As observed this week by The New York Times’ Reid J. Epstein and Maggie Haberman, the Republican political landscape is littered with the bodies of formerly viable candidates who have fallen victim to the Wrath of Trump. No longer do we hear the plaintive speeches of Jeb Bush promising a softer, genteel facade for conservatism’s lethal aims; no longer are we troubled by the wonky, opportunistic aspirations of Marco Rubio, the original “Tea Party” senator; nor are we beset by the strange and improbable presidential fantasies of Texas’ Ted Cruz. All of these putative “contenders” to the GOP throne in 2016 have slunk off into their little sinecures, each one resigned to the fact that their dreams of power will remain forever dashed as long as their orange-hued nemesis continues to walk the earth.
This has nothing to do with their personal platforms or pet policies. They all offered Americans only slightly varied shades of the same tasteless right-wing pablum. But they quickly found that their policies didn’t matter to a Republican base far more eager for entertainment and the stimulating prospect of bread and circuses than actual governance. And in terms of entertainment, Donald Trump’s performances were untouchable. Trump dispatched these so-called establishment Republicans with almost no effort, singeing their hides and forcing them into that shadow realm where failed Republican presidential hopefuls pine away the rest of their days, dreaming of what might have been.
Which is why the media’s breathless endorsement of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as someone who might conceivably challenge Trump’s hegemony rings weirdly hollow. Pundits point to DeSantis’ ability to ape Trump’s performative cruelty, as if that could possibly distinguish DeSantis from the pack of also-rans in 2016. What they don’t seem to understand is that it’s not only Trump’s cruelty and channeling of hate and racism that his followers admire. It’s his ability to constantly surprise, his unpredictability, and the fact that his entire personality seems to be guided by whims effortlessly plucked out of the air.
If former Trump supporters claim to like DeSantis, it’s only because in their heart of hearts they want a front-row seat to watch Trump destroy him. And Trump is going to oblige them.
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As reported by POLITICO’s Meredith McCraw:
Trump’s team and his allied PAC are preparing an expansive opposition research file by poring over DeSantis’ record as a prosecutor, member of Congress, and Florida governor. Among the items a Trump-allied group has drilled into is DeSantis’ record while serving as an assistant U.S. Attorney before running for congressional office, with plans to accuse him of being an “extremely lenient prosecutor” in cases involving, among other things, child pornography.
The Trump campaign knows it’s really not opposition research that draws Trump’s adoring fanbase, but his personality and delivery of whatever that research uncovers.
As described by The Atlantic’s David Frum, DeSantis’ expectations center on the party’s attempt to create a simulacrum of Trump himself.
Desantis is a machine engineered to win the Republican presidential nomination. The hardware is a lightly updated version of donor-pleasing mechanics from the Paul Ryan era. The software is newer. DeSantis operates on the latest culture-war code: against vaccinations, against the diversity industry, against gay-themed books in school libraries. The packaging is even more up-to-the-minute. Older models—Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush—made some effort to appeal to moderates and independents. None of that from DeSantis. He refuses to even speak to media platforms not owned by Rupert Murdoch. His message to the rest of America is more of the finger-pointing disdain he showed last year for high-school students who wore masks when he visited a college.
The essential, insoluble problem for DeSantis is that Trump can continue to deliver body blows to DeSantis ad infinitum, but DeSantis cannot respond in kind without alienating the Trump supporters he needs to win. He is never going to outbid Trump on policy issues because Trump will always claim that they were his idea to begin with.
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For example, as reported by POLITICO’s Alex Isenstadt, here was Trump describing DeSantis on Monday:
“He was dead as a dog, he was a dead politician. He would have been working perhaps for a law firm or doing something else,” Trump told a small group of reporters aboard his plane on Monday afternoon en route to Iowa, where he was to make an appearance that evening.
Asked if he regretted endorsing DeSantis for governor in 2018, Trump responded: “Yeah maybe, this guy was dead. He was dead as a doornail. … I might say that.”
Trump contended that DeSantis pleaded with him for an endorsement during his first run for governor, when polls showed him trailing his primary challenger, then-Florida agricultural commissioner Adam Putnam.
“I said ‘You are so dead right now you are not going, no endorsement is going to save you. George Washington won’t save you.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you, if you endorse me, I have a chance,’” Trump said.
And what does DeSantis say in response? Nothing—because he knows he can’t afford to respond.
A DeSantis spokesperson declined to comment on Trump’s remarks. The governor has largely avoided engaging with the former president, saying recently that doesn’t spend his time “trying to smear other Republicans.”
The more threatened Trump feels, the more he attacks. That is simply a fundamental pathology of his narcissistic personality, instilled in him by the repugnant (but very effective) Roy Cohn, his mentor. What DeSantis’ team is going to find out is the same thing that Jeb!, Rubio, Cruz, and all the other Republicans who have crossed his path found out very quickly: Trump can abuse you, insult you, and attack you, but you can’t effectively hit back.
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And now that he has achieved cult status among a huge segment of the Republican electorate, his challengers can’t hit back at all. Attacking Trump is now tantamount to heresy among Trump’s base. That’s the problem DeSantis faces, even before he has a chance to make his case to the general electorate.
And it’s a big problem.
Judd Legum is the founder and author of Popular Information, an independent newsletter dedicated to accountability journalism. Judd joins Markos and Kerry to talk about the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against Fox News and the recent revelations of behind-the-scenes deceit practiced by everyone from on-air host Tucker Carlson, to the owner of it all, Rupert Murdoch.