Things weren’t going so well for Ron DeSantis even before Donald Trump was indicted. The Florida governor had dropped 30 points behind the ex-president in the last pre-indictment poll of Republicans and Republican-leaners. Back in mid-February, a major poll had showed DeSantis running almost even with Trump in a presumed primary contest.
You can insert your guess here as to why DeSantis has slumped so badly. His evasions and reversals on the Russian war in Ukraine? Trump’s hits on the governor’s votes against retirement benefits, culminating in a seven-figure anti-DeSantis ad campaign by a pro-Trump super PAC? Some X factor of personality or charisma—or the lack thereof? Or are observers looking in the wrong direction? Maybe it was not DeSantis who deflated, but Trump who rose—boosted by advance news of his imminent indictment.
Whatever the reason, Republican interest in the DeSantis brand of Diet Trump has dwindled.
Republican politics in the Trump era has been an exercise in dominance. Trump behaves as an abusive bully. Potential rivals meekly submit. He looks like the leader of the pack; they look like weaklings.
DeSantis presented himself as a fearless tough guy, as in this reelection ad from 2022, titled “Top Gov.” In a flight suit and with a B-roll of combat jets, DeSantis vowed: “Never, ever back down from a fight.”
But when Trump started fights with him, DeSantis always backed down. When Trump promoted a meme accusing DeSantis of grooming teenage girls with alcohol, DeSantis scarcely retorted. When Trump denounced one of the governor’s most cherished bills as “the biggest insurance company BAILOUT to Globalist Insurance Companies, IN HISTORY,” DeSantis did not defend his measure. He abjectly retreated, barring cameras and reporters from the signing ceremony for his new law.
The DeSantis campaign has been built on an impossible contradiction. His message to his party was: I offer you Trump’s style, minus Trump’s scandals. That offer only made sense on the assumption that Trump’s scandals were bad. Yet when any major new Trump scandal has erupted, DeSantis has jumped to deny or defend it.
Amid the first shock of the January 6 attack on Congress, DeSantis condemned the violence—though he took care to avoid mentioning Trump, the man who had incited the riot. By the first anniversary, however, DeSantis had shifted ground. “They are going to take this and milk this for anything they could to try to be able to smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump,” he said at a press conference. “When they try to act like this is something akin to the September 11 attacks, that is an insult to the people who were going into those buildings. And it’s an insult to people when you say it’s an ‘insurrection’ and then a year later, nobody has been charged with that.”
After the FBI raided Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in August 2022 to retrieve government documents, DeSantis denounced the law-enforcement action at an Arizona rally, alongside two of the most extremist candidates of the 2022 cycle, Kari Lake and Blake Masters: “These agencies have now been weaponized to be used against people that the government doesn’t like.”
Now, with the indictment, DeSantis has again raced to Trump’s side. He has damned the indictment as “un-American” and repeated his “weaponization” language. But if all of this is true, then what would be the case for running against Trump?
The only case for DeSantis—or any alternative, be it Nikki Haley or Glenn Youngkin or Mike Pompeo or Mike Pence—is to acknowledge that it’s a problem that the past president stands criminally accused; to acknowledge that Trump is not a victim, but the author of his own legal trouble. Otherwise, who needs a replacement for the original? Why hire the tribute band?
Many prominent Republicans want Trump gone. But they are caught in a trap of their own bad faith: They want prosecutors to do for them the job they are too scared and broken to do for themselves. But they also, for their own crass political advantage, want to pretend to be on Trump’s side during the prosecution—while inwardly cheering on the prosecutors.
Bad faith is a coward’s method, and these bad-faith Republicans are earning the coward’s reward. They hope that the legal system will rescue them from their own humiliating submission, but they are acting to deliver the Republican nomination to Trump for a third time. If Trump does win the nomination, they’ll submit again.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, he at least paid lip service to issues Republican voters cared about: immigration, opioid addiction, trade disparities, and so on. The corruption, authoritarianism, and incitements to violence were present even then, of course. And they continued. In 2020, ABC News counted 54 instances in which people who committed or plotted violence specifically cited Trump’s words as their motive or their justification.
This time, however, Trump is offering no lip service. On his social media and in his opening-rally speech in Waco, Texas, on March 25, Trump has celebrated and justified the deadly events of January 6, 2021. On Truth Social, he predicted “death & destruction” when he was indicted.
Republicans nodded along when Paul Ryan assured CNN’s Jake Tapper that Trump was fading on his own. They took solace when Rupert Murdoch instituted a “soft ban” against Trump on his TV network, which instead hailed DeSantis as the party’s new leader.
All of that is proving false. Trump is triumphing—as an explicitly insurrectionary leader, on a platform of impunity for his own lawbreaking and presidential pardons for his supporters.
Inwardly anti-Trump Republicans reassure themselves that Trump at least cannot win the presidency again. Maybe they will have to endure him for a few more excruciating months—but November 2024 will arrive soon enough, and after that they’ll be done with him. This is false comfort. If Trump secures the Republican nomination, of course he can win the election. Maybe because of his bad record and personal obnoxiousness, he’s got a little less than the usual 50–50 chance, but not much less. The incumbent president and vice president have electoral vulnerabilities, too. And there could be anti-incumbent shocks—a recession, a natural disaster, a border crisis—between now and Election Day. Maybe Trump cannot win on his own merits, but Biden can fall victim to events.
The former New Jersey governor—and early Trump endorser—Chris Christie now describes his past support for Trump as a “strategic error.” He’s not wrong, if several years late. Suppose that enough Republicans had deserted Trump in 2016 to convert his popular-vote deficit into an Electoral College defeat. What would have happened next? Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency, and of course Republicans would not have liked that. But there would have been a Republican-controlled House and Senate to check her—with margins that surely would have expanded in the midterm elections of 2018. Republicans would have scored important state and local gains that year too. Then the coronavirus pandemic would have struck, and the election of 2020 likely would have resulted in a GOP landslide. So not exactly the end of the world from a Republican point of view—better than things are now, right?
The inhibitions against correcting the strategic error of 2016 are daunting even to people of character—and the anti-Trump dissenters within the party elite are not all people of character. Yet the price of repeating the error will be heavy—heavy for Republicans if Trump costs them the presidency once again, or tragically heavy for the United States and the world if Trump somehow scores a second win.
A proverb says that even a worm will turn. The controlling elite within the Republican Party rejected “Never Trump” in 2016. Now they have a second chance to put country before party: “Never Again Trump.” Let the lapel flag mean something. Don’t give up. Back an alternative to Trump, and win if you can. But if you can’t win with your candidate, keep fighting Trump. This time, no surrender.