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Will Trump Lose His Throne to Ron DeSantis?

New 2024 election story line just dropped: The Florida governor versus the former guy for the future of Trumpism.

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis exchange greetings behind a lectern at a rally.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in happier times

The Donald Trump-versus-Ron DeSantis feud is now out in the open, thanks to this New York Times piece. It’s amusing sport, and if carried out to its logical extreme—that is, if DeSantis decides to seek the GOP nomination for president in 2024 even against Trump—it may provide an answer to a question we’ve all been pondering for some time: Does Trumpism have a potential iteration beyond Trump himself?

I have mostly been working from the assumption that it does not. That is to say: Imagine that tomorrow, Trump were struck by lightning as he raised his five iron aloft on the fourteenth fairway (which he kicked his ball into from the rough, of course) at his golf club, or the fates somehow decided that last night’s well-done steak and glop of Thousand Island dressing and two scoops of vanilla ice cream should be his last. In other words: He snuffed it.

I’ve always figured that Trumpism would more or less die with him. Yes, for certain, many Republicans would line up, angling to fill his shoes, to be the next Trump. But no one really can be Trump to his audience. No one else has his natural intuitive grasp of the fascist instinct. Maybe Jim Jordan? Jordan has the cruelty down cold; he doesn’t have the quality that brutal authoritarians throughout history have all possessed: an alchemical ability to exert a kind of hypnotic mind control over their followers. Only Trump has that. Jordan could very efficiently run Trump’s secret police, if it comes to that someday (complete with inter-unit wrestling competitions).

It’s worth wondering why, and I think part of the answer rests precisely in Trump’s phoniness. That is, you see lots of pundits marvel over how a guy who lives on Fifth Avenue (or used to) and takes his craps on a golden toilet seat (or used to) could put himself over as a man of the people. But the answer is that it is exactly these qualities that his followers find mesmerizing. Fascism is mystical, not logical. Down is up, backward is forward, Democrats are the election-stealers, Poland is the aggressor. Just as Hitler, who couldn’t get himself promoted past corporal, managed to sell himself to Germans as a great martial leader, so Trump, who in real life has (as far as we know) shown raging contempt for workers and contractors and small-business people, has contrived to persuade millions of workers, contractors, and small-business people that he is their savior. Trump’s will to phoniness is absolute: It will outrun you, exhaust you, outlast you.

Now. Back to DeSantis. The set-to that occasioned the Times article was a flare-up over each man’s handling of aspects of Covid-19 policy. DeSantis won’t say whether he’s been boosted. Trump, of course, has. You’ll recall that Trump was booed last December on that stage he shared with Bill O’Reilly when he revealed that he was boosted.

What’s suddenly intriguing is that DeSantis has decided to try to outflank Trump; to out-Trump Trump, in terms of his hard-trolling of the libs on the vaccine question. And it’s Trump—Donald Trump!—who is playing the role of civilizing, normalizing truth-teller. To One America News Network a few days ago, Trump said, of politicians who won’t reveal their vax status: “The answer is ‘Yes,’ but they don’t want to say it, because they’re gutless. You got to say it—whether you had it or not, say it.”

Well, look, he’s obviously not really playing the role of truth-teller. He’s just pissed at DeSantis, who in Trump’s mind, naturally, would be a nobody without Trump. He isn’t entirely wrong: DeSantis was a right-wing, unknown congressman running an uphill battle for the GOP nomination for Florida governor against a better-known and financed opponent when Trump endorsed him. He’s obviously miffed that DeSantis seems to have forgotten.

Whatever his motivation, Trump is doing a potentially risky thing—challenging a conventional wisdom that he himself laid down. That is, he spent his last year in the White House saying real men don’t wear masks and mocking Covid. But when it comes to his own mortality, he’s doing what the hated libs do: He’s following the rules. And he’s even telling people to do the same.

DeSantis is gambling that he might be able to position himself as an even more resolute upholder of Trumpism than Trump himself. It may, at some point, force the question upon the Republican primary electorate: Are you for Trump, the man? Or did Trump stray, tragically misreading the mood of his people? Are you now more loyal to Trumpism (the waging of war against science and liberals) as embodied and articulated by Trump opponent DeSantis?

The potential for gamesmanship can get to be hard to follow. But fascist leaders do sometimes lose that mystical thread. What happened to Lonesome Rhodes, after all, at the end of A Face in the Crowd? Or Howard Beale at the end of Network? And if there were ever an issue on which Trump might be hoist on his own petard with his own people, it seems plausible that it might be the issue of his defending vaccines.

I would still bet on Trump. Fascist followers, once they’ve bought in, tend to be forgiving toward their leaders. Remember, Hitler had an affair (or at least a domineering, obsessive infatuation) with his niece—who killed herself! And even that didn’t finish him off. Trump will probably have to do a lot worse than get a booster shot to lose his base.

The mildly reassuring side of this story is that if I’m correct, then to some extent, Trumpism may die with Trump. No one can replicate what he’s done. That is not to say the Republican Party will go back to being a normal opposition party. They’ll go back to being what they were in 2016—a race-baiting, vote-suppressing, district-gerrymandering, Supreme Court nominee hearing–denying minority party blocking the will of the majority of the people on a wide range of issues. But at least they’ll probably draw the line at storming the Capitol. Or enough of them.