Ex-President Donald Trump and his most serious potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, laid out with unprecedented clarity this weekend how their sharply contrasting personalities and approaches would define the 2024 race for the Republican nomination.
Trump served up his familiar brew of fury, falsehoods and dishonest braggadocio at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, billing himself as the only man who could save the planet from World War III, girding his adoring supporters for their “final battle” against communists, globalists and the “Deep State,” and declaring: “I am your retribution.”
“We will beat the Democrats, we will rout the fake news media, we will expose and appropriately deal with the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). We will evict Joe Biden from the White House and we will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all,” Trump told the crowd at a Maryland convention center outside Washington on Saturday.
DeSantis, who is yet to declare a campaign, used an appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Sunday to channel the same conservative anger at what he claims is a left-wing “woke” elite takeover of politics, education, Covid-19 public health policy and big business, tapping into the modern Republican Party’s driving ideological force. Yet he offered a far more specific blueprint than Trump for a disruption of government as Americans know it, strongly implying that after implementing hardline conservatism in the Sunshine State, he could deliver the policy goals that often eluded Trump in his chaotic White House term.
“I can tell you in four years, you didn’t see our administration leaking like a sieve, you didn’t see a lot of drama or palace intrigue,” said DeSantis, whose punch-by-punch speaking style is far more ordered and methodical than Trump’s wild flights of rhetoric. “What you saw was surgical, precision execution. Day after day after day. And because we did that, we beat the left day after day after day.”
The back-to-back speeches, which highlighted two Republicans who would be the early favorites if DeSantis gets into the GOP nominating race, came with a slice of irony. The split screen captured their party’s unresolved ideological split that Trump engineered in 2016 when he crushed establishment candidates. CPAC, where Trump spoke, for decades kept alive the flame of the two-term president Reagan, who redefined the conservative movement when he won the 1980 election and left a legacy that dominated the GOP until Trump arrived. Once a rite of passage for potential GOP presidential candidates, CPAC has since become a platform for Trump’s personality cult. DeSantis did not speak there, instead appearing last week at a dueling Club for Growth donor conference to which Trump was not invited.
Speaking in the shadow of Reagan’s former Air Force One on Sunday, DeSantis appeared to be staking a claim to both the reforming zeal of the 40th president and offering an updated, more targeted – yet still searing – version of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” populism, although stripped of the uproarious distractions typical of the most recent Republican president. He seemed to be trying to build a conservative coalition that would appeal to Republicans who have soured on Trump after his record of two impeachments, a US Capitol insurrection and a disastrous intervention in the 2022 midterm elections, but that might also peel away some Trump supporters who still love their champion but doubt that he has the discipline and appeal needed to win a national election again.
Still, if DeSantis were to win the Republican nomination, there would likely be questions over whether his own radicalism would hurt him in the same swing state districts where Trump lost the 2020 election – even notwithstanding a public persona that is more disciplined than Trump’s. There’s not much subtlety in his rhetoric about a “woke mind virus”: Much of the Florida governor’s phrasing comes with the implication that anyone who does not share his views is, by definition, a left-wing extremist. And he would essentially be promising Americans one of the most right-wing presidencies of modern history.
GOP field begins to take shape
DeSantis was not the only possible alternative to Trump who laid out his case in recent days. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who has already launched a campaign, and ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who may do so, both braved the lions’ den at CPAC, and both launched veiled attacks on their former boss.
“If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation,” Haley said, playing into criticisms that both Trump, 76, and Biden, 80, should yield to younger leaders.
Pompeo, who, like his former Cabinet colleague got a fairly tepid reception on the ex-president’s turf, stacked his speech with plausible deniability to avoid taking on Trump directly. But one remark could be read as as much of a criticism of the ex-president as the Democrats he specifically targeted when he said: “We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”
Another potential Republican candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, was on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday and attacked Trump’s fearsome culture war talk.
“If you want to heal our land and unite our country together, you don’t do it by appealing to the angry mob,” Hutchinson told Dana Bash.
“Wherever you’re looking at the leader of our country, you don’t want him to be engaged in a personal vendetta. And when he talks about vengeance, he’s talking about his personal vendettas, and that’s not healthy for America. It’s certainly not healthy for our party.’
One other potential anti-Trump GOP candidate, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, however, announced on Sunday that he would pass on the 2024 race to avoid splintering the opposition to the ex-president.
“Right now, you have Trump and DeSantis at the top of the field soaking up all the oxygen, getting all the attention, and then a whole lot of the rest of us in single digits. And the more of them you have, the less chance you have for somebody rising up,” Hogan told CBS News.
The Trump vs. DeSantis shadow race
If Hogan’s reluctant decision to bow out foreshadows similar decisions by other long-shot candidates, it could point to a Republican nominating race that does not replicate the fracturing of the anti-Trump vote that helped his remarkable rise to power in 2016. But that would also fuel the possibility of a long and bitter nominating race between Trump and DeSantis through a swathe of winner-take-all primaries – if the Florida governor decides to get into the race.
Given his strong hold on the Republican base, Trump is likely to be seen as the favorite for the nomination, but he appears to recognize the potential threat he faces from DeSantis, and has already accused him of disloyalty after endorsing him in his first race for the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.
But DeSantis, in his new book published last week, puts his success in that first gubernatorial campaign down to a “massive swing” powered by a strong Republican primary debate performance that took place after he won Trump’s endorsement. And he is seeking to distinguish himself as a winner compared to Trump by citing his thumping reelection victory last fall, which stands in implicit contrast to the ex-president’s national reelection loss.
“We went from winning by 32,000 votes in 2018 to winning by over 1.5 million votes in 2022. We earned the largest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate received in Florida history,” DeSantis said on Sunday.
Yet the events of the weekend also pointed to some of the potential liabilities for DeSantis in any attempt to take down Trump. While his speech at the Reagan Library demonstrated a talent for explaining policy and a conversational style, he lacked the showmanship skills that Trump has long used to dominate Republican politics. Trumpism has always been more of a visceral and emotional backlash than an exercise in actually implementing ideological conservatism.
Perhaps GOP voters are so keen to win back the presidency that they will look for a change. But in his speech at CPAC, which echoed the “American Carnage” themes of his inaugural address, Trump gave notice to DeSantis and the rest of the country that he will fight with everything he has to win the White House again. He told reporters that even if he is indicted in federal or state investigations against him, he will still not drop out of the race.
“At the end of the day, anyone else will be intimidated, bought off, blackmailed or ripped to shreds. I alone will never retreat,” Trump said.