Discover more from The Bulwark
Team DeSantis Can’t Run to Trump’s Nutball Right and Then Get Mad at Us For Noticing
We’re not going to just sit here and pretend it’s not happening.
There is an incessant and increasingly tiresome debate raging within the pro-democracy coalition on the question of who constitutes a bigger threat to the Republic between the two leading GOP contenders, Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. My view is that it is undeniably the former and that this debate itself only serves to undermine the gravity of the risk posed by his return to the White House.
This risk assessment is based, in part, on the record of both men in office. (You might recall that one has already attempted a coup.) But it’s also based on what Rummy called the known unknowns. How catastrophic would the staffing of a second Trump administration be? Would Kari Lake be VP? Might lunatic cult leader Mike Flynn control the military? Would Trump try to terminate the Constitution? Side with Putin in Ukraine? Similarly, the known unknowns for DeSantis tend to point in a less catastrophic direction. Would RD move to the center in a general election? (I don’t think so). Hire a more competent staff? (Certainly.) Is his personality less likely to inspire a rabid, violent death cult? (Clearly.)
These hypotheticals matter because some constitute literal existential threats to our Republic. As such we should all be able to use our own two eyes to make rational risk assessment calculations.
But campaigns exist for a reason. And it is appropriate to judge the candidates based not only on how we are guessing they will govern, but on what they actually say they will do. On this score, the case that DeSantis is “less extreme” than Trump is getting increasingly hard to make.
Consider the critiques the Florida governor has leveled against Trump out of the gate. He has not chosen to target Trump for his attempt to overthrow our democracy, his rampant corruption, the inhuman immigration regime, his Russophilia, or any of the other 100 reasons Trump is unfit to be anywhere in the vicinity of a federal building without an ankle bracelet.
Instead, DeSantis’s opening salvo was to go at Trump for two of the very few good things the former president did: The First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, and Operation Warp Speed, which streamlined the process for the development of the COVID vaccine.
Here is DeSantis on the First Step Act, in an interview with the Daily Wire promoted by his campaign.
Under the Trump administration—he enacted a bill, basically a jailbreak bill, it's called the First Step Act. It has allowed dangerous people out of prison who have now re-offended, and really, really hurt a number of people.
On the vaccines, DeSantis attempted one of his beta, too-cute-by-half attacks on Trump in a speech to the ostensibly pro-life Florida Family Council, “They wanted to deny people the right to put food on their table if they didn’t bend the knee and get a COVID shot that they may not have wanted and that many of them did not need. We can never allow warp speed to trump informed consent ever again.”
While DeSantis was doing some Ivy League linguistic gymnastics to avoid criticizing Trump by name, his campaign’s rapid response team was less subtle a few days later. The official “DeSantis War Room” went after Trump for his unwillingness to “acknowledge any of the adverse effects” of the vaccine in a conversation with a voter at one of his events. The DeSantis campaign instead sided with the voter—who was arguing that it was the vaccine that caused deaths, rather than preventing them.
During that same Trump event, the former president attacked the police officers who defended the U.S. Capitol against the mob he incited and called the black officer who shot Ashli Babbitt “a thug.”
The DeSantis war room was silent on this matter.
We notice stuff, just like you do. And we won't stay quiet about it just to support The Team. Join us in putting country over party.
In addition to the tactical strikes on the First Step Act and Operation Warp Speed, DeSantis also slagged Trump for not “staying true to America First principles” when he proposed “amnesty for DREAMers” and for putting too much trust in Anthony Fauci. This past weekend he attacked Trump for not understanding the gravity of the threat from “the woke.”
Now maybe this is just what you have to do to win a GOP primary in 2024?
I don’t know if that’s definitely the case. It would’ve been interesting to see a different approach attempted by a credible candidate such as Brian Kemp, who attacked Trump this weekend not for his vaccine support but for his insane Kim Jong-un fangirling. But based on the regrettable lack of Asa-mentum, there’s good reason to believe such a campaign wouldn’t attract Republican primary voters. So my objection is not on strategic grounds.
But let’s set aside the game theory and just consider the arguments DeSantis is making on the merits, rather than guessing over what we think might work in a primary.
If someone is aspiring to the presidency and their critical takeaways regarding the Trump administration are that Trump was:
Too deferential to experts on COVID
Too anxious to distribute a life-saving vaccine
Not harsh enough on immigrants who were brought here as children
Too adversarial to the prison-industrial complex, and
Not passionate enough about the need for a rhetorical attack on the “woke left”
Well, then you are going to have to forgive me if I come to the conclusion that you are a deranged lunatic.
And yet there is a category of DeSantis supporters who become incandescent with rage at any suggestion that their guy might be worse than Trump in certain ways.
Andrew Sullivan has a Trig Palin–esque obsession with any former Republicans who deign to observe what is in front of their eyes when it comes to the DeSantis campaign. And the Ron johns on Twitter mock anyone in the media who suggests DeSantis is more extreme than Trump.
But here’s the fundamental problem with such pushback.
I’m not saying that I think DeSantis would be more extreme than Trump. I’m simply observing the objective fact that DeSantis’s explicit campaign message is a promise that he will be more extreme than Trump! At least when it comes to public health, immigration, race-based policy initiatives, and LGBT+ issues. And at the same time, on the issues where Trump is objectively more extreme and threatening—democratic norms, the rule-of-law, siding with Putin—DeSantis has to date been either silent or extremely careful to challenge his opponent in language that does not preclude Trump supporters from concluding that DeSantis is on their side.
In the face of this campaign strategy, the argument proffered by DeSantis supporters to skeptics in the middle is that we just have to sit there and take it while DeSantis does nothing to appeal to us and instead works like a mule to cater to the concerns of the anti-vax freaks and the most bigoted wing of the anti-woke brigade.
I’m sorry, but being told we have to ignore our lying ears in order to defeat Trump is not a compelling argument.
Especially when you consider that:
The strategy being proposed by the anti-anti-Trump DeSantis stans is a replica of the failed TruCon 2016 approach.
The “mollify the base” with red meat in order to get the conservative adults in charge strategy has proven to be a catastrophic disaster for decades now (here’s some recommended reading on this point). And
There is already a sensible, if imperfect, candidate in the race who has proven he can beat Trump while continuing to govern in normal ways, cutting deals with the other party and not giving his entire campaign over to extremists.
So yeah, Ron DeSantis is far less likely to be the leader of a violent overthrow of the government than Trump. Strong agree!
But you can’t run to the nutball right of the person who tried to do that and then get mad at us simply for noticing.
We will put aside for the moment what it says about Republican voters if it is true that this is the only kind of campaign that will win.