Can DeSantis loosen Trump's vice-like grip on the Republican Party?

The Florida governor's re-election has encouraged some party members to break ranks, but the former president isn't done yet

Then US president Donald Trump stands behind gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, in 2018. AP Photo
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When Kari Lake, the most Trumpian of all of Donald Trump's anointed candidates in this year's midterm elections, went down to defeat for Arizona governor, it was the final straw. Although Democrats wildly outperformed expectations, the real story of the midterms is more complicated and answers several questions about the state of US politics.

The elections were not a disaster for Republicans in general, although they are hugely disappointed. It was a great year for the incumbents of both parties, few of whom lost. Instead, it was Mr Trump's candidates who, with a few exceptions such as Ohio Senator-elect JD Vance, were almost systematically rejected by the voters.

Since his Republican presidential nomination in 2016, an open question was whether his norm-smashing style could successfully transfer to other Trump-influenced Republican candidates. We now have a resounding answer: no. On the contrary, close association with Mr Trump and mimicking his approach – even when near-flawlessly as Ms Lake, a former newsreader who tosses out insults and threats as casually as the former president – proved a recipe for electoral disaster.

Republicans in general, especially party leaders, are on notice that the swing voters who decide most US elections, not to mention Democrats, want no part of Mr Trump's style and agenda, in particular election denial and opposition to democracy. The Republican Party went into the midterms with a large batch of newly minted candidates trumpeting those messages, along with barely concealed or even open support for the January 6 insurgency, and it resulted in a nearly unbroken string of otherwise totally avoidable defeats in a year of near-perfect conditions for the opposition party.

In these pages in August, I wrote that "Americans are going to have to decide if they really want good government or a good show". In many ways, these midterm elections tested precisely that. It was largely a choice between the performative, professional wrestling-style Trumpian version of Republican politics versus two versions of governance. When Trumpian candidates faced Democratic representatives running on President Joe Biden's remarkably successful first two years, the Democrats almost always won. But it's also highly significant that Republicans who distanced themselves from Mr Trump and who are still concerned with governance often had no trouble winning. Contrast re-elected governor Brian Kemp and Herschel Walker, who faces a daunting runoff for Senate, in Georgia.

Close association with Trump and mimicking his approach proved a recipe for total electoral disaster

The key divergence wasn't between liberals and conservatives, but between actual politicians versus performative pranksters. Most Americans, and particularly the crucial independent voters in swing states, didn't respond well to histrionic extremists declaring war on democratic norms and traditions.

Many potential crises were avoided. There was no systematic voter intimidation or suppression, no significant violence or confrontations, and almost all of the extremist election deniers did what their leader would not: they almost all conceded, often graciously. The American culture of democracy appears alive and well.

However, much of the Republican Party, and certainly Mr Trump's apparently still ardent base, really does want an endless pro-wrestling spectacle. That tends to drive performers to ever more outrageous and bizarre spectacles, which are, in turn, rewarded. That's why the most offensive and ridiculous member of Congress, Georgia freshman Marjorie Taylor Greene, has been propelled in a mere two years into virtually overnight de facto leadership within the Republican ranks in the House of Representatives.

With Mr Trump's weakness having been demonstrated as never before, increasing numbers of Republicans are, naturally, open to an alternative leader. It has, after all, become clear that in addition to historical patterns strongly favouring Mr Biden's re-election in 2024, if Mr Trump is his opponent, in all likelihood the incumbent will calmly cruise to an easy, and almost effortless, victory.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was just re-elected in a massive landslide and helped to lead other Republicans in his state to major victories, has solidified his position as the most likely challenger. This is not just because he looks like a proven winner while Mr Trump increasingly looks like a compulsive loser who stumbled into a gigantic fluke victory in 2016. It's also because the Florida governor has pursued a mixture of serious, though often dangerous, policies and the performative posturing that the base adores.

Mr Trump is clearly worried. He has taken to referring to Mr DeSantis as “Ron DeSanctimonious", clearly a reference to a bizarre TV advertisement about God creating "a fighter" – the Florida governor – on the non-existent eighth day of one of the Biblical creation myths.

Mr Trump threatened to ruin Mr DeSantis by revealing damaging secrets if he dares to run against him, saying: “If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife.” The former president also claims that he sent FBI and other federal agents to Florida during the 2018 gubernatorial election to "stop ballot theft" and stop Mr DeSantis’s eventual victory “from being stolen". Any such action, for which there is absolutely no evidence, may well have been extra-legal if not completely unlawful, and the Justice Department and other relevant officials flatly deny anything of the kind took place.

His daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, issued a similarly veiled threat against Mr DeSantis, saying that because primaries get "very messy" and "very raw", it would be "nicer for him" to wait until 2028 for a presidential bid. With a final twist of the knife in this remarkably soft-peddled threat, she added with a sweet smile "and I think he knows this".

Mr DeSantis is entirely untested at the national level and his own overtly authoritarian performance in Florida, and his culture warrior stylings, both suggest that he may not be the curative Republicans require if he does aim for the White House.

Meanwhile, there’s no indication that the Republican base has reconsidered its cult-like devotion to Mr Trump, who is expected to announce another presidential campaign on Tuesday. Just as his acolytes – almost all of whom were defeated in the general election – dominated the midterm primaries, Mr Trump will most likely get nominated again if he wants to. If he somehow doesn't, he can run as an independent, probably destroying the chances of any other Republican nominee.

Republicans are on notice that their leader and his politics are toxic. Yet, they didn't break with him over the Access Hollywood video, the Charlottesville white supremacy riot, racist and anti-Semitic remarks, efforts to blackmail Ukraine, or even his plot to overturn the 2020 election, including the January 6 insurgency. Even this tsunami of midterm defeats might not prove enough to break Mr Trump's grip on the Republican Party.

Published: November 15, 2022, 2:00 PM