With the US midterms looming in November, some crude positioning has started among rivals for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination. For the moment, the expectations remain that Donald Trump will run for a second term and the chances of that have certainly been buoyed by President Joe Biden’s continued troubles as his agenda is held up by intransigence within Democrat ranks. This past week, we also saw the Republican National Committee inform the Commission on Presidential Debates that future Republican nominees will not take part in the traditional pre-election face-offs. The move certainly suggests that the Republican National Committee anticipates a Trump nomination given the controversy around the former president’s clashes with the moderators of the 2020 debates.
Yet in the totemistic world of US politics, nothing is settled quite so simply. Where Trump once mocked old gods with names like “Bush” and “Clinton”, he now finds himself attacked by a new generation of heretics who no longer see The Donald as the embodiment of their beliefs. There is a schism in the religion known as “Trumpism”, particularly around the matter of Covid-19.
It’s a measure of how far things have gone that, in this, Trump has become the voice of the scientific consensus. The former president not only believes in vaccines but also touts them as one of the great successes of his presidency. “I think the vaccines saved tens of millions throughout the world,” he said last week, “I’ve had absolutely no side effects.” That is problematic for many Trump followers, some of whom are anti-vaxxers, but most are at least sceptical of government overreach. On this one matter, Trump suddenly appears fallible and with fallibility comes opportunities for others.
Ted Cruz recently announced that he would run again in 2024 “in a heartbeat” but perhaps best placed to exploit Trump’s weakness is Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor. Sometimes mocked as Trump’s “Mini-Me” (the name given to Verne Troyer’s diminutive clone of Dr Evil in the Austin Powers movies), DeSantis had previously positioned himself as a Trump loyalist. It was DeSantis who made headlines when running for the governorship in 2018 under the imprimatur of The Sun King. In a now-notorious campaign ad, he was seen teaching his infant daughter how to “build the wall”, as well as dressing his baby son in a “Make America Great Again” t-shirt.
He went on to win Florida in a marginal race, with just a 0.4% lead on his Democratic opponent, but he has wielded power as if he’d won with a landslide. Even as he became an advocate of Trumpian policies, he showed signs of doing so in ways that Trump could not do from the Oval Office. Around Covid-19, for instance, DeSantis pursued hard-line scepticism that the President could not entirely embrace. DeSantis’s policy was almost complete denial, even stripping funding from schools that demanded that students wear masks, earning himself considerable kudos within the belligerent wing of the conservative base.
DeSantis has ambitions higher than The People’s House of Florida in Tallahassee, and although 2022 will again see him run to become Florida’s governor, his candidacy will serve the secondary purpose of positioning him as a serious rival to Trump. It will also be our first chance of measuring the viability of a candidate offering a brand of Trumpism that does not compromise in those places where Trump seems weak.
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The key to that will be Florida’s recovery. DeSantis will claim success in Florida where deaths (63,158) have been broadly in line with those of the bigger state of Texas (77,518) and the smaller New York (61,522). Critics will argue that interpretations of the data are subject to partisanship and that DeSantis’s rash policies were mitigated at the local level by many liberal mayors and councils. Yet that hardly matters to the people he’s addressing. This is becoming a fight for the Trump core vote, with DeSantis now refusing to endorse Trump. According to The New York Times, he has told friends that “Trump’s expectation that he bend the knee is asking too much”. There was no surprise, therefore, when the former president took the fight to the Florida governor last week.
DeSantis attracted Trump’s ire for not saying if he’d had the Covid booster shot, leading Trump to condemn DeSantis in all but name. “They don’t want to say it because they’re gutless,” he said. “You got to say it, whether you had it or not. Say it.” Hardly a scathing attack but surely the opening skirmish in a feud that runs much deeper and will last much longer. DeSantis might also be encouraged in his fight by Mitch McConnell, with Trump’s camp pointing fingers at the Senate Minority Leader who possibly sees DeSantis as a preferable option to the unruly Trump.
It is sure to escalate but much will rely on DeSantis carrying Florida for a second term. He still only has that 0.4% win to argue his case, whilst the mayor of Miami Beach described him during last year’s Delta surge as the “Pied Piper of Covid-19, leading everybody off a cliff”. He will carry that legacy into his fight with Trump, who remains that peculiarly effective political creature he was in 2016; spinning narratives however he wishes thanks to a combination of undeniable charisma and rampant ego. He has flattened heavyweight political rivals before and it’s too early to discount the chances that he’ll do so again.