Yesterday was my first day at a CPAC event, ever. I expected it to be MAGA-friendly, but man, I had no idea, no idea at all. This kind of thing was everywhere:
I honestly don't get it. I mean, I get being fed up with the pre-Trump GOP establishment. I get liking a lot of things about Trump. I can even understand why someone would have voted for him in 2016 and 2020, and I don't actually have to try hard. Though I believe he was rightly impeached for his disgraceful January 6 conduct, I am not, nor have I ever been, a Never Trumper. I'm in a weird no-man's land of not liking Trump, but of disliking even more the Republicans and the media who arrayed themselves against him. Nobody is happy with me on that! I get it. But I yam what I yam.
What I find impossible to understand is why there is so much Trump nostalgia among the conservative masses when there is, right now, an actual Republican governor who stands for a lot of the aggressive populist conservatism that Trump symbolized, but who -- unlike Trump -- actually knows how to use political power, and is willing to do it. I'm talking about Ron DeSantis of Florida.
Yesterday, Gov. DeSantis took the extraordinary -- but constitutionally valid -- step of suspending a local, Soros-backed progressive DA who had publicly refused to enforce Florida law governing abortion and gender ideology regarding children. Here's the governor on Tucker last night explaining why he did it:
Crazy Ron DeSantis actually expects that DAs should enforce the law, even if progressives don't like those laws! Whoever heard of such a thing? It's almost like Ron DeSantis isn't embarrassed to be conservative, and that he understands that conservatism is about more than reducing taxes and blessing the priorities of business. In fact, by laying into Disney after it stuck its mousy snout into Florida's ban on pushing gender ideology on captive public schoolchildren, the Florida governor showed something unheard of among senior Republican politicians: the guts to kick woke capitalism in the nuts.
Michael Brendan Dougherty writes today in praise of DeSantis's actions to remove barriers to conservative governance. He notes how impressive it is to see a Republican governor who doesn't sit passively by while the aggressive Left frustrates the will of voters. MBD also favorably contrasts DeSantis to Trump. Excerpt:
And maybe, as the political calendar begins winding from this long summer toward the midterms and then the 2024 cycle, conservatives will look back on the last two years and longer and recognize that DeSantis was their leader even while Trump was still in office. It was DeSantis, more than any other governor, who took on the “mantle of anger” over lockdown policies and the broad closure of society. Florida was rewarded with a bigger economic bounce out of the pandemic, and inward migration.
Donald Trump’s currency with some conservative voters was built on his willingness to break taboos. Trump’s playing the media game by his own rules seemed to indicate that he would really deliver on a different type of governance from what was on offer from the usual Bush scions. But in many cases, he wouldn’t or couldn’t.
DeSantis is not a wild man like Trump, but he has been willing to take up conservative causes that other deep-red-state governors (looking at you, Utah and Arkansas) won’t touch at all. And he seems to relish the fight with the media, the corporations, or the bureaucracy — the forces that turn conservative victories into long-run defeats. When conservatives look back on the last few years, who was taking on Dr. Fauci? Or defeating woke indoctrination in schools? Or putting progressive corporate activists back in their place? And who was AWOL on all those fights because he was too busy sulking about drop boxes?
Ain't that the truth! I saw only one DeSantis t-shirt in all of CPAC yesterday (though to be fair, I didn't see all the vendors). Everything else was MAGA, or "Let's Go, Brandon". The 2024 energy among the most politicized conservatives -- the kind who come to CPAC -- is all around a Trump restoration. This is going to be hard for DeSantis to counter if he chooses to run for president in 2024. The truth is that while Donald Trump mostly just talks about things, Ron DeSantis actually gets things done. Trump talks the talk, but DeSantis walks the walk.
I saw that Viktor Orban had a long visit with Trump in New Jersey prior to Orban's appearance at CPAC. Orban genuinely admires Trump, and seems to be counting on Trump regaining office. That might not be a bad bet, but as I've said in this space in the past, Orban is much more like DeSantis than Trump. Yes, he's a taboo-breaker, as Trump was, but more than anything Orban is like DeSantis in that he combines anti-establishment conservative principles with actual political and legislative skill. A lot of liberals are understandably freaking out about the possibility of a Trump return (though I was talking to a couple of reporters yesterday, and they were speculating that distressed media outlets like CNN desperately need Trump to come back to save them). If you really do believe that Trump poses an existential threat to democracy -- I don't, but let's say that you do -- then you are right to freak out. A lot of conservatives might take that freakout as a sign that Trump is the right call for 2024. The thing is, a President DeSantis would be a far greater threat to progressive priorities, precisely because he's good at politics, and because he offers aggressive conservative governance without all the ridiculous drama Trump created.
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In fact, if Trump really believed in ideas, not solely himself, he would announce that he wasn't going to run in 2024, and throw his support to DeSantis as his worthy heir. That would make DeSantis unstoppable. But Trump won't do that. If it comes, the GOP presidential primary showdown between Trump and DeSantis is going to be hella good politics.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
The undying enthusiasm for Trump and the comparative lack of enthusiasm for DeSantis is centered on four key assumptions by the American Right, all wrong:
- Trump was an effective president: In reality, he was just another milquetoast Republican in the White House. There’s a reason why, over time, his biggest supporters were converts who initially supported Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio in the 2016 primary: Trump’s presidency came to be viewed by them as a Reagan redux. People like Victor Davis Hanson are representative of this view. Only now is the Right just starting to move away from the Reagan era, but this is still something hard for them to manage, because Reagan was the central figure in American right-wing politics for 40 years.
- Trump had the support of the “silent majority:” Trump’s popularity on the Right is undeniable. But his unpopularity among the general public is also undeniable. I find it tragically comedic that the same people on the Right who point to Biden’s subterranean unpopularity also think Trump’s unpopularity never mattered one bit. Generally speaking, presidents whose approval ratings were as low as Trump’s for most of his presidency and low as Biden’s today don’t win re-election. Anyone who doesn’t understand this is living by lies.
- The 2020 election was stolen: Without ruling out the prevalence of voter fraud, for Trump to have won in 2020, this assumes he was more popular than he actually was. Again, he’s not. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans and most Americans aren’t committed ideologues for either side. You can say that Trump wasn’t given a fair shake by the media (he wasn’t), but you can also say he didn’t exactly help his own case, either. Either way, Americans saw what they saw, most of it not good. If Biden’s being judged on his record (serves his arrogant a** right!), Trump was judged on his image and Americans didn’t like what they saw. I can’t blame them, I really can’t. The outcome of the 2020 election, you don’t have to like it, but it’s at least perfectly consistent with how things went for Trump, which is why I’m not moved by allegations of fraud. Trump didn’t deserve to have the election stolen from him, but he didn’t deserve to win it, either.
- Taking things seriously is less fun than talking s**t: I’m not sure the Right is really ready for serious governance. I’m not sure they’ve really thought of it, either. The fixation on 2020 belies an important counterfactual: does anyone on the Right want Trump to be in charge when things are going so poorly? Biden’s victory has done more damage to the Left in less than two years than the Left could’ve inflicted on himself in four years of Trump. A serious person is able to accept this as fact.
One more thing: many people on the non-Woke Left and independents have become more open to the idea of DeSantis as president. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time someone on the Right was viewed favorably by anyone other than Republicans. It’s been a long time for certain. Even Bill Maher had to point out DeSantis as president would, at the very least, not be a bad thing and Maher is someone who rarely had something nice to say about a Republican.
But too many on the Right see this as a strike against DeSantis. As if it’s a bad thing he could get more votes from the body politic at-large than Trump. This isn’t Liz Cheney we’re talking about, someone who literally nobody would vote for, especially not the Democrats who seem to like her so much. Again, see the unseriousness on much of the Right. They prefer Trump because his s**t-talking is more fun than actually getting stuff done. Even though Trump would undoubtedly lose the general election at this juncture, even if he overwhelmingly wins the primary. Even though Trump’s only upside is his willingness to say the quiet part out loud. Beyond that, there’s really nothing to Trump. He doesn’t have some grand understanding of the world, he merely understands very simple truths and is willing to say them out loud. That’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. We need more.
That all said, Trump, if he runs again, will win the primary and will go on to lose the general and after that, if anyone thinks the Left can’t get much worse now, just you wait. Gavin Newsom could very well be our next president.