Pro-DeSantis, Anti-Trump Republicans Have Learned Nothing From 2016

Ron DeSantis’s backers are clinging to the exact same fiction indulged by anti-Trump forces in 2016: that a singularly unconventional opponent can be defeated through blandly conventional means.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks at Representative Zach Nunn’s fundraiser on July 15, 2023 in Ankeny, Iowa. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Midway through his recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Florida governor Ron DeSantis was asked about the flailing state of his presidential campaign. “Some of your supporters are disappointed that your campaign has yet to catch fire the way they would want in terms of polling,” Tapper remarked, going on to cite an analysis by a pollster sympathetic to DeSantis who argues that the Florida governor’s initial appeal as a “Trump without the baggage” has since been compromised by his instinct to swing so hard to the right on social and cultural issues that Republican voters now see him as less electable.

DeSantis’s rather evasive reply — in effect, that he recently won reelection in Florida and national polling doesn’t really matter anyway — only underscores how badly his campaign has performed thus far. Since his campaign’s disastrous and glitchy online launch in May, DeSantis’s numbers have only dropped as he’s become more visible. In overall polling against Trump, he currently trails by an average of more than thirty points, barely faring better in key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Having failed to meet fundraising targets, meanwhile, his campaign is already laying off staff, and both major donors and allies like Rupert Murdoch are somewhat audibly having second thoughts.

Why exactly has DeSantis’s campaign sunk so precipitously? One explanation is personal. As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard points out, DeSantis shares obvious parallels with Trump punching bag Ted Cruz in having a singular ability to generate media stories about his awkward behavior and general unpleasantness. Even some of those close to the Florida governor describe him as antisocial. He allegedly eats pudding with his fingers. And though it has nothing on the banshee-like screech that occasionally emanates from Cruz, DeSantis’s interactions with voters have found him test-driving a weird and forced laugh that no one would exactly call human.

The personal element aside, however, the most significant problem with DeSantis’s candidacy was partially alluded to by Tapper in his questioning of the Florida governor. Putting aside the absurd suggestion that Fox News–addled GOP primary voters think about “electability” the same way pundits do, the pollster Tapper cited was definitely onto something when she described the initial source of DeSantis’s appeal to some Republicans.

After the red ripple of last year’s midterms, the tantalizing prospect of a “Trump without the baggage” momentarily convinced some in the conservative establishment that they had finally cracked the code of the GOP electorate with Ron DeSantis and could leave the Trump era behind. It’s incorrect, however, to suggest that DeSantis’s irrepressible tendency to run headfirst into right-wing culture war was somehow not part and parcel of their imagined anti-Trump formula.

On the Left, it’s become commonplace to say that Democrats have learned nothing from the catastrophe of 2016. But DeSantis’s nascent and already flailing candidacy suggests that much the same is true of the anti-Trump right, which evidently believes that it can generate an ersatz approximation of Trumpism simply by leaning into whatever the most feral sections of the Republican base are aggrieved about in a given week.

Given the racist, hard-right anti-immigration rhetoric Trump used to launch his campaign, this assumption isn’t completely without foundation. It does, however, elide the important areas in which Trump broke explicitly from what had been the GOP consensus during the eras of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan. Whether sincerely or not — and it turned out to be overwhelmingly the latter — candidate Trump embraced messaging on trade, social welfare, and industrial policy that made him sound distinctly unlike a conventional Republican. As Corey Robin observed in 2018: “Trump’s critique of plutocracy, defense of entitlements, and articulated sense of the market’s wounds were among the more noteworthy innovations of his campaign.”

If the DeSantis enterprise is floundering, then, a major reason is that its attempt to approximate Trumpism through pugilist culture war schtick reflects a flawed understanding of what ultimately made Trump’s 2016 campaign so effective.

Another, more basic reason is that DeSantis patently has none of Trump’s bizarre but undeniable political skill. Pugilist though he is, the Florida governor’s political MO is a fundamentally reactive one: responsive to the kinetic signals of movement conservatism’s media echo chamber. Trump, by contrast, has always possessed the unique ability to make his own concerns and grievances synonymous with those of the GOP base — its response to his recent indictment being only the latest example.

In effect, Ron DeSantis and his backers are clinging to the exact same fictions indulged by anti-Trump forces in 2016, mistakenly thinking that a singularly unconventional opponent can be defeated through blandly conventional means. And, barring some unexpected event or significant shift over the next few months, they are about to experience the same result.