There was a brief moment this weekend at Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit where I thought Ron DeSantis had it in the bag. TP USA, of course, is the non-profit that fosters conservative ideology among high school and college-age kids. And in an era of generational tide-turning, where Gen Z is ascendant and baby boomers are fading, DeSantis’s young fogeydom has always seemed like a political asset. He looks like a young guy from the 50s, and is surrounded by some 2024 hopefuls who could be his Appalachian grandparents.
The crowd was practically delirious on Friday as the Florida governor strode onto the stage, accompanied by pyrotechnics and a fog machine, which I have never seen before at a conservative activist conference. Some 5,000 screaming college students leapt to their feet, many of whom didn’t sit down for his tightly-constructed 45-minute speech until pestered by staff. The positive energy in the Tampa Convention Center was palpable as they left. I could hear many eagerly chatting about how awesome DeSantis was and debating whether he was better than Trump. For a brief moment, I sensed the possibility for a 2024 vibe shift.
That sense was obliterated, however, when Donald Trump, the ultimate boomer, took the stage the very next night and gave a speech that strongly hinted he’d soon announce a presidential bid of his own, as has long been assumed, and previously reported by my Puck partner Tara Palmeri. Though Trump arrived more than an hour late, and spoke for an hour and a half, this group of youngsters crammed themselves up to the front of the stage to get closer to him, and raucously applauded when he strode onstage (this time, just with the fog machine). Then the entire hall stood for a whopping eight minutes before being prompted to sit down as he began his rambling remarks. They left the halls in their MAGA hats at 9:45 p.m., chanting “Four more years” and “We want Trump!”
As they headed back to their hotels, I heard more than one student express disappointment that he hadn’t announced his candidacy that very night. At that point, Trump’s victory in the straw poll seemed assured, and indeed he trounced DeSantis the next morning with 78.7 percent of the vote. Only 19 percent said they preferred DeSantis, and no other potential candidates, including Kristi Noem, Mike Pompeo, and Ted Cruz, broke one percent. Poor Mike Pence got 0.3 percent. Glenn Youngkin didn’t even make the list. “G.O.P. still belongs to Trump!” one consultant texted me immediately after the poll dropped.
Of course, Turning Point USA is a decidedly MAGA youth organization (“based,” as the slang goes), and the weekend’s speakers skewed towards the hard right: Matt Gaetz, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert were all highlighted speakers. But it’s one of the largest of the conservative youth organizations by far (with over 100,000 activists nationwide) and the most ascendant (the entire conference was streamed live on Fox Nation), and presents an important signal of where the base’s animal energies currently reside. Ever since the Reagan era, the right wing machine has always prioritized cultivating a core group of student activists to be their future leaders. Though they’ve never come close to winning over the majority of college students and young people, the right never felt the need to, as long as they were able to foster the next generation of Amy Comey Barretts, Karl Roves and Mitch McConnells. (To wit, all the most prominent activist groups were recruiting at the summit: I collected so many pamphlets for the Leadership Institute and TP USA’s student chapter programs.)
It goes without saying that Trump is a bigger celebrity than DeSantis—with the reality shows, decades of tabloid exposure, the presidency and the social media platform underneath him. As such, he is the political touchstone of a new generation’s formative years, much as Nixon was for the Bush II generation. DeSantis, on the other hand, is popular in Florida but would have a hard time matching Trump on any of those fronts, let alone on his weakest characteristic: sheer charisma. While some of the biggest applause lines from both speeches were policy-oriented, Trump’s vicious take on culture war issues resonated better than, say, DeSantis barrelling through a talking point about how he’d reopened schools.
Could the 18-25 cohort that grew up idolizing Trump accept DeSantis as a suitable substitute, or even an improvement on the original, if they face off in a primary? Before last weekend, I was at least willing to entertain the possibility. But it seems clearer in retrospect that for a generation of Republican activists raised on TikTok, weaned on a Trump presidency, and obsessed with becoming official Turning Point USA influencers, aping the MAGA agenda is not enough. And the 2024 Republican nominee, whoever he is, will need their unflinching commitment. Not only does this group represent the next generation of Republican leaders, they’re a veritable digital army ready to create and repost memes, viral videos, and fight their candidate’s wars across social media. DeSantis may have the love of young parents, elder millennials and wealthy donors, but apparently less purchase on the “based.” And while DeSantis built his current political brand around his resistance to pandemic restrictions, the more powerful affection is for the man who was running the country before Covid and the ensuing economic chaos. For those too young to remember much else, nostalgia for the good years inevitably turns towards Trump. DeSantis, on the other hand, might be the future—but, like, years from now.
Part of Trump’s appeal, of course, is that he never sticks to the talking points: the embargoed copy of his TP USA speech was a series of vague paragraphs, several of which Trump never covered, allowing him to riff endlessly on whatever popped into his head at any given moment, extemporaneously reacting and responding to audience feedback in real time. (I doubt the MAGA teens were down to hear him talk about the big Axios report on his plans to gut the civil service, a topic which was previewed in Trump’s embargoed notes but that he skipped over entirely.)
But Trump’s awfully good at ad-libbing, and he’s regaining his form. He came straight to Tampa from a campaign appearance in Alaska, and quickly followed his TP USA speech with an appearance Tuesday at the America First Policy Institute Summit. The latter speech was, in many ways, a more traditional Trump affair, complete with meandering riffs on transgender athletes and the 2020 election, and some stray thoughts on the aforementioned Axios story. The most notable addition to Trump’s routine, which he appeared to be freestyling in real time, was a collection of draconian pronouncements on homelessness and violent crime.
This topic, it seems, may be Trump’s new border wall—a populist law-and-order issue designed to agitate the media and stoke the base. He ranted about capital punishment for drug dealers (“You execute a drug dealer and you’ll save 500 lives”), reinstating “stop-and-frisk” policing policies (“let the people who need guns, have them, take them away from felons”), and my absolute favorite: erecting tent cities outside major metropolitan areas to enclose homeless people after removing them from downtowns. “Thousands and thousands of high-quality tents,” Trump promised, in addition to permanent buildings for social services, perhaps not unlike Brazil’s favelas.
Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine how a radically tough-on-crime platform might supplant Trump’s 2016 focus on illegal immigration, and resonate even more strongly with Americans in 2024. In recent years, Democrats have mostly lost the narrative wars over law and order issues as crime and unrest have become more visible in cities (blue and red alike) across the country. Slogans like “abolish the police” were particularly galling on the right, of course, but also fueled a broader backlash to social justice movements as progressives were caricatured for their jargony and out-of-touch responses to rising crime, drug use, and the homelessness crisis—not just by Republicans, but by centrists and moderates within their own party, as well. (Note the decisive recall of progressive San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin, which, as my Puck partner Teddy Schleifer reported, was driven as much by discontented liberals as Bay Area conservatives.)
Barring the sudden reversal of rising crime and a magical solution to the homelessness crisis, Republicans are betting these issues continue to play. A Gallup poll conducted in April found that 53 percent of Americans are personally worried “a great deal” about crime, while 55 percent are equally worried about homelessness—only slightly less than the number of people worried about the economy (58 percent) and inflation (59 percent). “It’s one of those cultural touchstone things that many people on both sides agree on,” a Trumpworld advisor told me. “Now to what extent we deal with them probably differs, but I think many on both sides think being tough on crime in this day and age is a good message.”
In that context, Trump’s vision of crime-ridden streets filled with unhoused vagrants is not unlike his inauguration speech about “American carnage” or his campaign fantasies about migrant caravans and MS-13: apocalyptic imagery, rooted in reality and dialed up to 11. If the rest of the Republican establishment is campaigning on inflation and the economy, with a frisson of anti-woke culture war sentiments, Trump will go full MAGA and make the election about the demise of Western civilization itself.
…And Now For a Few Notes on Ginni Thomas
Meanwhile, back in the world of the Jan. 6th Committee, the current drama has returned to Ginni Thomas, whom Liz Cheney has threatened to subpoena if she does not give a deposition. According to the committee, Thomas’s testimony is necessary to establish: 1) whether she and her allies were successful in swaying Trump to pick up conspiracy theories, and 2) whether she tried to influence the Supreme Court, via her husband Clarence Thomas, to throw the election Trump’s way. Ginni Thomas, after all, is burdened by a number of uncomfortable facts, like her texts on Mark Meadows’s phone begging him to appoint Sidney Powell and “release the Kraken,” a batshit reference to some amorphous Trump-buoying electoral data, combined with the end results of Trump’s attempts to keep the presidency, Thomas certainly looks like a conspiratorial nexus between QAnon and the White House.
But as I’ve written previously, that theory hinges on whether she had any real power to sway the Trump administration. In reality, according to my sources, she may have been more of a power-hungry poseur with a famous and influential husband. One conservstive activist poo-pooed the notion that she ever had any juice. “I mean there is no real reason to call her in, other than drama/embarrassing Thomas. She wasn’t part of any conspiracy, she’s just a MAGA busy-body,” he told me. “Seriously. She’s not a player in any way.”
Another associate I polled pointed out another, more recent event that now factors into Thomas’s decision: Steve Bannon refused to testify in front of Congress, and got successfully convicted for contempt of Congress. “Given what happened to Bannon, she may not have a choice,” he noted.
It’s an awkward situation for Thomas. Does she refuse to testify, potentially facing prison time and embarrassing the Supreme Court but retaining her cred (and simultaneously looking like an Oathkeeper insurrectionist); or testify, avoiding jail but looking to her peer group like she caved to Democrats. At this point, there’s not much she can do, other than limit what she can and cannot talk about. The conservative activist also gamed out a third option, one that seems likely based on the current mainstream fascination with her: “She testifies, and CNN, WP, NYT, etc. make her out to be a major MAGA cheerleader; win-win. But she has to pretend to fight.”