Thursday, May 30, 2024

Opinion | Ron DeSantis needs to ask himself this question

Opinion | Ron DeSantis needs to ask himself this question

If I were Ron DeSantis right now, I wouldn’t be worrying about the nicknames Donald Trump was thinking up for me, or the endorsements he’s been rolling out in my backyard, or the polls that show my support cratering. We’re months away from anyone, other than reporters and pundits, caring about any of that.

No, were I DeSantis at this early stage, I would step back to ask myself the larger, fundamental question for which any Republican looking to run against Trump in the 2024 primaries ought to have a clear answer.

Which is: Am I running to replace Trump as the leader of a party remade in his image, or am I running to replace Trumpism with something else?

There are two ways to look at the Republican landscape going into 2024, and the strategy Trump’s rivals pursue will depend very much on which view they take.

On one hand, they can assume that the Republican Party has now fully completed its metamorphosis into a vehicle of Trumpism. By this theory, the enterprise of Reaganite conservatism is dead, having sold itself out for a bunch of judges and tax cuts.

In its place exists an “America First” party that stands for pro-Russian isolationism in the world, along with nativism and autocracy at home — a party making a last stand against non-White immigrants and smug urbanites. So if you want to dethrone Trump, you have to prove that you are just as invested in Trumpian ideology as he is, but less damaged and therefore more electable.

This is the way most Democrats look at the Republican Party today, which is why they assume Trump will be its inevitable nominee. Not surprisingly, it’s also the way Trump himself views the Republican universe.

There’s another way to see it, however, which is that Trump managed to temporarily grab the controls of the Republican Party — after the abject failures of the Bush era left the party in disarray — and proceeded to steer it straight into a steep ravine. And while Trump commands the unshakable loyalty of a loud bloc of Republican voters, and while most of the rest might bring themselves to vote for him again if they must, there exists a very wide lane for someone who articulates a more principled brand of conservatism.

In other words, by this theory, the Trumpian uprising has already peaked, and the question hanging over the party is what rises from the wreckage.

DeSantis — like every other Republican wading into the campaign, except maybe the two Chrises, Sununu and Christie — seems to have drifted, almost by default, into the first camp. He seems most intent on proving his Trumpian bona fides, signaling his skepticism of American involvement in Ukraine while declaring war on undocumented immigrants and transgender Americans.

His almost comical response to Trump’s indictment in New York — a statement that simultaneously defended Trump against runaway prosecutions while reiterating the tawdriness of the charges — seemed calibrated to send a clear message: I’m just like Trump, only not as reckless.

Which might ultimately work, although there are a few hard-to-ignore problems with the strategy.

For one thing, you have to wonder why Trump voters would vote for anyone who kowtows to Trump when they can just as easily vote for the Dear Leader himself. You say you’re a more electable version, but as far as Trump’s legions are concerned, he’s already won twice and had the presidency stolen from him.

And even if you get through a primary, there’s this minor business of a general election to work out. Trumpism on the ballot nationally has succeeded exactly once — when Trump scraped by Hillary Clinton, a severely flawed candidate, with a plurality of the vote. Since then, it has failed in three successive elections, by margins that, while not overwhelming, suggest that Trumpism as a national platform has a low ceiling.

So if I were DeSantis (or Nikki Haley or Tim Scott), I think I’d be setting myself up as an alternative not just to Trump, but to the mean, backward-looking ideology he channeled.

I’d try not to belittle Trump or needlessly antagonize his followers (there’s really no upside there), but I would lay out policies that clearly draw a demarcating line between Trumpism and Americanism. Instead of “America First,” I’d talk about American values. I’d articulate an agenda that opposed foreign tyrants and supported federal law enforcement, while condemning white supremacists and violent insurrectionists (whose sympathizers are certain to vote for Trump in any event).

I’d give the majority of Republican primary voters somewhere to go that didn’t sound like a hollower version of where they’ve already been. And I’d give the rest of the country a conservative option that doesn’t feel brutal and destabilizing.

If you can’t do that much, then you really have no business being president anyway.

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