Donny & Ronny: A G.O.P. Cold War in South Florida

Trump and DeSantis
Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
January 24, 2022

It’s no wonder that a year after he left office, there’s a certain hunger out there for a new season of Feud: Donald Trump vs. Whomever, and it’s no wonder that the national media has zoomed in on Florida, where the former president resides ever-so-close to an emerging rival: Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor. DeSantis rose to national prominence during the pandemic as MAGA’s biggest culture warrior, bucking the scientific consensus on lockdowns and mask mandates while stoking the base’s stolen-election fantasies. DeSantis is also just Yale-and-Harvard enough for country club donors to feel comfortable writing him checks. The political-media class has dubbed him “Trump 2.0,” which is precisely the sort of comparison that, in an earlier era, would have driven Trump 1.0 nuts.

Over the past year, the press has circled the delectable possibility of a Trump-DeSantis grudge match. The tensions appeared to boil over earlier this month when Trump defended the science behind vaccines and described politicians who refuse to disclose their booster status as “gutless”—a comment that was widely interpreted as a crack at DeSantis. DeSantis, without naming Trump, shot back that the previous administration had misstepped by listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci. Soon after, it was reported that Trump had said that DeSantis “didn’t have a chance” of winning the 2018 governor’s race without his help; DeSantis, who barely squeaked through that election with a 0.4 percent margin, kept his thoughts to himself. 

I’m reliably told that the two men have bitched about each other to confidantes and potential donor allies; an awkward political “cold war,” as one source put it. In public, however, it’s all smiles: “Totally fake news,” Trump told Sean Hannity in a recent interview. “I think Ron said it last week, ‘The press is never going to get in the middle of my friendship with Donald Trump.’ We’re not going to do that stuff.” Nevertheless, their current detente appears to indicate a game theoretical dilemma rather than any genuine rapport: friendly fire won’t benefit anyone in the party right now. And while Trump might walk away from a confrontation unscathed, DeSantis’s long-term career, much less his chances as a 2024 presidential candidate, would almost surely be fucked. 

Prior to 2021, the narrative arc of a Donald Trump Feud went as such: Trump consumed some sort of media, at some ungodly hour of the day, that suggested some poor soul was challenging him in some fashion. Trump got mad about the article, prompting him to grab his iPhone and compose an angry tweet to soothe his narcissistic injury. The world would see it in seconds and Trump’s aides would find out hours later. A mob of social media supporters would descend upon his new foe; breaking news desks would push out web articles describing Trump’s tweet; entire newsletter tops and cable news “A” blocks would be hastily rewritten. G.O.P. leaders would be forced to take sides—do you endorse or excuse the president, or risk becoming a target yourself? In some cases, as with Jeff Sessions, these cycles of recrimination and groveling and capitulation took years to play out. The end result was almost always the same.

Trump’s comparative restraint with DeSantis suggests some awareness of his own political vulnerabilities. But it also illustrates how DeSantis has inadvertently benefitted from Trump’s media deplatforming: Without personal access to Twitter, the former president’s displeasure tends to be communicated via analog conduits in Mar-a-Lago, such as the “associates and advisers” who recently spoke to The New York Times. (“I wonder why the guy won’t say he won’t run against me,” Trump is said to have complained about DeSantis.) There’s no social network feedback loop, no fast-twitch dopamine hit, to tempt Trump into making his grievances more public. DeSantis, in turn, has avoided external pressure to respond in kind. (The podcast appearance in which DeSantis said he opposed Trump’s early pandemic lockdown strategy was more of a throwaway line than a sustained attack, and DeSantis quickly shifted the blame for the government’s response to Dr. Fauci, and away from Trump.)

Perhaps most notably, in a stark departure from the Trump White House days, Republican aides and allies in South Florida have been uncommonly disciplined in their effort to downplay any Trump-DeSantis tension. Representatives for both camps have released statements praising the other, with Trump spox Taylor Budowich saying that DeSantis’s re-election in 2022 is a top priority. Trump advisers, meanwhile, suspect Mitch McConnell surrogates of trying to stoke the feud, noting that DeSantis’s comment about Trump-era lockdowns was made on a podcast hosted by former McConnell aide Josh Holmes. “[T]hey might have been hoping for more out of Ron, because, let’s face it, he didn’t really criticize Trump,” one of them told NBC on Thursday. “But they knew the media would instantly jump on it and wish-cast it into existence.” Political strategists I talk to echoed that sentiment. For the media, and for Democrats, the feud narrative “pits two hated enemies against each other,” a Florida G.O.P. operative told me. The median Republican voter, this person insisted, doesn’t care. 

Whatever the reality inside Mar-a-Lago, it’s true, as Budowich said, that the top priority for Florida Republicans is making sure that DeSantis wins re-election in November. There’s little point in worrying about 2024 until his victory is secure, especially if DeSantis faces a primary challenge from the right. State primary contests, after all, have a tendency to devolve into a battle over Who’s Most MAGA, resulting in general-election candidates that are effectively unelectable. That’s what happened in the Alabama Senate Special Election in 2017, when the far-right Roy Moore’s campaign was derailed by his sordid sexual history with teenagers. That phenomenon may be repeated again in the upcoming midterms, as a growing slate of pro-Trump, conspiracy-addled candidates square off with establishment Republicans across the country, playing hard to the Trump base while scaring off moderates. And though DeSantis is the incumbent, he does face a potential spoiler in the form of Roger Stone, who has threatened to run for governor himself if DeSantis doesn’t stay “loyal” to Trump. Stone is a loose cannon, not a stalking horse for Trump, but that early warning is an indication of how ugly things could get. If the gubernatorial election goes sideways, DeSantis can kiss his presidential aspirations goodbye. MAGA doesn’t like losers.