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What’s the Endgame for Trump and DeSantis?
No GOP nominee can escape the ex-president’s gravitational pull—consider the scenarios.
LET’S BE UNREASONABLY CHARITABLE to the Ron DeSantis presidential campaign. He’s in it to win it. Remember “God Made A Fighter”?
Let’s instead imagine the very-best-case scenario for the Florida governor winning the GOP nomination. (Note to reader: What follows is a fantasy.)
Ron DeSantis wildly surpasses expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, figuratively kicking ass and slitting throats. In response to this overwhelming show of strength, most of the remaining candidates quit the race.
We’re into March 2024, and across America it’s Springtime for DeSantis. Donald Trump and his campaign battle with all their MAGA might, but it’s not enough. The Florida governor builds an insurmountable lead in delegates and starts planning for a media-saturated coronation at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.
All that’s left is for Donald Trump to concede that he was beaten fair and square. The rival campaigns make arrangements for Trump to deliver a historic nominating speech in prime time, where he asks his committed supporters to accept the will of Republican voters and unite the party behind Ron DeSantis. Trump raises DeSantis’s hand high in the air and pledges to barnstorm the country to rally the MAGA faithful.
Did I lose you somewhere in that last paragraph? I told you it was a fantasy!
But it does prompt the question: What is the strategy for DeSantis—or anyone who aspires to defeat Trump—to wrest the nomination from those grabby orange fingers? Have they even thought that far ahead?
CONSIDER ANOTHER HYPOTHETICAL: DeSantis notches clear but narrow wins over Trump in the delegate-rich Super Tuesday primaries. Trump refuses to concede defeat, alleging widespread fraud and election rigging, while his angry supporters harass secretaries of state and break into counting rooms. Roger Stone pulls out his intimidation playbook and begins publishing the addresses of delegates warning them not to oppose Trump. (Recall that Stone threatened to do this before the 2016 Republican convention: “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal. . . . It is interesting to me that in every primary or caucus where Ted Cruz won, we have certified, proven, sworn evidence of massive voter fraud.”)
We could keep gaming this out. Can DeSantis prosecute an anti-“stop the steal” campaign while shielding Trump from the consequences of his last attempt? Could one side effectively blame the other for intramural violence, or is the right too poisoned by conspiracy theories about federal provocateurs? What would they even do anyway, call in the FBI?
Here’s a scenario for you: Support the work of The Bulwark with a free or paid subscription:
IF YOU THOUGHT CONFRONTING TRUMP was hard for Republicans before, just wait, because the stakes are higher than ever. From the former president’s perspective, losing the election dramatically increases the odds of imprisonment and financial ruin. All options are on the table.
The stakes are also high for the national GOP: A Republican civil war would almost certainly end with unified Democratic control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. The more you think about it, the Actually Competitive Primary seems like a nightmare for Republicans.
So how about a scenario that seeks to pre-empt any unpleasantness: Say Trump has an epiphany and decides to end his campaign to focus on defending against his many indictments. In exchange for a public commitment from DeSantis to end all federal investigations and prosecutions of Trump should DeSantis win the presidency—and a promise from DeSantis to go to war against the FBI and Justice Department—Trump anoints DeSantis as his successor.
But while it’s DeSantis officially on the ticket, the stakes are unchanged. Trump remains the dominant party figure, steering a damn-the-torpedoes operation to stay out of prison, with a high likelihood of more lawbreaking and mob violence.
The internal dynamic in this scenario would be highly unstable. DeSantis might personally be willing to wait four more years if he loses the election, but looming over him is a figure who doesn’t see it that way. DeSantis might want to stay out of criminal conspiracies, but Trump is all in. He needs power in the worst way, and like a cornered rat he will be that much more desperate.
It may be Ron’s name on the gaming license, but it won’t be his casino.
There will be immense pressure on any GOP nominee beholden to a legally vulnerable Trump not to throw in the towel, no matter what. Yet that is the go-for-broke position any standard bearer would have to accept if granted the nomination by an officially sidelined yet still popular Trump. He isn’t going to risk another Mike Pence stroke of conscience.
It’s unclear what control this nominee-in-name-only would even have over his or her own campaign. Up until at least Election Day, Trump’s power over the GOP candidate would be decisive. Who gets to choose the running mate?
But pretend it all works. President DeSantis issues blanket pardons and purges career bureaucrats at the FBI and Justice Department. What then? Whose presidency is it anyway? What leverage would DeSantis have against the demands of an ascendant MAGA movement still loyal to a now-untouchable Trump? What can he do, lock him up?
You could even imagine another disturbing twist: DeSantis and his vice president, having come into the White House by Trump’s volition, are pressured to pull a Putin-Medvedev switcheroo with the ex-president: The VP resigns and DeSantis appoints Trump as a replacement. DeSantis then bows to the MAGA mob and resigns the presidency. Trump returns to the White House through the back door.
If this all sounds ridiculous, I get it. I really do. But so is hoping to beat a popular demagogue with one hand tied behind your back. Or thinking you might cut a deal with him.
SO WELCOME TO THE REALITY of the 2024 Republican nominating contest: a minor squabble for table scraps, audience-building, score-settling, and an all but inescapable Donald Trump. While some of the contenders are running principled campaigns—Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson among them—there seems to be little interest in actually deposing Trump from Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Tim Scott, and Nikki Haley.
Because to actually defeat Trump you have to force him to concede, a difficult proposition even before his multiple indictments. And there appears to be little appetite among Republicans to go to the mattresses against him.
Neither is there a plausible scenario in which a viable Trump just gives away the nomination. Experience teaches that he would never surrender the spotlight or the control. No serious candidate would accept such a tainted offering—a nomination with conditions.
If there is any surprise here, it’s that some people seem genuinely surprised that events could have unfolded any differently.