For more than a month now, Donald Trump has been calling his main rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a pedophile.
That’s not really an exaggeration. While Trump has refused to settle on a nickname for his primary rival, oscillating between the good (“Meatball Ron,” “Rob”), the bad (“Ron DeSanctimonious”), and the early-twentieth-century anti-Catholic (“Ron DeSanctus”), he has repeatedly made unsubstantiated allegations that DeSantis is a “groomer”—a word the Florida governor helped make a centerpiece of the right’s political lexicon as part of his vicious, cynical campaign against LGBTQ people. In February, on his tumbleweedy social media platform, Truth Social, Trump reposted a photo purportedly showing DeSantis, then a teacher at a private boarding school, drinking with a group of female students. “That’s not Ron, is it?” Trump wrote. “He would never do such a thing!”
On Monday, Trump returned to the smear, with more homophobia, to defend payments made illegally to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with Trump 10 years earlier. “Ron DeSanctimonious will probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future, as he gets older, wiser, and better known, when he’s unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are ‘underage’ (or possibly a man!). I’m sure he will want to fight these misfits just like I do!” Trump wrote.
How DeSantis responded to Trump’s post this week, versus how he responded in February, proves that reports of the former president’s political demise were greatly exaggerated. Trump remains the indisputable king of the Republican Party. The Florida governor, meanwhile, is making the same mistakes that doomed Trump’s rivals in the 2016 primary.
DeSantis attempted to take the high road after Trump’s repost of the boarding-school photo. “I’ve faced defamatory stuff every single day I’ve been governor. That’s just the nature of it,” he said in February. “It just goes with the territory. You gotta have a thick skin.” DeSantis studiously avoided saying Trump’s name, even when attempting a dig at him: “I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden. That’s how I spend my time. I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”
Fast-forward to Thursday. In an interview with Piers Morgan on Fox Nation, DeSantis finally hit back—sort of. “I don’t know how to spell the ‘Sanctimonious’ one,” the Harvard- and Yale-educated governor said when asked about the nicknames. “I don’t really know what it means, but I kinda like it, it’s long, it’s got a lot of vowels. We’ll go with that, that’s fine. I mean, you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner because that’s what we’ve been able to do in Florida, is put a lot of points on the board and really take this state to the next level.” He also drew contrasts with Trump, telling Morgan he would have “fired” Anthony Fauci, and took a veiled shot at the former president’s leadership style, saying, “So, the way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama, focus on the big picture, and put points on the board, and I think that’s something that’s very important.”
This isn’t going to cut it in the 2024 primary. We’ve even been here before: DeSantis’s response to Trump’s nicknames and character are straight out of the 2016 GOP playbook. That year, Trump’s primary competitors tried to take the high road, tried to draw contrasts, tried to make the case that Trump was simply too volatile and weird to be president. More than anything, it underscores a trend that has been growing for most of this year: DeSantis is not only out of his element, he’s not prepared for a bare-knuckle primary fight.
Look no further than Trump’s own response to DeSantis’s gentle clapback.
DeSantis lays a glove on Trump; Trump responds by throwing the entire kitchen sink at him. Even if the former president has struggled to succinctly label his rival, this statement is a strong case: DeSantis is at best an average governor. Florida’s education system is garbage; its crime rates are high. DeSantis has tried to make Covid an issue—particularly the vaccine that Trump held up as a major achievement—but here, Trump punctures it by arguing that DeSantis handled the pandemic badly, which is true. It is, for Trump, shockingly issues-focused and compelling. It shows he’s prepared to run on their respective records, which probably comes to DeSantis’s surprise, as it does the rest of us.
There are obvious rebuttals, if DeSantis cares to respond. Trump lives in Florida, undercutting his portrait of the state as a Bosch-ian hellscape. And it’s still not clear how potent vaccine skepticism will be: Trump’s only major accomplishment as president (the rapid development of a Covid-19 vaccine) is increasingly a liability, and DeSantis knows it. But DeSantis’s early strategy of adopting nearly all of Trump’s policy positions while making veiled criticism of Trump’s personality isn’t working. There are signs, moreover, that he’s already backing away from it: After expressing skepticism for months of continued funding of Ukraine, DeSantis condemned Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal” in his interview with Morgan. At the same time, he also qualified his earlier comments, saying that he just wanted to make sure that funding wouldn’t continue indefinitely and that American troops would not be deployed—which is ultimately not so different from the Biden administration’s approach right now.
These shifts and flip-flops are surely driven by DeSantis’s awareness that his support is slipping precipitously among Republican voters. At the end of last year, he was considered a serious challenger, if not the presumptive favorite. Trump looked weak in the wake of the Republicans’ disappointing midterm elections and his own low-energy campaign launch, and he was becoming even weirder and more paranoid. DeSantis had MAGA credentials and the support of much of the conservative establishment. But then Trump, seeing the growing threat, began laying into DeSantis, who responded by quietly taking it on the chin. The governor is now correcting course, but the damage is done: A Monmouth poll released Wednesday found that Trump leads DeSantis by 14 points—and that Trump has gained 15 points since December, while DeSantis has lost 12.
It’s still early. DeSantis hasn’t even officially entered the race. But the echoes of the 2016 race are clear. DeSantis can only make tepid jabs at Trump because he’s worried about alienating Trump’s die-hard base, and he can’t win a scorched-earth war with Trump anyway. DeSantis increasingly looks like an amalgam of Trump’s last GOP rivals for the presidency, particularly the sweaty Marco Rubio and the oily Ted Cruz: too conventional and weak-kneed to punch back when they’re bullied. More than anything, though, DeSantis just looks lost. It’s the same look we’ve seen on countless Republican faces over the past eight years.