It is incredibly entertaining watching the dreams of Ron DeSantis and his billionaire power-broker backers crumble before our eyes. I mean, super entertaining. But beyond the hilarity there are some more serious points to note about what we’re seeing.
First a bit of stage setting.
We’re seeing lots of commentary now about all the mistakes DeSantis is making or has made. Be skeptical of that. The issue is more that his whole Trump-slaying candidacy was basically a mirage. If DeSantis didn’t exist his supporters would have had to invent him. And they did invent him, because he doesn’t exist. After 2020 and especially after the 2022 misfire there were lots of Republicans, especially the big donors and operatives, who wanted to put an end to the Trump Era. The question was who could pull that off. DeSantis was succeeding politically in Florida with a pretty Trumpian agenda. So he made a lot of sense as the guy. Ron was definitely up for it. But all the eye-popping poll results and all the big money men lining up behind him had virtually nothing to do with the actual person Ron DeSantis, who is at best not a people person or a terribly dynamic campaigner.
He was the way station for the support of people who — all things being equal — wanted to move on from Trump. The second his Trump-Slayer bonafides took a hit he was always going to drop like a stone. Which is what’s happening right now. The support was a mirage. So don’t be too hard on the guy for squandering his big chance since it was always an illusion in the first place.
Also important: DeSantis has no theory of the case. It’s not that it is a hard nut to crack. It’s not that no one is smart enough to come up with a plan to dislodge Trump. It’s that Trump is really popular among Republicans and he’s the leader of the GOP. So of course it’s hard to dislodge him. Basically that’s the whole thing. It’s going to be super hard to dislodge Trump because Trump is who most Republicans want. Simple as that. But what’s definitely not going to work is running to be the successor to the adored Trump while Trump is still there running to be the successor to himself. State it plainly like that and it’s obvious.
All of these clowns think they can square that circle when they can’t. Haley, Scott, Pompeo. The only plausible path to dethroning Trump is a candidate who says something like this: “You know what? F*ck Trump! Yeah, I supported him and he did some good stuff. But this is ridiculous. He’s still stuck on losing the 2020 election. If you can’t get the job done move aside for someone who can. Don’t make excuses. He’s in hot water for paying off a pornstar and he might be in jail by 2025. It’s a joke. I’m better. Let’s move on.”
Would that work? Probably not. But it might. And I guarantee you it’s the only angle that has any chance, albeit a very slim one because again …. Republicans like Trump.
Most of what we’ve seen over the last six or seven weeks is what we noted above. Once it became clear that it would be super hard for DeSantis to satisfy the wishy-washy desires of a minority of the GOP to move on from Trump his support began to drop like a stone. Then his fall became the story. That’s the key to dig into. Aside from a few hits on Social Security and Medicare, nothing in the GOP presidential world over the last couple months has had anything to do with policy or even governance, even by the stupidest and most trivial standards. I’m not saying it’s not about white papers and big think. They’re not even talking about drag shows or police. What you’ve seen is a fairly choreographed series of events the upshot of which is to make DeSantis seem weak, hapless, helpless and absurd. That is the language of Trumpism – denigration and humiliation.
We’ve discussed in the past how much of politics is made of performative aggression and the ability to dominate. This is something like the other side of that coin. Once you look stupid, weak and helpless — to other Republicans — you can never be their nominee. You simply can’t come back from that. You wouldn’t have a great shot as a Democrat either. But performative dominance and strongmanism aren’t the centerpiece of Democratic political culture. So it’s not the same thing.
Trump already had DeSantis on the ropes. Then he managed to get all his House supporters to endorse Trump right as DeSantis started haplessly trying to get them to endorse him. Like a trapdoor Meatball Ron walked on to when he thought he was making his move. Then last night they all went for dinner and took pictures at Mar-a-Lago. Suddenly he’s the loser who didn’t get invited to the party. Trump always talks about how the other countries are laughing at us here in America. He threw a party for everyone to laugh at Ron. Endorsements in themselves mean almost nothing. This is performative humiliation. It’s the language of Republican politics.
It’s pretty remarkable that right now you have half the stories in the GOP primary discussion being about DeSantis’s social awkwardness and non-glad-handing nature. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez gave an interview in which he said DeSantis “struggles with relationships, generally” and has a hard time making eye contact, especially when shaking people’s hands. Good lord. The first major introduction most people are getting to DeSantis is as a sort of poorly socialized teen or semi-feral loser who needs to go to cotillion or some kind of developmental therapy just to become normal.
And where is DeSantis during his public disemboweling? He’s nowhere to be seen. I’m sure he must have shown up on camera somewhere. He threatened to build a prison near Disney World. But he hasn’t shown up anywhere to contest his public humiliation. And that is just as much part of the spectacle. Because true weakness in that thunderdome political culture is being unwilling or unable to defend yourself. He is, as they say in other contexts, telling on himself.
The issue isn’t that DeSantis is falling in the polls. It’s not that Trump is lining up more endorsements. Those are setbacks but not unrecoverable ones. One could point to the resurrections of John Kerry in 2004 or John McCain in 2008 as possible examples of proof of concept recoveries. His problem is that he was always in a much, much tougher fight than most seemed to realize. And now Trump — with huge help from DeSantis himself — has effectively disqualified DeSantis in the symbol drama of dominance and humiliation which are the center of all Republican politics today.