Bumper stickers supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on sale at a Trump rally in Conroe, Texas, in January 2022. Jill Colvin/AP
Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter is written by David twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories about politics and media; his unvarnished take on the events of the day; film, book, television, podcast, and music recommendations; interactive audience features; and more. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out. And please also check out David’s new New York Times bestseller: American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy.
Donald Trump cannot accept rejection. Donald Trump is fueled by vengeance. And this is why, as of now, it would be foolish for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to run for president in 2024.
It is fashionable these days for pundits to guffaw about Trump’s declining influence within the GOP. In polls asking Republican voters to state their preference for next year, DeSantis often beats the former guy, occasionally by a hefty margin. Last month, Trump, who in November announced his third White House bid, hit record lows for his approval rating among all voters (31 percent) and GOP voters (70 percent). Axios noted, “A raft of new polls shows former President Trump is losing juice among core Republican voters—a rare but unmistakable drop in base support that would jeopardize his 2024 comeback bid.” Trump’s own supporters and allies mocked and scorned him for his grifty NFT trading card venture. (Fortune reported this week, “The trading volume of Donald Trump’s Digital Trading Cards, which feature images of the former president dressed as a superhero and as an astronaut, has fallen off a cliff, according to data from CryptoSlam.”) Trump is “fading fast,” former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan told CNN on Thursday. “He is a proven loser.” Yes, Rep. Kevin McCarthy fulsomely hailed Trump for helping him (barely) prevail in the chaotic House speakership contest. Even with that, the conventional wisdom is that Trump is trending in the wrong direction. With a touch of glee, New York Times columnist Charles Blow observed days ago, “Donald Trump is essentially being put out to pasture” by the GOP.
Yes, but. And this is the but: Trump remains dangerous. To the nation, to the GOP, and to DeSantis and other potential Republican rivals. That is because, as January 6 demonstrated, if Trump cannot be king, he will burn down the palace— with everyone in it, especially those who denied him the crown.
No matter what the polls say now, DeSantis or any other GOP aspirant who enters the race against Trump will have a tough time. Hitting below the belt is what Trump does best. He is not bound by rules or decency. He demonstrated this during the 2016 GOP sweepstakes. Conventional politicians were no match for his mean-spiritedness and constant streams of lies. One by one, he bested the pipsqueaks, several of whom had been touted as powerhouse candidates of depth, intelligence, and talent. (Jeb!) None of them could figure out how to compete against a scoundrel who refused to follow political conventions (as low as they might be). And then there were none.
It’s easy to argue that a forewarned DeSantis will be a forearmed DeSantis. Trump’s tricks are now well known, and, like an old boxer, he seems to have lost a step or two. Surely, a savvy and crafty fellow like the Florida governor can figure out how to rope-a-dope or sidestep the Marauder of Mar-a-Lago. Perhaps. But there is no telling if DeSantis can devise the right footwork before he gets in the ring with Trump. And Trump will do whatever it takes to destroy DeSantis. He will approach him as an existential threat and fire away. Again and again and again. He will make up stories about DeSantis. He will hurl horrible and baseless claims at him. He will go for blood.
Trump will force DeSantis—or any other opponent—into the gutter. And this is the problem for his rivals: Trump likes being in the gutter. He wears it well. That’s a talent, and it’s not possessed by many politicians—or people. My father used to tell me: Never get in a fight with a skunk; you both end up stinking, but the skunk likes it.
Can DeSantis withstand such a pummeling? Can he wrestle with a skunk without becoming too malodorous? The polls pitting Trump against DeSantis are worthless until the Trump treatment begins. Who knows how Republican primary voters—the base—will react to such an ugly face-off? Will they be moved by Trump’s accusations (whatever they may be) about DeSantis? Given Trump supporters’ endless and bottomless credulity regarding his claims about himself, his political opponents, and just about everything, it’s probable that a sizable bloc of Trumpish voters will buy his bunk and join his jihad against DeSantis or any other GOP foe. Of course, the dynamics of the race will be shaped by how many GOP candidates sign up for this spectacle. If other credible contenders beside DeSantis show up for this free-for-all, the we’ve-had-enough-of-Trump vote will be divided.
But let’s assume the pre-season reviews that depict DeSantis as a dynamo candidate pan out. Say he finds a way to dance around Trump’s assaults and escapes being damaged or tarnished. Say Republican voters dump Trump for this new anti-woke, libs-trolling, immigrant-kidnapping prince of the right. That will be when DeSantis’ troubles will really start.
Does anyone believe Trump will abide primary contest results that cast him as a loser? He will claim once again that he is the victim of a rigged system. He will challenge tallies. He will denounce the RINO establishment and blame the Deep State, the media, and who knows who else. He will accuse DeSantis of conspiring with dark and nefarious forces. He will not recognize DeSantis as the legitimate GOP nominee. Trump will send a message to his voters: You cannot support this man and his party: not with votes, not with money. Some will shrug and move on. But millions of Republican voters will fall for Trump’s latest con.
As I’ve written many times, Trump is motivated by spite. In public talks and speeches Trump gave in the years before he ran for president, he hailed retribution as an essential element of success. His top advice for people who wanted to succeed was this: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”
Apply that to Trump losing the nomination to DeSantis. He will not preach party unity and do whatever is necessary to help DeSantis land in the White House. (Remember Trump’s approach to the special Senate elections in Georgia in early 2021?) He will be bent on crushing DeSantis. At that point, the only thing worse for Trump than losing his White House bid would be for DeSantis to win his.
Would Trump form a third party or continue running as an independent candidate? I doubt it. That would take too much organizing. But it’s not difficult to envision him promoting his own grievances and doing whatever he could to subvert DeSantis. The skunk would keep on skunking. In the general election, the Florida governor could end up essentially having to run against both the Democratic nominee and a deposed and enraged mad-king. No matter Trump’s standing in the polls then, if he could swing a modest percentage of his supporters against DeSantis—or even only encourage them to sit it out—that could doom DeSantis.
This boils down to an obvious point: Running against Trump will be a miserable endeavor. If DeSantis manages to survive the primaries and triumph, he will not be free of Trump. This broken man will continue to try to make life hell for DeSantis and the GOP. He will blow up whatever he can blow up. His attitude toward DeSantis will be, if I lose, you will lose bigger. There likely is no path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a Republican that avoids Trump’s DEFCON-1 assault.
Who needs this? DeSantis is young. He can have a clearer and (likely) Trump-free shot at the White House in 2028. Does he or anyone else in Republican politics want to go through all this pain? (The answer for Liz Cheney is probably, hell yeah! But if she leaps in, it will be to smack Trump not to win primaries.)
Certainly, a more severe decline in Trump’s political support—or maybe a Trump indictment—might fundamentally alter the landscape and create a smoother road for DeSantis. External events can do so, as well. For the moment, though, Trump retains the power, ability, and inclination to turn the 2024 GOP primary and the subsequent general election into a mega (and MAGA) shitshow, with no regard for the fortunes of the party or any other candidate. Can DeSantis stand in front of Trump’s firehose of crap for 18 months or so and emerge as the new leader of the United States? I know what Trump would say.