Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got off to a close tie with former President Donald Trump in this year’s polls, but started losing ground in March and continued to slump into the spring. Notably, the decline began before Trump’s first indictment. A July Economist/YouGovAmerica poll put Trump at 49% and DeSantis at 20% in the multi-candidate Republican primary, roughly in line with the poll average. A Morning Consult poll released last week showed Mr. Trump’s approval rating at a whopping 56%, and Mr. DeSantis’s approval rating at a dismal 17%.
Fate can still change. Complaints about DeSantis’ campaigns often sound generic. He lacks the specific resources to run from a statewide position to the presidency. He has no charisma. His staff is not fit for president. His message is too closed and online.
Perhaps all this is more or less true. Still, there is something strange about this campaign that was started with the momentum, the money, and the apparent enthusiasm of the Republican elite and grassroots. But that oddity has less to do with Mr. DeSantis’ personal awkwardness or his (now non-fatal) failings, and may have more to do with the odd mental map of Republican primary voters.
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Mr. DeSantis has carefully positioned himself to be the right-wing avenger that many in the Republican constituency seem to covet. He has proven that he intends to attack the enemies of the Republican Party’s white supremacist base and those who seek to oust white Christian conservatives from the top of the country’s political and social hierarchy. Immigrants, transgender children, librarians, university professors, and entire awakened industrial complexes will suffer under President DeSantis. He will convey the authoritarian threat of Trumpism, but eliminate the ignorance, confusion, criminality and incompetence that have characterized Trump’s presidency.
Why is that pitch not working?
New York Times columnist David French offered one wise and persuasive suggestion last week. DeSantis provokes the ire of Republican supporters, but he does not capture the joy of befriending his MAGA compatriots, he wrote. Trump’s boat parades, Trump’s tailgates, Trump rallies — “Thousands of ink leaked analyzing the rage of the MAGA movement, but too few discussing its joy,” French wrote.
Trump certainly has his own peculiarities. But it’s also true that his typical performance is full of lies and bitterness. Part of the fun and good times are at the expense of those outside MAGA Pail. A Trump rally is a date with insult cartoons, most of which are directed at people far more honest, capable and decent than Trump.
But like the moon held in orbit by the superior gravity of a larger celestial body, the entire Republican Party continues to revolve around Trump’s jagged ego.
There are many escape routes in the presidential primary. Some candidates, including South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and former Vice President Mike Pence, seem keen to pave the way for democracy for those who miss the dull, predictable days when Republicans supported the rule of law. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has advocated anti-Trump activism with Trump’s hallmarks. Rich man Vivek Ramaswamy proposes a mysterious voyage to an unknown place. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivers whatever you ask for in an instant.
Any of these figures, perhaps even the inexperienced Ramaswamy, would make a less destructive leader than Trump. (DeSantis promises a political variation on the neutron bomb. He will destroy liberal America by leaving all MAGA monuments untouched.) Still, Republican voters are hesitant to walk out of the damp MAGA basement, even in partial sunlight.
Perhaps a third of Republicans have crossed psychological boundaries and fallen into the Trump cult. A focus group conducted by Republican (anti-Trump) pollster Sarah Longwell tells the alternate world the group lives in, where every day is a day of opposites. “I like this guy because everything he says is true,” said one focus group participant about the most flagrant and apparently flagrant liar ever to have operated at the presidential level in American politics. Some argue that it is politically advantageous to lie about a deadly pandemic, and that President Trump, who contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, is a selfless hero who entered politics and sacrificed a lavish lifestyle and a thriving business to protect a little man.
Cults are weird and scary. But he remains in the minority within the party.
“There’s about 10% of people in the party who are ‘absolutely Trump,’ but no more,” Republican pollster Whit Ayers said in a phone interview. “There is the ‘always Trump’ faction, which is about a third of the party, say 35%. There is the ‘maybe Trump’ faction of people who voted for him twice, supported him when he was president, and will soon vote for him again against Biden. But they worry that he has too much baggage, that too many people hate him, and that he won’t be able to win in 2024. So they are at least open to alternatives. They have yet to see an alternative they would like to rally. “
In other words, the critical majority of the party, who perceive Trump as a flawed vessel to get what they want, remain open to Trump. And they may continue to support the cult in rallies against the indicted former president.
The Republican debate begins in August, and perhaps the dynamics on stage will change perceptions and possibilities. Perhaps DeSantis will find a way to market Trumpism without Trump, or someone else will shine. But it’s clear that President Trump’s playground control game still appeals to Republican voters. It seems that he succeeded in damaging DeSantis’ position, but it will be difficult to regain it.
“No one has figured out how to counter President Trump’s full-scale barrage,” Ayers said. “So he raises a veiled allegation of pedophilia not just about your personality and background (obviously), but also your appearance and background. So Trump doesn’t draw the line at all.”
With a third of party members occupying the MAGA homestead on the planet Trump, and most of the remaining party members still contemplating putting down roots there, it seems that Trump as an individual may be more appealing to most Republican voters than the less outlandish and capable transmitter of Trumpism.
It’s hard to know what to think about it. On the one hand, a weaker attraction to Trumpism could be a boon for democracy in the long run, suggesting that authoritarianism without the Trump-specific circus has limited appeal. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans remain preoccupied with clearly perverted, clearly hurtful and toxic agitators. There is a madness in the air, and perhaps even more madness.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor at The Week, a writer at Rolling Stone magazine, a communications consultant, and a political media strategist.