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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch
In 2016, the dearest wish of anti-Trump conservatives was a binary choice in the presidential primary between the frontrunner and a Reaganite challenger.
It may have taken eight years, but our wish has been granted abundantly. The challenger this cycle is more likable than Ted Cruz was, less prone to pandering to the party’s worst elements, and has executive experience as a former governor. She also resembles a diversifying America more than standard-issue Republican politicians tend to do. If you worry about the GOP’s crumbling support in the country’s suburbs, you couldn’t ask for a candidate more superficially suited to rebuild it than Nikki Haley.
At long last, we have Donald Trump where we want him. Are you excited?
With Ron DeSantis’ departure from the race, Trump is poised to crack 60 percent in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The odds of him beating Haley by 25 points are easily greater than the odds of her pulling an upset. Insofar as she’s competitive, it’s only because she’s attracting support from centrist independents who are keen to vote against Trump in the Republican primary. In national polls of GOP voters, she’s nearly 55 points behind.
The two-candidate race we wanted is here, nice and early in the primary schedule too. As the saying goes: Be careful what you wish for.
There’ll be more to say about New Hampshire later this week. Today, we should spend our time bidding farewell to the governor of Florida, who remained true to both himself and his party on Sunday by exiting the race in the wormiest way possible.
Watch the video of his announcement if you like, but I can summarize it in three points.
Ron DeSantis seemed happier than I’ve ever seen him, almost lifelike in his relatable human joy at having been freed from a miserable ordeal.
The stirring quote he misattributed to Winston Churchill—“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”—appears to have come from an old Budweiser ad, which feels like a joke on the shallowness of populist politics.
His endorsement of Trump in closing, punctuated by this: “He has my endorsement because we can’t go back to the old Republican guard of yesteryear—a repackaged form of warmed-over corporatism—that Nikki Haley represents.”
I have robust contempt for Ron DeSantis, but not so robust that I believe he’d earnestly rather place America’s fate in the hands of Donald Trump than of Nikki Haley. Or of Joe Biden, for that matter.
Nor do I think he believes his endorsement will matter a whit in New Hampshire or beyond. Most of his voters were headed back to Trump regardless of DeSantis’ wishes. Had the governor endorsed Haley, his support would have been worth … what? An extra 1 percent for her?
DeSantis’ endorsement is significant not because of its sincerity or electoral consequences but because of its political meaning. The great hope of the post-Trump right, a man who aimed to forge a new direction for his party by synthesizing populism and conservatism, in the end came to understand that being a Republican in 2024 means nothing less—and certainly nothing more—than supporting Donald Trump. Full stop.
I’ll spare you a lengthy postmortem of his campaign, as every political publication in the country has one today, including us, and I’ve already written what feels like 50 pre-morterms. (But do check out the photo obtained by NBC News of the head of DeSantis’ super PAC immersed in a jigsaw puzzle while staffers around him worked. Pictures, a thousand words, etc.) It comes down to this: The governor pursued a strategy that was risky bordering on insane, and when it didn’t work, he and his operation weren’t nearly competent enough to adjust nimbly.
DeSantis once thought, as I once thought, that he stood a credible chance of peeling away many MAGA voters. As of late 2022, everything pointed to his ability to do so. He was more electable than Trump, per the results of the midterms; he had carried out a more aggressive populist agenda as governor than Trump had as president; and, perhaps most importantly, there were no indictments pending against Trump that might have caused undecided Republican voters to resent what they saw as Democratic interference in their party’s primary.
But then the indictments happened. DeSantis’ polling against Joe Biden slipped as he went full metal populist and voters got to know him, weakening his electability case. Core elements of his program, like resisting COVID restrictions and attacking “woke” indoctrination in schools, felt passé as the pandemic receded. MAGA voters weren’t budging. Maybe a candidate with unusual charisma and a top-flight operation could have overcome those setbacks through the force of his personality and organization. Think “Bill Clinton, but Republican.”
Ron DeSantis wasn’t Bill Clinton, though. In the end, he wasn’t even Hillary Clinton.
And so that, really, was that. He bet everything on his ability to crack Trump’s base. Either that task was truly impossible, as it normally is in cults, or it would have taken a more talented politician to accomplish it.
Today, however, I’m less interested in why DeSantis lost than how he lost. Consider what he might have said, or not said, in Sunday’s withdrawal announcement.
He might have refused to make an endorsement, as Chris Christie did when he dropped out. No biggie, if so: Again, Trump’s chances of victory do not hinge on Ron DeSantis’ support, to put it mildly.
He might have endorsed the party rather than a candidate in order to signal to GOP voters that he remains a team player. “I’ll support the eventual Republican nominee, and I expect that will be Trump.”
Or, if he was intent on burnishing his populist bona fides by grousing about “blah blah old-guard corporatism,” he might have done so without endorsing anyone. “I’ll support any Republican as nominee who resolves to put the working people of this country first. No more corporate giveaways, no more cheap illegal labor, no more blood and treasure defending countries most of us can’t find on a map.” That message would have been true to the image DeSantis had tried to create for himself in the race as the candidate who took populism seriously. If it’s the policy that matters above all, he should have endorsed the policy alone in exiting.
But he knew that wouldn’t have worked. To be a Republican politician in good standing now is to be pro-Trump, not pro-populism. And you don’t get to be pro-Trump on your timetable, as Ted Cruz discovered in 2016. If you want anything resembling a future in this party, you must be pro-Trump on Trump’s timetable.
It’s no coincidence that two South Carolinians who literally owe their jobs to Nikki Haley opted to endorse Trump in the last 72 hours, days before she makes her last stand. As governor, Haley appointed Tim Scott to the Senate; on Friday he held a rally with Trump in New Hampshire. As a former governor, Haley rallied behind Rep. Nancy Mace in her 2022 House primary against a Trump-backed challenger; on Monday Mace rewarded that good deed by … endorsing Trump.
Trump doesn’t need Scott or Mace’s endorsements either, of course. But he coveted them and asked for them before New Hampshire, I assume, because it tickled him to watch people who owe Haley favors nonetheless choose him over her in her hour of political need. It’s a bit of gratuitous humiliation for his last remaining challenger and a show of his strength that he can make senators and House members who should rightly align with his opponent perform silly little political pet tricks for him on demand. Especially those like Mace, who once had a lot to say about January 6, 2021.
Endorsing Trump in his farewell announcement was DeSantis’ version of that. After all he’s been through, imagine how it must have pained him to have to perform a similarly degrading pet trick as he left the stage. And how much Trump must have relished that pain.
Trump and his team impugned the governor repeatedly during the campaign, questioning his manhood, accusing him of trying to cheat in Iowa, even speculating that he used alcohol to groom underaged girls for sex when he taught high school as a young man. Ted Cruz is no one’s idea of a manly man, but he had enough male pride after being smeared by Trump on the trail in 2016 to have withheld his endorsement from the nominee during his convention speech.
DeSantis, by comparison, couldn’t get through a brief video declaring the end of his campaign without endorsing Trump. When advisors to the former president reportedly took to calling DeSantis “Tiny D” in private, they didn’t know the half of it.
I assume Team Trump made clear to DeSantis behind the scenes that his first step in mending fences would be to endorse the frontrunner before New Hampshire, not after. In fairness to DeSantis, the Republican Party today is dominated by Trump to a vastly greater degree than the party Cruz contended with in 2016. There’s no political room left to say “maybe later,” let alone “no.” But I wouldn’t put it past him and his advisors to have deduced the timetable Trump expected of them without any nudging from intermediaries and to have complied voluntarily. For any young Republican with grand political aspirations, the appropriate time to endorse Trump is plainly the first available opportunity. So that’s what DeSantis did.
But that leaves us with a question I can’t answer. Why does Ron DeSantis, or anyone else with an ounce of respect for America’s civic tradition, want a future in this party at this point?
In time, I think the 2024 Republican primary will be remembered for three core absurdities it revealed about the modern right:
Trump grew stronger in polling the more enormous his already immense political liabilities, from indictments to disqualification efforts, became.
Making the most obvious and powerful case against him—that he’s a twice-impeached, coup-plotting, probable felon with an alarming authoritarian streak—was deemed so offensive to Republican voters that his top opponents didn’t dare to.
The more irredeemably obnoxious the GOP becomes, the more desperate young Republican politicians seem to grow in their desire to remain viable within it.
That third point is a real puzzler.
Watching Scott, Mace, and DeSantis fall in line the past few days reminded me of how different the “vibe” around Trump’s endorsements has been this cycle than it was in 2016. Back then, it was taken for granted that Hillary Clinton would beat him in the general election. For mainstream conservatives like Nikki Haley, endorsing the nominee was a simple matter of paying partisan tribute in anticipation of the big defeat. After Trump lost, Haley types would swoop in to pick up the pieces and put the party back on a Reaganite track.
The vibe this cycle is altogether different. Each endorsement feels like a capitulation to the fact that there’s no longer a conservative track to get back on. Trump is the party now. You can either endorse that reality or leave.
So that’s what DeSantis did, the argle-bargle in his endorsement about “corporatism” notwithstanding. In a second term, Donald Trump could prove to be the most slavishly “corporatist” president in American history and you wouldn’t hear a peep about it from the governor, who now has many amends to make with Trumpworld to preserve his presidential dreams. DeSantis would rather maintain his small, diminishing chance to lead this party in four years by acquiescing to whatever Trump demands than to leave politics.
That’s the significance of yesterday’s endorsement. It’s as frank an admission as we’re likely to get (except possibly in Nikki Haley’s forthcoming endorsement of the frontrunner) that there’s nothing left of the GOP except supporting the party’s leader.
That’s ominous in any context, but really ominous when that leader is prone to babbling that he should be immune from prosecution for anything he might do in office, even when he “crosses the line.” If you thought congressional Republicans were weak and reluctant to move against Trump for impeachable offenses in his first term, wait until you see how they operate in a second term now that there’s no longer even a pretense that the party stands for something grander than empowering Trump. Given a choice in this primary between a two-time popular-vote loser facing 91 criminal counts and a number of qualified challengers, Republican voters chose the former—overwhelmingly. Their representatives in government will draw the obvious conclusion about where their loyalties should lie going forward.
In fact, do you want to see the future of the Republican Party? I give you Elise Stefanik.
In the past few days, Stefanik has dismissed E. Jean Carroll’s sexual-abuse civil verdict against Trump as some sort of media creation; accused the judge in Carroll’s defamation suit of interfering with the New Hampshire primary by granting a motion for a trial delay made by Trump’s own lawyer; and even tried to paper over Trump’s embarrassing confusion of Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi when talking about January 6 this past weekend. “Well, sure, she wants to be Trump’s running mate,” you might say. “She’ll say anything to please him.”
But that’s my point. If you want to advance in this party, that’s what it takes now. Despite having a comparatively liberal voting record, preternatural shameless sycophancy toward Trump has taken Stefanik further in the GOP than most—and might carry her all the way to the national ticket. Other ambitious Republicans, including Ron DeSantis, will draw the obvious conclusion about that, as well.
There’s no place left in a party like this for a conservative who takes their ideology halfway seriously. In fact, I think there’s real peril in remaining.
On Sunday, Jonathan Chait marveled in New York magazine at how many concessions traditional conservatives made to the populist right in hoping to join forces with them to boost DeSantis and save the Republican coalition. After all, the governor embraced all sorts of illiberal nonsense before and during his campaign to woo MAGA voters. Less than a month ago, he vowed that, on his first day as president, he would fire the federal prosecutor who charged Trump. As recently as last week, he warned a crowd in New Hampshire that each new COVID vaccine booster one receives makes one more likely to contract COVID.
When the news of his withdrawal broke on Sunday, I joked to a friend that it was a sad day for the anti-vax movement and for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.
It’s one thing to prefer DeSantis to Trump as nominee, warts and all, on “lesser of two evils” grounds. It’s another thing entirely to proactively wish to be governed by such a character. Yet many conservatives who should have known better seem to have talked themselves into just that—and, by doing so, into tolerating or excusing the governor’s many offenses against classical liberalism. One wonders what other ideological “accommodations” would have been made, had DeSantis won the presidency, in the interest of keeping the GOP’s rotten union of liberals and illiberals together. What might “conservatism” have ultimately come to mean under his leadership?
It’s already drifted too far from what it used to mean. You see it in the trajectory of Trump’s presidency, which began with tax cuts and ended with an insurrection at the Capitol. Many self-described “conservatives” have already redefined the term to mean “whatever Trump’s political needs require at any given moment.” Why would an actual conservative want to participate in that corruption now that Republican primary voters have validated that definition?
Insofar as there is some discrete vision of Republican politics in 2024 that’s distinct from Trump’s political whims, that’s not so conservative either. On that point, I recommend Politico’s interview with a comfortably well-off Republican voter in New Hampshire, quizzing him about tomorrow’s election. Trump is going to pull America apart, the man allows, lamenting that it’ll be hard to watch and “a miserable four years for everybody.” And … he’s voting for Trump anyway. Pulling the country apart is the point.
Today’s GOP has become a “party of malice,” in Peter Wehner’s words, nurtured by the soon-to-be nominee and flourishing among his admirers. Do you want to be a member of a party like that? Do you want to endure Potemkin presidential debates every four years in which completely irrelevant conservative candidates unwittingly serve as “mental crutches for the non-MAGA rump of the Republican party,” as Jonathan Last put it?
Ron DeSantis not only wants to be a member of that party—he wants to lead it. One shudders to think what his politics will look like circa 2028, when that classically liberal rump is gone and his instinct to pander to populists is no longer constrained by coalition-building. And one laughs to think that it’ll almost certainly amount to nothing in the end, as there are more talented and charismatic young demagogues than DeSantis preparing to jockey for position with him at the top of the GOP.
There is no conservative party anymore. There are Democrats and there is Trump, and then there are people who have issues with both but aren’t willing to pull the country apart. DeSantis has made his choice among them. Make a more dignified and patriotic choice than he did.