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Donald Trump keeps stepping on Ron DeSantis’ spotlight

It’s still a long way until the first Republican primaries but unless something changes quickly, it is looking more and more grim for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and more and more secure for former President Donald Trump. The polls in the early primary states show that Trump is still polling at least 20 points higher than DeSantis, whose numbers continue to drop.

DeSantis appeared on Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo’s show this weekend and insisted that he’s floundering because the news media doesn’t want him to be the nominee, which isn’t true at all. If anything they were champing at the bit for a real horse race against Trump because that would make for excellent copy. But it is reasonable to ask why DeSantis has been sinking in the polls over the last few months.

The consensus among the pundit class seems to be that he’s just unlikable so the more people see of him the less they like him. I suspect there’s some truth to that. But it may just be the contrast between him and Trump, the political superstar. As Kate Briquelet of the Daily Beast reported from the Moms for Liberty presidential cattle call after Trump’s keynote speech:

“He has so much charisma,” a man told me in the elevator afterward. “The guy is just electric! I love DeSantis, he’s my guy, but he doesn’t have the same charm.”

I long ago chalked up this inexplicable attraction to Trump to the fact that his following still views him as a celebrity, which he was before he got into politics, and now they have turned him into a superhero. He really isn’t seen as a politician at all. Poor, dull Ron DeSantis can’t compete with that.

There’s no doubt that Trump’s cult of personality is very powerful and it almost has a life of its own. But there is more to it than that. It’s about his message as well.

Unlike DeSantis, Trump understands that the base isn’t just about the culture war defined by the outrage of the day or some far-right think tanker’s obscure jargon-laden hobby horse like “DEI” or “CRT.”

We know all about Ron DeSantis’ message by now. He’s been relentlessly pushing his “anti-woke” agenda and enacting it in every way he could manage in Florida to show that he is the guy who will make the MAGA crowd’s internet memes come true. There is nobody out there who takes the culture war as seriously as DeSantis and he doesn’t just confine himself to a few hot button issues, he embraces all of them. There is literally nothing else he seems to care about.

Yair Rosenberg in the Atlantic submits that DeSantis turned Florida into a right-wing hellscape and obsessively said the word “woke” for a year and a half as his strategy to win Iowa which is full of white conservative evangelical voters. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true but it’s yet another example of his general ineptitude. It’s certainly possible that he could ride the culture war to a win in Iowa just as President Ted Cruz, President Mike Huckabee and President Rick Santorum did but let’s just say it’s a little bit short-sighted to create your entire persona and record for the purpose of winning the state that specialized in producing also-rans. Since 1980, a GOP candidate who won Iowa (aside from incumbents) only went on to win the nomination twice.

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And anyway, it appears that Trump is likely going to win Iowa because the conservative evangelicals like him too. It’s not as if he isn’t a hardcore culture warrior too. Despite DeSantis’ attempt to paint him as soft on “the gender issue” (which seems to be the issue that has the Iowa evangelicals all riled up) he’s got some nasty anti-trans policies he can point to, like his order to expel transgender members of the military when he was president and his orders to redefine sex discrimination to exclude protections for transgender people in education, housing, and employment, as well as health care. And he’s announced that when he is returned to the White House he will “revoke every Biden policy promoting the chemical castration and sexual mutilation of our youth and ask Congress to send me a bill prohibiting child sexual mutilation in all 50 states.” Trump has even gone so far as to promise, “on Day One, I will sign an executive order instructing every federal agency to cease the promotion of sex or gender transition at any age, they’re not gonna do it anymore,” which even the anti-trans warrior DeSantis hasn’t proposed.

Trump is also taking credit for reversing Roe v. Wade and is fine with the “parents’ rights” movement pushing Christian education in public schools. He and DeSantis spar over the pandemic response but that issue is rapidly losing salience. In other words, DeSantis can’t really get to Trump’s right no matter how hard he tries. When Trump says stuff like “‘Democrats are pushing the transgender cult” on young people while “persecuting Christians” and “demonizing patriots'” it goes straight to the wingnut lizard brain. Nobody does it better.

But unlike DeSantis, Trump understands that the base isn’t just about the culture war defined by the outrage of the day or some far-right think tanker’s obscure jargon-laden hobby horse like “DEI” or “CRT.” Sure, he’ll go along with it. (Remember how he would blurt out that he was going to do away with “Common Core” during the 2016 election?) But his themes are much simpler and much broader. He understands that what moves the Republican base is their grievance writ large and he speaks directly to that.

Much of the Trumpian rhetoric that penetrates the national consciousness is about his personal legal travails and his persecution complex — but that plays into the grievance in new ways in this campaign. He claims he’s being indicted “for you,” his loyal followers, and that he’s the only thing standing between the government and them. That’s the superhero appeal.

And he knows that what drives the base isn’t really sincere concern about “woke ideology” or Christian morality. (That’s obvious since he is a corrupt libertine, pathological liar and they love him anyway.) What drives them is a loathing of their perceived enemies and it applies to whatever those enemies are doing whether it’s supporting Ukraine’s fight to repel the invasion by Russia or teaching that slavery was bad and had long-term consequences that still reverberate today. The details don’t really matter. Whatever the “other side” is against they are for and vice versa, without regard to the substance.

Donald Trump understands this. He told them in his announcement speech, “I am your retribution” which is what they really care about. DeSantis’ laundry list of “anti-woke” achievements misses the big picture. None of that really resonates unless you can tap into the emotional wellspring of resentment and sense of injustice that fuels the MAGA right. Trump does that instinctively because he is one of them.

The Republican base yearns to be a movement (some might call it a cult) rather than a political party and under Donald Trump, they’ve completely moved beyond politics as we used to define them. DeSantis is just another politician — and that’s the last thing these people want. 

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