Trump’s secret is not how he flouts convention but how he projects moderation.
One year ago, the conservative intellectual class coalesced around Ron DeSantis. At the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, the governor of Florida enjoyed a kind of “coronation,” as the writer Park MacDougald observed. Initially, it looked like these people had chosen well. The governor had an impressive record. In November 2022, as Republicans came up short in several closely watched races, DeSantis cruised to victory, winning reelection as governor of Florida by 20 points. Trump was dead; DeSantis was the man of the future.
Or so it seemed. Today Trump leads the Republican field, with DeSantis running a distant second. In January, DeSantis was supported by 35 percent of Republican primary voters. Now he polls at 14 percent. DeSantis entered the race with $110 million in campaign funds. He now has a mere $5 million available to spend, around half of the amount available to his rival Nikki Haley.
What went wrong? Some things were outside the campaign’s control. Most notably, indictments of Trump only seemed to solidify the former president’s support among primary voters. But one error was eminently avoidable. The DeSantis campaign—at least large portions of its communications team—chose to operate under the assumption that Trump won in 2016 by being deliberately weird and extreme, as if he had won election by acting as an avatar of the weirder corners of the online right.
This comically wrong conclusion led to some of the most bizarre moments of the campaign. In early July, the DeSantis campaign produced an interview boasting in DeSantis’s opposition to LGBT causes and presenting Trump as compromised. It was a very “online” production, complete with emojis and music no boomer would recognize. It intercut images of DeSantis with ones of Patrick Bateman, Brad Pitt dressed as a Greek warrior, and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. This fantasia culminated with an image of a nearly naked bodybuilder whose bulging muscles glistened with oil. Critics couldn’t decide whether to denounce it as homophobic or laugh at it as unintentional camp.
Something even stranger happened later that month, when the DeSantis campaign put together a video filled with images of women in string bikinis and rockets taking off. It concluded with the image of uniformed men marching toward the Great Leader Ron DeSantis, over whom a sonnenrad appeared. The sonnenrad, sometimes referred to as the Black Sun, is associated with neo-nazi movements and is sometimes worn by fighters in Ukraine’s Azov Battallion. This Busby Berkeley jackboot fantasy was set to a song from Kate Bush, a singer hailed by Diva magazine as an “eternal queer icon.”
Both videos were produced internally and sent to external actors for unattributed publication. The intent of this subterfuge was to make it seem as though DeSantis had grassroots support—meme magic—on the online right. It reflected the campaign’s acceptance of the idea that Trump won because various odd online subcultures gathered around him.
Weird as these antics may seem, they reflect broader mistakes by the post-Trump right. Trump won by saying some unacceptable things. This led many to conclude that the right would win if it only had the courage to be less inhibited and more extreme.
Unfortunately, many failed to notice that one of the main reasons for Trump’s success was his surprising moderation, even his strange normality. To be sure, Trump flouted all kinds of conventions, often unadvisedly. But in many ways he tacked toward the center.
As other Republicans denounced Obamacare, Trump made sympathetic noises about public health care. When Ted Cruz accused him of supporting socialized medicine, Trump said, “I will not let people die on the streets.” Likewise, Trump rejected Republican calls for cutting entitlements and called an end to nation-building. In all these ways, he tacked away from the ideological extreme.
The center Trump appealed to wasn’t that of the college-educated class, but one approximating the views of many less educated voters. It responded to his opposition to immigration, and didn’t mind his deviation from conservative orthodoxy.
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Trump’s normality at times frustrated social conservatives. Even as he hammered Democrats for being extreme on abortion and promised to appoint pro-life justices, he presented himself as a moderate. The same was true on LGBT issues, where Trump’s moderation was made more manifest, to the frustration of social conservatives.
A lot of this has been lost on Trump fans who take him as a model of the importance of being “based,” a term that originally referred to someone who free-bases cocaine—and resultingly flouts the demands of sober society. Trump did have the courage to puncture some false pieties. But he was never indifferent to what normal people wanted and found appealing. Even when he seemed extreme, he was trying to appeal to people who have no interest in boutique ideologies.
Those glad to have cast aside the catechism of yesterday’s GOP should not imagine that it can be replaced by a more esoteric ideology. Since Trump’s election, rightwing “-isms” have seemed to proliferate endlessly. While there are insights in some of these, all suffer from a lack of contact with reality. The American right has spent the last several years getting weird. It might be time for a return to normality.