Nationalist Big Tent or 90s Redux?

Everyone figured that the Republican primary fight would feature Florida Governor Ron DeSantis taking on frontrunner Donald Trump, but DeSantis appears to be sinking fast. His lack of charm is pretty evident in personal interactions with voters, and his campaign messaging is odd and inconsistent.

He has lately tried to regain some lost ground through aggressive attacks on Trump from the right, but this messaging falls flat. That said, his floundering campaign provides some broader lessons for those on the right.

A Successful Agenda Focused on Freedom and Family

DeSantis secured his original gubernatorial victory by aligning closely with Trump. Once governor, he has made a well-justified name for himself by acting with precision, effectiveness, and moral courage.

During Covid, he opposed aggressive mandates and extended lockdowns, as well as mandatory masking.  Championing individual autonomy, he argued that government should be sharing information, not shutting down schools, declaring who can run a business, or how individuals should take personal risks.

On the issue of transgenderism and wokeness, he has generally staked out equally solid terrain. Namely, he has not attacked the right of adults to be gay or trans or whatever, but he has stood up for the right of parents to keep these sexual ideologies from being foisted on their kids without their knowledge or consent. And he has also stood against permitting life-changing and irreversible sex-change surgeries for children.

His well-publicized fight with Disney arose from its opposition to a law that prohibited teachers from proselytizing about homosexuality and other sexual practices to young students. Mislabeled “don’t say gay,” its restrictions are perfectly reasonable to everyone but child molesters and the far left.

These laws proved necessary because the gay rights movement turned away from its older campaign focused on the right to be left alone (and more controversially, to marry) into a new fight for a permanent social revolution, propagandizing children into getting sex-change operations, and imposing “acceptance” upon those who disagree under penalty of law. As this movement has become more aggressive and invasive of individual autonomy, there has been an understandable backlash and decline in public support.

Standing alone, this record would provide a good foundation for a campaign, as it shows vision, courage, and capability. But his latest attempts to leverage his record to paint Trump as a liberal—including this strange advertisement—have a hint of the sexual puritanism that fueled the 1990s culture wars.

This will prove to be a dead end, which will face an even less receptive audience than it did the first time around.

Nationalism vs. Re-Fighting the Sexual Revolution

Back in the 1990s, conservative activists’ focus was not on issues of national identity, but on cutting taxes, supporting the military-industrial complex, and re-fighting the already-lost battles of the 1960s sexual revolution.

Together, it was not a particularly successful campaign—remember Clinton won twice—and redeploying such an approach today seems especially out-of-touch with the national mood. If by some miracle DeSantis won the nomination, his recent stances seem guaranteed to make things more difficult for him in a general election.

For a long time, Republican election strategists counseled that the party needed to get with the times and embrace social liberalism and fiscal conservatism. This also never worked, either in primaries or general elections. Dole, McCain, Romney, and other moderate types all went down in flames.

Rather than subtracting half of the Republican coalition, as the consultants advised, Trump simply changed the conversation. America First was a nationalist platform, which rested on the three legs of foreign policy restraint, immigration restriction, and nationalist economic policies, such as tariffs. This differed from both parties, each of which advanced a flavor of cosmopolitan globalism.

Unlike legacy Republicans, he no longer aimed to reduce social security or other popular programs under the rubric of fiscal conservatism. By emphasizing issues of national identity, Trump deemphasized the campaign for moral purity, which was popular with evangelicals, but few others. Thus, the nationalist approach was a mirror image of the old advice: it embraced a kind of social conservatism, coupled with economic populism.

This graph of 2016 voters shows that the socially conservative and economically moderate group (the upper left quadrant) was the most in play, while the socially liberal and fiscal conservatives of Republican strategists’ dreams represent only a tiny cohort (the lower right quadrant).

In light of these realities, DeSantis’ best strategy, both in the primary and in general, is to pursue Trumpism without Trump. After all, Trump’s nationalist policies are popular, there is a constituency for them, and they expanded the Republican coalition.

Trump’s personal style, by contrast, is polarizing. It probably attracts as many voters as it repels. And his appointments of incompetents and disloyal snakes, along with his general inability to translate good ideas into results, remain legitimate concerns even among those who support him.

While Trump has (understandably) taken it as a major personal affront that his former protégé DeSantis would run against him, he and his surrogates have made this worse with their extreme hostility to Trump, who remains popular.

DeSantis could have said, sympathetically, that Trump attracts the wrong kinds of attention and encourages extreme resistance by his opponents. Exhibit A would be the FBI’s and Deep State’s long-running vendetta against him and the various machinations to “fortify” the 2020 election.

DeSantis could have said none of it was fair, that he voted for Trump two times, but, alas, we have to live in the real world, and the country is more important than any one man. Instead, he seems to be trying to forget what happened to Trump in 2020 and instead focus on resurrecting the purity-based social conservatism of the 1990s, for which there is little appetite among voters.

We do not have to like all of these social changes. But, in the words of Russell Kirk, politics is the “art of the possible.” Living in a revolutionary age, the terrain is always changing. At any given moment, the Left must be opposed where it is presently advancing, even if that means tactically ceding territory that they conquered 10 or 20 years ago.

We don’t have to affirm or celebrate these changes, but we can acknowledge that many of these issues are no longer viable political debates any more than bimetallism.

Does Any of This Matter if Elections Are Rigged?

Setting aside the question of forging a majority coalition, there is another dilemma. Trump did not prevail in 2020, in part, because the election was rigged. His opponents admit it. Neither Trump nor DeSantis have a good answer for this problem.

For Trump, the injustice of 2020 is a central part of his schtick. He argues that he and the voters were robbed of a win in 2020, and that he deserves it this time as a matter of justice. Unfortunately, he does not have a coherent strategy to deal with the election machinations that brought about the 2020 result, other than to say, “We need to win even bigger this time.” This sounds like wishful thinking, at best.

DeSantis has said he will be ballot harvesting en masse if he somehow wins the nomination. While this is a start, why isn’t there a strategy to get absentee, mail-in, and other nontraditional forms of voting banned in every single jurisdiction Republicans have influence?If Democrats stole one election, they can steal another. A good messaging strategy that would get more votes and win under ordinary circumstances will not prevail in an unfair process, even against the decrepit and unpopular Joe Biden.

If any electoral success is possible, the winner must walk and chew gum at the same time. First, he must build a majority coalition that appeals both to legacy Republicans and to independent voters, who tend to be socially conservative and economically populist. Second, the winner must find some way to outsmart election-rigging, which proved decisive in 2020 and has not disappeared during the interim.

Unfortunately, neither Trump nor DeSantis appears presently to have a good plan to do that.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: THE VILLAGES, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 03: President Donald Trump speaks with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during an event at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center on October 03, 2019 in The Villages, Florida. President Trump spoke at the event about Medicare, and signed an executive order calling for further privatizing of it. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)