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Why the Anti-Anti-Trumpers Need Ron DeSantis
His getting the 2024 GOP nomination would, they hope, validate their actions—and their inaction—since 2016.
IT WASN’T THAT LONG AGO THAT Ron DeSantis looked like Donald Trump’s heir apparent—beloved by the base, but with mainstream appeal, basically “Trump without the baggage.” Now the narrative has flipped. DeSantis is struggling: Back in January, he was just 13 points behind Trump in the RealClearPolitics national polling average; today Trump is ahead by more than 30. Some state polls had shown DeSantis ahead in Iowa or New Hampshire, but now he’s behind (often by a lot).
It’s almost a year until the first votes, and a lot could change. DeSantis hasn’t announced yet, he still has funding, and he could still win people over. Trump could crack under legal pressure, sending all but his ardent fans looking for an alternative. Declaring DeSantis dead would be a mistake, not least because every other GOP candidate is polling in the single digits.
Others, such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, are urging him to run. One reason is that, for a subset of conservatives, Ron DeSantis is more than just a politician. He’s a symbol of the Republican party they wish existed—a policy-oriented, culture-warring governing coalition, not a populist, conspiracy-theorizing cult of personality. In particular, DeSantis defeating Trump would show how conservatives who recognized some problems with the former president’s character and conduct in office, but stuck with the party in support of him anyway, were right.
A DeSantis flop, however, would suggest one of the worst things they can imagine: the possibility that people they don’t like maybe kind of had a point.
TO UNDERSTAND WHY THIS SEGMENT of Republicans is so DeSantis-needy, let’s briefly revisit the typology of the GOP following its crackup. Donald Trump’s election and presidency split the conservative intelligentsia—the writers, think tankers, attorneys, professors, influencers, strategists, policy wonks, and other “thought leaders”—into three broad groups.
First, there were those who said “Never Trump” and meant it, opposing both the man and his movement.
Second, at the other end are some you could call “semi-fascist.” Openly anti-democracy, they try to harness Trumpist populism to their own ends. Think tankers at the Claremont Institute call for an American Caesar. The American Conservative praises Vlad the Impaler, arguing that America needs a leader “willing to be the bad guy.” Billionaire Peter Thiel argues that freedom is incompatible with democracy, and funds a variety of causes and candidates (J.D. Vance, Blake Masters, etc.). Fox News host Tucker Carlson belongs here too, with his Russia-friendly coverage of the Ukraine war, and promoting the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.
Third, there’s what is probably the largest category: the rationalizers. Here you’ll find many media figures, donors, political operatives, and politicians. Loyal partisans, committed culture warriors, and anyone chasing the MAGA audience, appealing to small donors, seeking proximity to power, or just trying to stick with the team.
Some of these accepted Trump as the avatar of the American right, and backed him until after his presidency when they could cheer a Republican challenger. Others went anti-anti-Trump, professing to disapprove of the president, and rarely defending him outright, but rarely criticizing him either, focusing instead on attacking his critics.
Rationalizers criticized Trump on background to reporters, but not in public. Or they’d express disagreement in public, but merely on political strategy, not principle. Or maybe, when things got egregious, they’d say something on principle. But not too strenuously—down that road lies excommunication, as with former Rep. Liz Cheney—and usually with caveats that Democrats are worse.
No matter what happened, no matter what they said in public or private, the rationalizers kept coming back. They could not, would not make a public break with the party or a final break with Trump.
Which brings us back to Ron DeSantis. The rationalizers need the Republican presidential nomination to go to DeSantis to validate their choice.
To show that their words, actions, and inaction since 2016 were shrewd and insightful, not obsequious and cowardly.
To demonstrate that they were engaged in a wise, noble effort to hold together the party for the good of the country.
It would let them move on from the Trump period without reckoning with their role in it.
Some Questions for the Anti-Anti-Trumpers
NOT ALL DESANTIS SUPPORTERS have spent the last seven years as Republican rationalizers. One part of the DeSantis coalition is made up of figures who call themselves politically neutral or independent, cast their positions as “common sense,” and consistently align with the culture war right. This includes some elites with fan bases that denounce elites, such as Joe Rogan and Elon Musk.
Other DeSantis stans admire Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and see DeSantis’s fights with Disney and fixation on “wokeness” as evidence he’s the candidate for competent illiberal statism, and will crack down on culture war enemies.
As for the rationalizers, there are economic conservatives who see DeSantis as more reliable than Trump, some cynical “LOL nothing matters” Republican operatives, and others who see Trump as an electoral liability and DeSantis as a better path to power.
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If DeSantis decides not to run, or if he runs but comes up short, it will raise some questions the rationalizers would rather not think about.
What if the Republican base really likes Trump? Not tolerates him as a vehicle for conservative policies, but likes him for the reasons elites don’t? What if they like Trump because they enjoy ‘the Trump show’—the grievances, insults, and conspiracy theories, the finger to the establishment—regardless of real world results?
What if GOP voters aren’t just going along with lies and nonsense about the 2020 election, but actually believe it and therefore don’t think they need a new champion?
What if many of the things DeSantis has focused on—ESG investing, HR-mandated DEI seminars, and universities spreading CRT—aren’t working-class Americans’ top concerns?
What if Ron DeSantis 2024 was to some extent a media creation? Not entirely—he won re-election in a nationally important state, and outperformed the other high-profile Florida Republican, Senator Marco Rubio—but enough of a media creation that Trump’s current advantage in polls better reflects reality than the now-defunct narrative of DeSantis as co-favorite?
What if “Trump is the best, he’s being persecuted, we need to have his back, that’s how we defend ourselves, but don’t vote for him, vote for me” was never a winning strategy? What if one has to take Trump on to beat him, and the party won’t move on until it loses more national elections?
What if anti-anti- has always been pro-?
Look What You Made Me Do
ONE THING ABOUT RATIONALIZERS: They’re ready to embrace excuses. If the party nominates Trump again, the decision to back him—or at least oppose his opponents—becomes easier if it was someone else’s fault.
For example, the rationalizers could blame Trump’s return on investigators and prosecutors. “The Democrat indictment effort makes Trump stronger,” declared conservative radio host Erick Erickson, referring to possible criminal charges in federal and state courts. “The left will get him re-elected.”
Think about the alternative here: Prosecutors in New York, Georgia, and the Department of Justice should stop their separate investigations, and decide against charges they believe they can prove in court, because they guess that letting Trump’s various crimes slide would give Ron DeSantis a better shot in the Republican primary.
That would be an absurdly political distortion of justice. It places no responsibility on Trump for committing crimes, nor on Republican primary voters who, after all, could pick someone else.
Or maybe the media isn’t covering him enough.
For example, former National Review fellow Kyle Smith, now a film critic at the Wall Street Journal, preemptively blamed the New York Times for DeSantis’s loss. Smith saw that the Times’s homepage last Thursday featured articles about Xi Jinping, Ron DeSantis, shootings of innocent young Americans, and more, but not one article about Trump going “on trial for rape” this week:
To Smith, this is proof that “the media” is doing “everything they can to make Trump the GOP nominee in 2024.”
For starters, Trump is not “on trial for rape”; this is a civil suit for defamation arising from E. Jean Carroll’s accusation of rape. Trump isn’t required to appear, and probably won’t. The trial will probably get more coverage when it happens, and the Times has covered the run-up, just not at the top of the homepage on the one particular day Smith was looking. Besides, Republicans don’t typically hang on the New York Times’s every word, deciding their vote based on which stories the hated bastion of mainstream media emphasizes.
If Republican voters pick Trump, the rationalizers will probably fall in line (again) and excuse themselves (again).
But still, if DeSantis loses, and especially if he doesn’t even run, it will be harder to silence the nagging suspicion that they’re not thought leaders, they’re followers, providing the intellectual sheen on political forces that aren’t conservative, constitutional, or good.