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Insanity defined

Trump’s Challengers Are Making the Same Mistakes All Over Again

They only want to talk about policy. That’s a huge error.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Ron DeSantis in South Carolina on June 2

After months of passive aggression, Florida governor—and newly minted presidential candidate—Ron DeSantis finally began attacking front-runner Donald Trump directly this week. DeSantis is taking a holistic approach to going after Trump, assaulting him both on policies that are popular within the Republican electorate and unpopular ones as well, a sensible strategy for someone sitting in distant second. 

Over the last few days, DeSantis has loosed a barrage of attacks on Trump. He claimed that the former president had been “moving left” on immigration and that he supported “amnesty” for two million undocumented immigrants. He castigated Trump for “elevating Dr. [Anthony] Fauci” during the pandemic and for pushing a Covid-19 vaccine whose risks DeSantis has been questioning—and vastly overstating—for years. And he called out Trump for being “petty” and unrealistic about his goal of slaying the deep state—while making the case, of course, that he was the one who could really tame that mythical beast. 

Other Republican candidates have taken similar approaches—or at least signaled that they intend to. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Trump’s hated vice president, Mike Pence, both vying for the evangelical vote, are taking a hard-line (if, in Scott’s case, muddled) stance on abortion, in contrast to Trump’s less dogmatic position. Pence is also running on fiscal grounds, demanding “commonsense” reform—read: draconian cuts—for Social Security and Medicare. (Trump’s stance—at least his public one—on both of these issues is somewhat more moderate: Abortion should be left to the states, and there should be no cuts to Medicare and Social Security; it’s worth noting, however, that Trump broke many of his 2016 campaign promises in office, particularly his more moderate ones, and largely governed like a standard Republican.)  

All of these attacks have one thing in common—and it suggests that Republicans haven’t learned anything from the last time the party tried to take down Donald Trump. Trump’s opponents are once again trying to ignore his personal attacks, focus on policy, and outmaneuver him on his right. There’s no reason to believe it will work any better this time than it did in 2016. 

Trump’s opponents are fixated on policy, not the former president’s personal attacks. The idea here is that it’s best to just ignore the barbs and nicknames. “DeSantis will be judicious, or as his team puts it, ‘strategic,’ about crossing into Mar-a-Lago territory,” NBC News reported just ahead of his campaign announcement, citing his advisers. “The governor will mostly ignore the daily Trump taunts and will take the former president head-on only in specific circumstances—particularly on policy.” Trump’s opponents are trying to run a political end around. It is easy to see the theory behind it: A quarter of the electorate is slavishly loyal to the former president, but that means that as many as three-quarters of it may be up for grabs. Many of these voters think that Donald Trump is erratic and that his behavior is unbecoming of a president. 

The attacks against Trump on immigration, abortion, and entitlements have another thing in common—they’re all coming from Trump’s right. It is, once again, easy to see the strategy here: The idea that voters like Trump’s policies but are skeptical of his temperament has long swirled around conservative circles, boosting the notion of “Trumpism Without Trump.” DeSantis’s own ascent as a possible successor was built around this. In Florida, he pursued a number of Trumpish policies but did so without as much noise and with a greater degree of competency. (The myth of DeSantis as a seamless operator has taken a number of hits recently, particularly after his disastrous Twitter Spaces campaign launch with Elon Musk.) These candidates bet that they can run to Trump’s right on both issues and, relatedly, authoritarianism: DeSantis’s “deep state” attacks essentially boil down to the argument that he can destroy the administrative state and Trump cannot. 

But contrary to the “Trumpism Without Trump” thesis, all of these stances are disastrous in a general election: Public polling has swung heavily in favor of reproductive rights since the repeal of Roe v. Wade; Social Security and Medicare are extremely popular, as is the Covid-19 vaccine. Trump, moreover, has had success running against hard-line, bog-standard Republican positions on entitlements and trade, among other things. The rest of the GOP field in 2016 ran on typical Republican positions; Trump won in part because he didn’t, though it is worth noting that he ran to the right on immigration, one issue where the rest of the party has caught up. Similarly, the field—regardless of who is leading it—risks running into a very 2016 problem, in which Trump is allowed to run against everyone, all at once. This only reinforces what was perhaps his most salient argument during the 2016 campaign: that he is not like other politicians. 

You need to win primaries before you can worry about a general election, of course. But even that approach doesn’t put Trump’s 2024 rivals in a much better strategic light. They overestimate how much voters like policy. In 2016, Republicans made the same mistake, emphasizing their constructive differences with the then reality TV star while he mercilessly mocked them—and romped to victory. If anything, four years of Trump (and three of Biden) have made GOP voters even more focused on vibes over vision: They want pugilists, not politicians who show up with binders. Indeed, DeSantis has bet that voters will respond to the effectiveness of his “woke”-focused policy agenda. But the thing that has really dragged him down in recent weeks and months is his limp, charisma-deficient personality. 

These candidates continue to ignore many of Trump’s very real weak spots, though it’s understandable why. The former president is ensnared in multiple criminal investigations that threaten to undermine his general election campaign and, for that matter, his presidency, should he be elected. Nearly all of these investigations involve using the power of the presidency for personal gain and suggest an obvious, if as yet unused, point of attack: that Donald Trump is, deep down, actually just another politician, out there for himself. Trump’s corruption and self-obsession are well documented, but Republicans have always been afraid to touch them. Trump called Hillary Clinton “crooked” in 2016, and it worked. It’s a surprise no one in the Republican field has done the same to him yet.