The GOP’s never been closer to moving on from Donald Trump.
The Jan 6. Committee hearings, coupled with Trump’s mixed record of midterm primary endorsements, have left the 45th president bloodied and bruised even in the eyes of loyal Republican voters. And that’s generating speculation that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may eventually supplant Trump as the party’s standard bearer.
This incipient development has sparked debate among people who see DeSantis’ rise as cause for celebration—and those who see this as tantamount to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. It is a reminder that long before Trump arrived on the scene, deep fissures existed within the Republican Party regarding policy, style, and temperament.
“The test for ‘NeverTrump’ intellecuals [sic] is where they stand on DeSantis,” tweets Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist most responsible for making critical race theory a potent culture war issue. “[DeSantis] should be their guy: elite education, military background, leadership experience, impeccable character. If they can’t get behind him, the takeaway is clear: it’s not about principles; they serve the Left.”
But is this true? Just because DeSantis boasts conventionally impressive credentials doesn’t mean Never Trump conservatives should automatically go to the mattresses for him. Joe Walsh, the former Tea Party congressman turned Never Trumper, responded to Rufo, calling DeSantis an “authoritarian” and pointing out that DeSantis has used the power of government “to punish individuals & private companies…”
This debate over DeSantis' fitness may not be academic. Indeed, it may be crucial for anyone desperately hoping to move on from Trump. In making this determination, Never Trump Republicans will have to ask themselves a couple of serious questions.
The first question is this: is DeSantis the only plausible Republican who can defeat Trump (if Trump seeks the Republican nomination in 2024)?
It’s too early to definitively answer that question—but it’s not too early to start asking it. We saw what happened in 2016 when Republicans split their votes in a large field, refusing to coalesce around a single alternative. Trump won with a plurality.
My operating theory goes like this: The only way to have a fighting chance to beat Trump is by assembling a coalition of (a) former Trumpers who believe it’s time to move on to a younger and less chaotic pugilist who actually wins his fights, and (b) Reagan conservatives who never liked Trump.
And there’s only one name in the middle of that Venn diagram: Ron DeSantis.
The hypothesis suggests that it is unrealistic to expect Republicans to repudiate Trump or even Trumpism. Rather than attempting the fool’s errand of supporting someone who would (fairly or not) be perceived as being a Never Trump candidate, you settle for a Not Trump candidate.
Now, for those of us who might prefer a kinder, gentler alternative than DeSantis, this choice should be viewed as the only plausible way out and possibly a step in the right direction. In other words, before we can move on from Trumpism, we simply must move on from Trump.
This does not bode well for Never Trump candidates. Likewise, it does not suggest there’s much of an appetite for a “sunny conservative” like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin—as much as some of us may wish there were. (Former Vice President Mike Pence could potentially be lumped into both categories.)
Assuming my theory is accurate, DeSantis may be the only person standing between us and Donald Trump in 2024. And this matters because—as we have seen—once you are the nominee of a major party, you have a decent chance of becoming president (especially if Joe Biden or Kamala Harris are the other alternatives). The second question is this: Is Donald Trump a uniquely dangerous person?
This question is not as simple to answer as it seems. It’s possible that Trump was uniquely dangerous, but that his presidency also exposed weaknesses in the American system that could be exploited by some future authoritarian with a less-chaotic nature.
This is, I think, what Max Boot is getting at when he writes, “Just because DeSantis is smarter than Trump doesn’t mean that he is any less dangerous. In fact, he might be an even bigger threat for that very reason.”
Better the devil you know? I’m not so sure. In this theory’s binary scenario, the fact that Trump literally attempted to stop the peaceful transfer of power should make this choice a no-brainer.
It’s important for Never Trump conservatives to take these questions seriously, and avoid a repeat of 2016 (and Jan. 6, 2021). My advice? If it starts to become clear that Ron DeSantis is the only Republican who can stop Trump—well, as the saying goes, “Any port in the storm.”
Democrats dispatched Trump in 2020, by coalescing around a less-than-perfect nominee. It may well fall on Republicans to do the same in 2024.