which one could charitably interpret as a call for regime change, unless DeSantis is barking without any intention to bite.
Then, DeSantis flipped yet again, once more advocating a hands-off role in Ukraine in an interview with Newsmax.
Say what you will about Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, but they have consistent neoconservative viewpoints. DeSantis’ wavering does little to defuse suspicions that he is a “Trojan Horse” for a political and “intellectual” establishment looking to co-opt “Trumpism” for its own ends. The coy “running but not running” tone from DeSantis and his surrogates on Fox News and elsewhere in the conservative media is grating. They have tiptoed around Trump’s base for months while slyly pumping DeSantis under a superficial and patronizing guise of neutrality.
Like many of the conservative “intellectuals” and pundits who rode Trump’s coattails after 2016 only to stab him in the back later, DeSantis, the great hope and shiny object of “Trumpism without Trump,” owes his success to Trump and the jolt he brought to right-wing politics (not incidentally, these “intellectuals” are embarrassed by the base and reject the notion that the 2020 election was stolen.)
The proposition that “Trumpism” could exist without its progenitor appears to have failed. With DeSantis’ collapse, precipitated by the political earthquake of Trump’s looming indictment, Trumpism is pruned to its origins: it is not a plaything of florid “intellectuals” with their own agendas, but a cult of personality, the creation of one man.
Any attempt to wrest control of the movement from Trump was always going to be brutal, but at the rate things are going, DeSantis risks political annihilation.
DeSantis and his network simply got overconfident. They pushed on voters, and maybe came to believe themselves, a messianic narrative about the governor as Trump perfected, “Trump without the baggage” or “Trump without the drama” (as if entrenched political interests could be subdued without drama) that was out of proportion to reality. But under pressure from Trump and the national spotlight, “DeSanctimonious” suddenly seems to fit like a glove, and DeSantis looks like another empty suit, a Trump imitator with neither conviction, nor his model’s keen political instincts.