On November 15th, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican Party’s nomination for president for 2024. On present trends, he is likely but not certain to win the party’s nomination. The situation should clarify by mid-2023. Should he be the nominee, he is likely to lose, possibly even to Joe Biden again, but much will depend on how events unfold over the next two years.
In the meantime, his entry will likely diminish the prospects of whoever is the eventual Republican nominee. A rancorous and bitterly contested primary will inflict grievous wounds on all hopefuls, including Trump himself. If denied the party nomination, Trump could also do a Ross Perot and contest as an independent. No one should be under any illusion about the potential of Trump’s ego making America lose again.
Conversely, should the wind have gone out of Trump’s sails by mid-2023 and Ron DeSantis announces a run for the presidency, the party’s prospects will brighten significantly for all three of the White House, Senate and House.
On the balance of consequences, the impact on DeSantis is far more significant than enhancing Trump’s chances of winning a second term. Because DeSantis is a perfectly acceptable champion for the cause, offering almost all the advantages with none of the flaws of a Trump personality, Trump’s decision is to be regretted.
Trump launches his bid from a position of weakness after the anticipated red wave proved barely a ripple. There was a noticeable absence of buzz around the announcement.
As a three-time loser (2018 midterms, 2020 presidential and 2022 midterms), he is vulnerable to the taunt that, far from the victory fatigue that Trump predicted, instead Republicans are “‘tired of losing,” as one-time ally Chris Christie put it. Christie believes the party must engage in the fight to escape the deadweight Trump shadow and convince the faithful that “A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for a Democratic president.”
To be sure, Mitch McConnell shares the blame for the party’s underperformance in the Senate but he’s not running for president. Despite a still-loyal base, overall, Trump repels more voters than he attracts, particularly among the elections-determining independents. Exit polls showed 32/19 percent voted to oppose/support Biden and 28/16 percent to oppose/support Trump. Should Biden and/or Trump be the nominees, each would start off as a net drag on their party’s prospects with the negativity for both, I suspect, increasing as time goes on. Major donors have already signalled a shift away to younger rivals.
In contrast to Trump, the 44-year old DeSantis has shown conservatives how to fight to win. A post-midterm YouGov poll showed DeSantis leading Trump among Republicans 42-35 percent—a drop of 20 percent for Trump in less than a fortnight. Another poll for Posterity PAC shows him trailing DeSantis badly in three early voting states: 34-59 in New Hampshire, 31-59 in Iowa, 42-53 in Nevada. Still others put him behind DeSantis by 20 points in Georgia and 26 points in Florida. Elected Republicans shunned the Mar-a-Lago announcement.
Some suspect that Trump’s announcement may have been driven by the desire to shield himself from mounting legal troubles as a declared presidential candidate. Yet, in reality he may have helped to preemptively destroy the most effective shield of a Republican-controlled Senate by foisting losing candidates in winnable seats, chosen for their personal loyalty to him and his 2020 stolen election narrative. The last may or may not be true—the corruptibility of the US elections is legendary across the world—but is unquestionably an electoral millstone.
Trump was tested and found wanting on Covid, the biggest leadership challenge he faced as president. Under him US lockdowns morphed from a promised fifteen days to stop the spread into an open-ended nightmare. His fresh presidential bid came without apology for the 2020 lockdown and, says Justin Hart, a Trump voter in 2016, “his decision to approve and extend drastic Covid interventions should disqualify him for a second term.”
By contrast, after an initial but mercifully brief embrace of lockdown, DeSantis created Florida as a refuge of sanity in a world gone Covid-crazy. As Michael Senger notes, his victory is a huge win for the anti-lockdown cause.
DeSantis recognized lockdowns were based more on hysteria than science. He engaged in wide-ranging consultations with a broad assortment of experts, began to ask the tough but necessary questions, evaluated economic and social alongside health costs and harms, wasn’t impressed by other states’ and countries’ herd panic, and successfully resisted pressure from President Joe Biden, Covid oracle Anthony Fauci, and the media. All of them were baying for his blood because he was allegedly about to turn Florida into America’s new killing fields.
Christopher Rufo, who has worked with him, tells how DeSantis would read the medical-scientific literature and call staffers at all hours asking to be connected to some of the authors. During his Australia visit in October, Jay Bhattacharya confessed to being impressed by the governor’s familiarity with the current literature.
The results are in and strongly vindicate him, as does his remarkable triumph from a razor-thin majority in 2018 to colouring Florida from pale pink to ruby red with a landslide victory this year. Florida’s age-adjusted Covid metrics are among the top-performing third of US states even while it avoided many of the economic, educational and social harms whose bills are coming due in lockdown-loving states and countries.
The leadership and integrity demonstrated on Covid has also been on display in the culture wars, where DeSantis, more than anyone else, has harnessed seething rage on the hot-button issues of race, religion, gender and sexuality and picked and won much-publicized fights, including with Disney Corp. How delicious that at about the same time that DeSantis won a resounding re-election, Disney has ousted the woke CEO Bob Chapek and replaced him with his own predecessor Bob Iger. Who says history doesn’t do irony?
Expanding on DeSantis’s victory speech, Florida under him is not just where “woke goes to die,” but also where lockdowns, masks and vaccine mandates go to join wokeness in the cemetery of public policy. Priority is given instead to parental choice and individual responsibility. DeSantis is adored by working-class voters, drives the establishment crazy, and mocks the media: what’s not to like?
None of this would have amounted to much without the parallel demonstration of competent and effective governance. DeSantis has proven the equal of Trump in strength of character and willingness to fight the good fight, the superior in intellectual prowess and scientific understanding, and the more skilled at policy smarts and top-level appointments—including Dr. Joseph Ladapo as Surgeon General. And he comes without Trump’s manifest character flaws and baggage.
Trump could be hoisted on his own petard well before he has to face DeSantis. His obvious jealousy of DeSantis’s popularity and tweet incontinence could propel him to say obnoxious things that will turn off many Republicans even among his base and especially female voters. Trump’s entry will bring repeated reminders of the sleaze, chaos, and riots of his first term that most Americans want to put behind them and embrace sanity and calm ordinariness instead.
An earlier version of this was published in the Spectator Australia.