This week, as Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg considered indicting Donald Trump on a flimsy felony charge over a seven-year-old hush money payment to former porn star Stormy Daniels, Trump placed his focus on the man he perceives as the truest threat to his political dominance: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Trump backers demanded that DeSantis sound off on the looming indictment; after a few days, DeSantis did, but not in ways that pleased Trump’s base. “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said. “But what I can speak to is if you have a prosecutor who is ignoring crimes happening every single day in his jurisdiction and he chooses to go back many, many years ago to try to use something about porn star hush money payments, that’s an example of pursuing a political agenda.”
DeSantis’ harsh words for Bragg were insufficient, according to Trump, because he mentioned the rationale for Trump’s legal difficulties: his unfortunate penchant for sexual profligacy. This prompted Trump to take to Truth Social to accuse DeSantis of grooming underage girls and/or boys: “Ron DeSanctimonious will probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future, as he gets older, wiser, and better known, when he’s unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are ‘underage’ (or possibly a man!).”
This was only the beginning. On Tuesday evening, excerpts broke from a DeSantis interview with Piers Morgan, in which DeSantis criticized Trump’s choices as president. “[T]he way we run the government I think is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board and I think that’s something that’s very important,” DeSantis said. He added that he “would have fired” Anthony Fauci, contra Trump, who made Fauci into the face of the federal government’s pandemic response.
So, the fight is on.
Right now, the advantage lies with Trump. He’s the center of gravity for all of politics. DeSantis led Trump 39% to 26% in the Monmouth poll in December 2022 – shortly after Trump’s candidates in Senate races lost across the board, while DeSantis cleaned up in Florida – but now trails Trump by a margin of 27% to 41% in the same poll.
Dealing with Trump will be difficult for any Republican candidate, for two specific reasons. First, many Republican voters have bought into the myth that Trump is not subject to political gravity: in the aftermath of the 2012 Obama re-election, widespread political sentiment held that Democrats would never lose another presidential election, and yet Trump somehow beat Hillary Clinton while saying anything and everything on his mind. Many Republicans still think of Trump as a winner, even after his losses in the 2018 midterm election, 2020 presidential election, 2021 Georgia Senate races, and 2022 midterms. When they don’t, he drops in the polls, as in December 2022.
Second, Republicans rally to Trump whenever he is attacked by the Left. That’s right and proper when it comes to unjust prosecutions by rogue DAs. But many Republican voters have generalized to the extent that Trump is now considered off-limits to attack even by other Republicans, since the Left might use such attacks as a rationale to attack Trump, too. This is a nearly impossible needle to thread. How do you critique Trump without the base feeling that your attacks are helping the Left? Meanwhile, Trump has been granted the soft bigotry of low expectations by many voters: he can say literally anything about other candidates, and no one blinks an eye. It’s Marquess of Queensberry rules for Trump’s opponents, WWE folding-chair-to-the-back-of-the-head smackdowns for Trump himself.
So, what can DeSantis do? The answer: it’s not really up to DeSantis. It’s up to Republican voters. It will be DeSantis’ job to remind Republican voters that Trump has won precisely one election in the last seven years; it will be the job of Republican voters to acknowledge that reality. It will be DeSantis’ job to point out that Trump didn’t clean out the executive branch and gave Anthony Fauci power; it will be the job of Republican voters to acknowledge that such criticisms aren’t “unfair attacks.” It will be DeSantis’ job to remind voters of his record; it will be the job of Republican voters to look to record rather than tweetstorms for policy victory.
Will Republican voters use their heads rather than their hearts? We’ll find out soon enough.