The Trump-DeSantis War Goes Nuclear

Until recently, DeSantis had been careful not to antagonize the former president or to alienate his base; Trump, in turn, had mostly avoided taking potshots that might inadvertently elevate a presumptive rival.
Until recently, DeSantis had been careful not to antagonize the former president or to alienate his base; Trump, in turn, had mostly avoided taking potshots that might inadvertently elevate a presumptive rival. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
February 8, 2023

The long cold war between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis is finally coming to an end. Until recently, DeSantis had been careful not to antagonize the former president or to alienate his base; Trump, in turn, had mostly avoided taking potshots that might inadvertently elevate a presumptive rival. To wit: It wasn’t until the week before the midterms that Trump poll-tested “DeSanctimonious,” to little effect. The insult didn’t resonate with the MAGA base, and mostly annoyed the donor class that both men are maneuvering to secure. After all, in their eyes, DeSantis had committed zero sins other than merely existing and being a good MAGA company man. 

But as DeSantis takes more obvious steps into the ’24 arena, Trump has begun to preview the more incendiary tactics he’ll use to firebomb any challengers. Over the past few days, Trump has taken to Truth Social to post scurrilous insinuations about DeSantis’s stint teaching at a Georgia prep school in the early 2000s. “That’s not Ron, is it? He would never do such a thing!,” Trump wrote, sharing a photo of a young DeSantis, apparently holding a beer, surrounded by three women whose faces have been blurred. The caption over the photo reads, “Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher.”

The Truth campaign appears to gesture at some perceived irony regarding the DeSantis administration’s gratuitous use of the term “groomer,” a term usurped by the MAGA movement to broadly describe members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, implying that their politics are a tacit endorsement of pedophilia. Of course, this is all utter nonsense, but this is how vicious grassroots MAGA political battles are waged at the fringes, unfortunately, in the sub-MyPillow ranks. And Trump, of course, isn’t above the vile. It doesn’t hurt that there are photos of a young DeSantis surrounded by high schoolers floating around, either. As The New York Times previously reported, DeSantis was known to have socialized with seniors at parties around Darlington, a private boarding school outside of Atlanta. But there were never any allegations of misconduct. (“I’ve faced defamatory stuff every single day I’ve been governor,” DeSantis said Wednesday when asked about the post. “It just goes with the territory.”)

In terms of an attack, it’s about five levels of nuclear intensity above “DeSanctimonious,” but the timing doesn’t seem random. As my Puck partner Peter Hamby reported on Monday, DeSantis’s allies are beginning to construct what looks like a super PAC, while his gubernatorial campaign manager, Generra Peck, has apparently been putting out feelers to staff his official campaign. That same day, a Club for Growth poll was released showing DeSantis ahead of Trump in a potential matchup. 

There are some echoes here of Trump’s 2016 behavior, wherein he frequently flung unsubstantiated ad hominem allegations at his fellow Republican candidates, just to see what would stick. (Remember the time he threatened to “spill the beans” about Ted Cruz’s wife?) And the subsequent six years have, of course, obviated the need for decorum and truth in politics, especially on the far right, which now exists in a completely siloed political media ecosystem composed of MAGA social media platforms, MAGA streaming services, and MAGA cable channels. 

Both DeSantis and Trump have aggressively courted this segment of the base, with DeSantis presenting himself as a disciplined if somewhat uncharismatic leader, and Trump as an inspirational, insider-outsider street fighter. The other difference is that DeSantis has recognized that the first rule of MAGA is that you don’t go after your own. Trump’s Truths have violated the covenant.

The DeSantis-Trump war was inevitable, but it had at least been civil up to now: In recent months, the leading influencers and intellectuals within this nationalist-populist ecosystem have begun to factionalize over their views on the future of the movement. But in all my time covering the right, I have never seen MAGA attack lines turned against their own so potently as Trump’s use of “groomer.” While Trump’s campaign so far has been lackluster, with few rallies and less mainstream engagement than during his 2016 insurgency, it’s a gamble as to whether the “groomer” slur—or any other radioactive allegations of ideological and personal impropriety—will successfully sway the isolated MAGA base back to Trump’s side. “They’re so feral and instinctual about how to do this stuff,” one G.O.P. strategist told me. “The other part, too, is they don’t really care if it’s true or not, because it doesn’t matter to them. It’s a means to an end.”

And if an accusation of grooming is the opening salvo against a man who’s not even running yet, it’s likely to get much, much worse, particularly since DeSantis’s purported strength—his country-club conservative, comparatively sane demeanor—might also be a weakness. Undereducated voters may be susceptible to some of the B.S. if he doesn’t defend himself more vociferously. And Trump has always taken special glee in punching down at people who don’t fight back. 

Perhaps DeSantis is playing a longer game, but he also risks dropping the bar for how much mudslinging the G.O.P. is willing to take. “Trump gets a massive discount on his bad behavior because he’s been a bad actor in America for 50 years. No one is surprised by his antics,” the G.O.P. strategist continued. DeSantis, on the other hand, is still a relative unknown, despite his reputation as an anti-lockdown crusader turned culture warrior. “A lot of voters know he’s the anti-woke guy. Maybe he’s the Disney guy. But they don’t really know who he is. And so then they start asking these questions: Okay, if I didn’t know about this, and it’s true, what else don’t I know?

The Greene Zone

Despite Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s promises that there would be no stunts from his conference during Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last night, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene spent the day trolling. She hauled a massive white balloon (get it!?) through the halls of the Cannon Building, and gave interviews to right-wing websites while holding said prop. (“It’s just a white balloon, everybody,” she told Breitbart.) 

The performance continued through Biden’s speech: She heckled the president repeatedly, earning sharp looks and headshakes from McCarthy, whom she backed during the speaker’s race. In the aftermath, Greene remained recalcitrant. “I called him a liar because that’s what Joe Biden is,” she said in a video posted on her Twitter feed after the speech, referring to the most viral moment of the night. She later suggested that McCarthy was “not upset with any of us” who participated in the heckling.

These outbursts were particularly opportunistic for Greene, a totemic figurehead in the MAGA movement who is now perceived by many of her far-right allies as a McCarthy sympathizer. This suspicion was bolstered after she spent the days following his election warning that MAGA “patriots” should fall in line, and again after she skipped last week’s mixer, hosted by The Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks, in honor of the 20 members who voted against McCarthy. Her performative jeering was surely calculated, in part, to bolster her street cred and remind supporters that she is not, actually, anyone’s adult in the room.

The New MAGA Soho House

During the contentious speaker’s race last month, observant conservatives noticed that members of the Dark Squad (aka the Taliban 20) were filing in and out of the offices of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a relatively newish pro-Trump think tank conveniently situated two blocks from the Capitol. Even more notably, it appeared that only members of the anti-McCarthy bloc—not members of the House Freedom Caucus—were using the offices. 

Given the death grip that the group of 20 has on the current House, it’s worth taking a closer look at C.P.I.’s growing influence in G.O.P. politics, not just as an ideological home for the remnants of the Trump administration, but as a populist policy shop hoping to punch above its weight in the coming years—especially if a Republican returns to the White House.

In the hierarchy of conservative institutions in Washington, C.P.I.’s lowish rank befits its newcomer status. The behemoth, decades-old Heritage Foundation, for instance, pulled in $85 million in revenue in 2021, while C.P.I., founded in 2017 by retired Senator Jim DeMint, only pulled in $6 million in 2020, according to tax filings. (C.P.I. has raised $20 million overall, including a $1 million donation from Trump’s Save America PAC.) Leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, C.P.I. was mostly notable for its affiliation with numerous prominent 2020 election deniers, including Cleta Mitchell and Jenna Ellis, two lawyers who’d worked with the Trump team to prevent the election certification, as well as the House Freedom Caucus’s PAC, whose headquarters are literally in the Institute’s building. (Notably, several members of the 20, including Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, tape their podcasts at C.P.I.’s studio.) 

But C.P.I. also has a more ambitious mission: to build a parallel MAGA infrastructure, akin to the pre-existing arms of the conservative activist movement, focusing on placing staffers in the right government offices, writing its own MAGA policy, staffing its own MAGA legal think tank (America First Legal, founded by Stephen Miller), and building out a networking hub for like-minded Republicans. Think of it as the Heritage Foundation crossed with the Capitol Hill Club, the G.O.P. establishment’s white-bread version of Soho House.

C.P.I.’s agenda may have been set back by the midterm election, in which voters mostly rejected election-denying candidates across the country. But the ascendancy of the 20, and the fact that they were able to successfully implant a secret MAGA agenda into McCarthy’s regency, indicates that despite their tiny size, the populist movement is taking steps to institutionalize and burrow more deeply into the fabric of official Washington. Its next steps will be better researched, and more expertly plotted, regardless of whether McCarthy or the political establishment want to turn the page.