DeSantis & the March of the Trump Defectors

ron desantis
There’s a growing fissure among MAGA faithful over whether conservatives ought to move on from Trump to DeSantis, the argument being that DeSantis is more politically savvy and could actually deliver on a populist agenda, whereas Trump can only reveal the establishment’s hypocrisy. Photo: Giorgio VIERA/AFP
Tina Nguyen
November 10, 2022

As Republican operatives awoke on Wednesday morning, two stark realities came into focus. First, of course, was the gut-punch realization that their “red wave” had not materialized: Fetterman beat Oz; Kelly leads Masters; Georgia is headed to a runoff. Low-quality and election-denying candidates (Tudor Dixon, Doug Mastriano, John Gibbs) had clearly cost them winnable seats, and control of Congress may be unknown for weeks. Murdochworld quickly blamed Donald Trump for his “toxic” endorsements; meanwhile, MAGAworld called for the swampy heads of “The Macs,” Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. But there was also another narrative that began to coalesce upon which all could agree: Florida, the new spiritual center of the Republican Party, looked like the happiest place on earth.

Governor Ron DeSantis, after all, not only won re-election, but did so by nearly twenty points, or about 1.5 million votes—an air-raid siren improvement over his 2018 margin of barely 30,000 votes. Moreover, amid an electoral map dotted with unexpected flashes of blue, Florida remained the only red island. Marco Rubio handily dispatched Democrat Val Demings, the Republicans flipped several Democratic House seats, won a supermajority in the Florida Senate, and Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach (both with sizable Latino populations) went pure red for the first time in decades. But no one could match DeSantis’s beefy margin, fueling envy and ecstasy among conservatives in my text threads and Twitter feed. “Make America Florida” trended all night. 

The obvious subtext for all this exhilaration, of course, is the expectation that DeSantis will challenge Trump for the White House in 2024. During his victory speech on Tuesday, the crowd at his election party rang with chants of “Two more years!”—a clear sign that his most diehard supporters want to see DeSantis go onto bigger and better things. The next morning, the Murdoch-owned New York Post ran a cover photo of the victorious Ron, his wife Casey, and their photogenic children above the headline “DeFUTURE.” The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch outlet, declared Trump “the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.”

Trump loyalists insist that DeSantis is merely a blip on their radar—“I’m not sure how many people care” about DeSantis, one insider told me—and that despite some allies urging him to reschedule, Trump’s expected presidential announcement will continue as planned at Mar-a-Lago next Tuesday, November 15. Still, the immediate post-midterm G.O.P. consensus is that DeSantis pulled off a coup of sorts by setting the party’s culture war agenda: “Don’t Say Gay,” the war against Disneyworld, fights over Covid mandates and critical race theory. Whereas Trump has been stuck on the sidelines, out of politics and the media spotlight, DeSantis has used his executive powers to actually demonstrate how he would govern at the national level. 

And Florida voters, perhaps the best proxy for the median Republican these days, rewarded him with a blowout 20-point victory. “DeSantis is an incredibly skilled politician at being a mirror to his constituency,” former Florida Republican congressman David Jolly told me. “He has never been someone who tries to lead public opinion, but he follows it, and he taps into it.” That opportunistic political instinct, which Trump himself masterminded in the early teens (including dark turns into birtherism and Benghazi, among other politically apocryphal sewers)  helps to explain DeSantis’s metamorphosis from a Yale- and Harvard-educated, free-market libertarian congressman (back when free-market libertarianism was still in vogue) into a lib-fighting, domineering Trumpist, forcefully reshaping Florida politics to keep “the elites” out of schools, churches and businesses—which, apparently, is what the bulk of Florida voters wanted, especially those in Miami-Dade County. “In an era of emerging populism that has threads of white Christian nationalism, his agenda does raise some real flags. And I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of people concerned about his rise,” Jolly cautioned. “But he does the things that keep traditional Republicans excited.”

A Tale of Two Rallies

The Trump-DeSantis feud was perhaps best illustrated by the high school cafeteria drama over their dueling rallies in Florida last Sunday. To recap: Trump, holding a rally for Rubio in Miami days before the election, invited practically every major Florida Republican politician except for DeSantis, who was holding his own rally in Tampa. The competing events presented a sort of loyalty test for state power brokers, one forcing them to pick a side: the baggage-laden former president with the big crowds and the social media account, or the dour upstart with long term potential. 

But after days of public agita regarding who would attend what, virtually everyone showed for Trump. The Miami-Dade County Fair & Expo was packed with several thousand MAGA voters in an open-air setting, while DeSantis stood alone on a stage at the Sun City Center, with a mere 800 or so fans in the audience.

The optics for Trump were powerful. I’ve noted before that Trump historically outclasses DeSantis on personality—his charisma shines through his insult-comedy routines, which generate media coverage, and his rallies are typically well produced. DeSantis, by contrast, is generally awful on both scores. (See: his unfortunate hurricane boots.) In the days leading up to the midterm, Trump finally dropped his long-running passive-aggressive approach to DeSantis, attacking him head-on with a trial nickname (“Ron DeSanctimonious”) and bragging about the delta in their early polling. On Monday, he lobbed a threat targeting Casey DeSantis, the Florida First Lady-slash-strategist whom I’ve profiled in the past: “I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.” 

These sorts of tactics were still novel in 2016, splitting the G.O.P. establishment from a revolutionary guard who thrilled to the cult of Trump. Not even the worst scandals of the Trump presidency—Charlottesville, impeachment, Jan. 6—dislodged these supporters. If anything, they simply made them more hostile to the president’s critics. But one of the most important characteristics of MAGA-flavored populism—perhaps the most important characteristic, in fact—is the emphasis on victory. “We’re going to win so much,” Trump once said, “that you’re going to get sick and tired of winning.”

The thought of compromise is unpleasant, and the prospect of losing, or even appearing to lose, is anathema. And while plenty of Republicans could shrug off the 2020 election as the result of foul play, few can deny that this week’s midterms were a bust. “Maybe by now Republicans are sick and tired of losing,” the Journal editorial board wrote on Wednesday. After all, if Trump can’t identify winners—if his TV star candidate in Pennsylvania could lose to a brain-damaged progressive—what does that say to the base about his own ability to be their winner? 

DeSantis Fever

Last month, I documented the growing fissure among MAGA influencers over whether conservatives ought to move on from Trump to DeSantis, the argument being that DeSantis was more politically savvy and could actually deliver on a populist agenda, whereas Trump could only reveal the establishment’s hypocrisy. That split has only hastened since Tuesday. “Plenty of folks who voted for Trump twice are impressed by DeSantis’s 20-point victory, and are not fans of Trump’s petty digs at him,” Will Chamberlain, the former editor-in-chief of the nationalist-populist publication Human Events, told me. “I expect that more and more Trump supporters will move into DeSantis’s camp. Some pro-Trump influencers with close connections to the man will try to hold the line, but I don’t expect it to work.”

Of course, a Trump-DeSantis primary battle would be ugly, as Trump already previewed with his comment about DeSantis’s wife. “Once Trump is in, DeSantis has to say to the entire Republican Party, I am going to try to topple Donald Trump,” predicted Jolly. “And boy, we are giving this moment of DeSantis fever way too much currency if we think that happens without a ton of scrutiny of Ron DeSantis, and without some real cost to Ron DeSantis.” 

DeSantis, after all, has yet to face any serious conservative scrutiny in his charmed political career. First, he’d be forced to go on the record about topics he’s long avoided, such as the war in Ukraine. Second, he’ll face a mountain of opposition research dug up by Trump and other potential G.O.P. rivals, not to mention the Democrats, if he gets that far in the process, as his notoriously MAGA-oriented press team are forced out of the conservative media bubble to engage the more hostile mainstream press. And finally, he’ll have to deal with Trump’s near-infinite determination to twist DeSantis’s public image.

That process has already begun. Less than 24 hours after DeSantis declared victory, Trump went to Truth Social to position DeSantis as a pale imitation: “Now that the Election in Florida is over, and everything went quite well, shouldn’t it be said that in 2020, I got 1.1 Million more votes in Florida than Ron D got this year, 5.7 Million to 4.6 Million? Just asking?” 

But the fact remains that in the zero-sum world of MAGA politics, Trump put his thumb on the scale for a large number of extremist, self-identified MAGA candidates who lost. DeSantis, on the other hand, won his race by a landslide—“bigly,” as a certain real estate developer would put it—and he did it by pitching a record that resonated with Florida voters. It’s now a question of whether Republican primary voters nationwide decide that, next time, they’d like to Make America Florida, instead of whatever mandate Trump tried to pitch this year. “What is his vision for 2024? Is it that ‘I’m back’?” a furious Candace Owens told her followers on Wednesday, as she renounced her friendship with Trump. “Because that’s not a vision for me.”