The Trump-DeSantis dilemna


Chana Kim

It’s unclear as to whether DeSantis runs against Donald Trump, but it’s safe to say that he currently poses the only legitimate alternative.

Carlos Heredia, Marketing Director

Though it’s still unclear whether Ron DeSantis will run for president, it’s fair to say he poses the only credible challenge to Donald Trump. 

Although he faced heavy criticism from the media for his opposition to lockdowns and vaccine mandates, his stance on COVID-19 was ultimately vindicated, with a death rate in Florida within the national average. The state has seen above-average economic growth, has become a leader in population growth, and generated the largest budget surplus in its history. His involvement in cultural battles, particularly over education, has garnered large support from conservatives across the country. He won re-election in a historic landslide, winning the Latino vote and flipping Democratic strongholds – four years after having won by just 0.4% of the vote.

He’s one of the few governors to effectively operate a state with a Republican legislature and has been ahead of the curve with coronavirus policy, governance, and cultural issues (sometimes even ahead of Trump). DeSantis is willing to achieve results without compromising his principles or pandering to those who act in bad faith. He’s willing to push through legislation with the same level of determination that Democrats have displayed every single time they’ve gained even a modicum of power, even when it goes against his own state legislature. His firm stance on redistricting provided a critical lifeline for House Republicans in 2022, who ended up badly underperforming expectations nationally.

One of Trump’s biggest strengths – and weaknesses – is his personality. Trump can easily lose focus, get caught up in unimportant details, and be petty. There’s times where he expresses valid, true, or even popular ideas that end up getting lost in his wording. But that loudness and volatility was an important aspect in his rise to power. It can rile up support or bring attention to issues, and it’s been a major part of his appeal. DeSantis doesn’t really carry that sort of energy. 

In an article about newly elected Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, Daniel McCarthy writes, “The fire was in the language, not in the man. Sincerity isn’t enough to sell a political agenda, especially if it’s a hard-edged one. You need the right persona to go with it. What Aristotle identified as pathos, the emotion of a speech, has to be matched by the ethos, the character type, of the rhetorician. A speech that sounds right coming from an old man sounds mawkish or absurd from a young one, for example.”

This idea applies equally to DeSantis. The lack of that believable “fire” is probably one of the biggest reasons so many people distrust or are hesitant about him, even if there’s something respectable about being a grumpy politician who’s just there to do his job and go home. It’s unclear whether that contrast in attitude made a difference in winning areas like Miami-Dade County, which had already trended Republican in 2020, or if it was mainly policy that continued or accelerated that trend.

Trump has always been a bit of a mess. In terms of potential for accomplishments he likely has a lower floor than DeSantis, but also a much higher ceiling. Despite having repeatedly switched parties and being in the public spotlight for decades his attitudes on economic and foreign policy have remained relatively unchanged. He’s one of the few politicians who, at the core of it, actually gets it. And it’s probably not only the right set of policies for the GOP, but necessary if it hopes to maintain relevance: going down the George Bush route isn’t much of an option.

Even as a rich man, Trump’s wealth hasn’t kept him from following the soft-handed approach many of the more elite Republicans of the past have taken. His disagreeableness has kept him from falling into the trap of a party mold: he’s not some ideologue like many of these super religious (e.g. Mike Pence) or one of those economic nerdy types (e.g. Paul Ryan), and so you’re not going to see him push for abortion bans or Social Security cuts either. And sure, sometimes that also means he gets distracted from the things that matter: whether it’s 2020 nonsense getting in the way of 2022, or his ego getting in the way of a good endorsement, or a petty fight that takes up his time. But when he’s not distracted, when he’s animated the way he was in 2016, and focuses on actual issues – getting rid of ineffective Republicans, calling for actual specific policies, delivering a memorable message – he’s able to turn out a lot of people who don’t usually vote or care about politics. 

Though a loss is still a loss, those 2020 results were not far off from taking the House, holding the Senate, and maintaining the presidency. And that was under some of the worst conditions for a president imaginable: COVID-19, the blatantly partisan media coverage of his presidency, being massively outspent during his campaign, etc. 2020 was by no means a repudiation of Trump. But whether or not he can get past that finish line the next time still has no clear answer. 

Perhaps the hopes of Trump living up to his political potential is setting a high or unrealistic bar to reach, but he’s currently the only person capable of reaching that high. One of the useful things about a potential DeSantis challenge is that it actually has moved Trump more toward that direction. His campaign has already issued several videos detailing policy plans on varying issues, and he’s begun taking a more forward-looking approach to his campaign.

DeSantis is an excellent governor, but it’s not fully obvious how he’d deal with the Republican establishment who’ve repeatedly gotten in the way of Trump reaching for that bar. And it doesn’t earn much trust from primary voters when they see these figures openly encouraging him to run, either. Unlike most of the other primary candidates, I actually like both Trump and DeSantis, and I’d happily vote for either of them in a general election. But a DeSantis campaign only works if he brands himself as someone who’s appreciative of Trump and sees himself as better suited to continue the work he’s done. If Republican voters believe that Trump’s risks outweigh his potential, or if his potential is less than what was previously thought, he loses. But as of right now, Trump still carries a lot of hope with him, and it’s why, despite all the baggage, he’s not done yet.