Whoever said that Republicans fall in line, not in love, was wrong.
In 2008, National Review’s Rich Lowry was mocked for his concupiscent comments about Sarah Palin. “Hey, I think she just winked at me,” Lowry wrote after Palin winked at the camera during her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden. He added that her smile “sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheted around the living rooms of America.”
These days—possibly because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates former President Donald Trump’s vulnerabilities—Lowry is wooing a different right-wing populist.
It’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who is winking now. Except, instead of a smile, Lowry is enamored with his “zest for combat on cultural issues” and “complete intolerance for playing along with false media narratives.”
In fairness, many conservatives were smitten with Palin—and the same could be said about DeSantis. When it comes to love, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” But there are logical reasons for this political courtship to take place.
Unlike the progressives who love to hate all viable Republican contenders (let’s not forget what they did to Mitt Romney in 2012) and the Never Trump conservatives who have mostly given up on the GOP, there exists a breed of intellectual conservative—National Review, perhaps, being the locus—that is anxious to find a post-Trump Republican who will inspire the party faithful to say Trump was great! But it’s time to move forward into the future.
“The old-line conservative writers who opposed Trump but then made uneasy peace with him really really really really like Ron DeSantis and are all but begging Republican voters to please like him too,” notes columnist Damon Linker.
These DeSantis conservatives believe he’s the goldilocks candidate, which is to say he’s conventional enough to suit them (“flawed, but within normal parameters”), while still being controversial enough to satisfy the MAGA crowd.
Yes, DeSantis is a jerk. A blowhard. Which is to say, he represents the id of the Republican Party’s current incarnation. As such, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that DeSantis has the best chance to replace Trump as the GOP’s standard bearer.
The hope is that the hybrid will be Trump (“He fights!”) minus the unnecessary chaos, humiliating campaign defeats, and attempted coups. Rather than burning calories to defend Trump’s ego, cultural conservatism will actually have a defender. Likewise, the media will not be allowed to set the narratives, and corporate interests (see DeSantis’s war with Disney) will not be allowed to exert undue influence on public policy decisions.
Now, if you’re a progressive who is upset about his COVID-19 response or Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, you might even argue that, by virtue of being less chaotic and more strategic, a President DeSantis would be more dangerous than Trump. (In 2016, Ted Cruz filled this role.)
Would Republicans swapping DeSantis for Trump be a lateral move, a step backward, or a step in the right direction?
Regardless of where you land on that question, here’s what you're not going to get from Republicans: a mea culpa. There will be no moment where Republicans denounce Trump, vote en masse for Mitt Romney or Liz Cheney, and admit you were right (at least, not anytime soon). That’s not on the table.
What could happen, however, is that the GOP could just…move on.
This scenario may feel outrageous for anyone hoping for a reckoning or an “I told you so!” moment, but if Trump hasn’t embarrassed the GOP into shame by now—it’s never going to happen.
Again, though, I can imagine that instead of congratulating Republicans for kicking Trump to the curb, a DeSantis nomination would be greeted with jeers. There would be a sense that Republicans are attempting to launder their reputations without admitting they were ever wrong in the first place. Why do I think that? We’re watching it now in the GOP’s newfound hawkishness as it pertains to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But, I ask, would it be better for them to boo Zelenesky?
I would rather allow them the cognitive dissonance. I would rather have a GOP that hypocritically supports Zelensky than one that consistently screws him. I would rather have a GOP that furtively, if gradually, transitions to normalcy than one that proudly clings to “America First.”
The same principle is at play when we consider whether it would be wise to root for Republicans to simply transcend Trump in the only way they can.
Personally, I would prefer to give Republicans a “golden bridge” to the future—and an “off-ramp” from Trumpism.
Yes, this allows Republicans to save face—without facing the consequences. But it’s better than the alternative, which is not saving face and doubling down on Trump.
If the only real choice for Republicans is between Trump or DeSantis—and that may be the case—who would you rather they fall in love with?
Don’t look now, but I think DeSantis is winking at me.