And rightly so.
What Elections Won’t Fix
Whoever wins in 2024, our problems run deeper.
We typically talk about elections in terms of data and hot takes—the language of pollsters, pundits, and plodding academics like myself. But none of that seems adequate to the moment. The questions and problems of our time go far beyond ordinary electoral politics, and yet they take place within the context of those politics.
Through all the turmoil of his two years out of office, Donald Trump remains an emblem of all those deeper questions we hope to resolve in and through politics. His enemies are still out to destroy him. His supporters long for redemption (revenge?) in 2024. There’s no doubt that the Republican Party is still Trump’s party. He will be the nominee if he wants it, and by announcing his candidacy after the 2022 midterm election he certainly seems to want it. In poll after poll, with one recent exception, Trump dominates among Republican primary voters. At present the only challenger with any traction at all against Trump is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, understanding the terrain, so far refuses to challenge Trump. On the other hand, it is possible that the public’s views on Trump have hardened to the point where they now constitute a ceiling that he cannot break through. The possibility that Trump’s moment has passed opens the field to other possible candidates. The conversation, however, always seems to come back to DeSantis as the obvious, perhaps the only, viable alternative.
Since the day after the 2020 election, I have been singing the praises of Ron DeSantis. He cleaned up, or at least reduced to tolerable levels, election corruption in Florida. He has shown excellent instincts on everything from resisting coronavirus hysteria to countering the indoctrination and mutilation of children. He displayed considerable courage in going toe-to-toe with Disney, one of the largest corporations in the world and one of the largest employers in his state. The aftermath of Hurricane Ian has allowed DeSantis to manifest great managerial competence. The surest indicator we have that recovery is proceeding apace is that it isn’t being reported on by our media. Were this Katrina redux, but with the darling of the Republican Party in charge, we’d have wall-to-wall coverage from every media outlet in America. The results speak for themselves: in four years, DeSantis has turned the purplest of purple states into a GOP stronghold.
This is not to say that there is nothing to criticize about DeSantis. Reports have emerged concerning DeSantis’s purported support for American meddling in Ukraine in 2013-14. Exhibit A in these reports is a December 4, 2013 letter signed by several members of Congress, including DeSantis and, damningly, the execrable Adam Kinzinger. This makes DeSantis, in the words of one Twitter commenter, “just a smarter Bush.”
The Case for Ron…
We ought to be careful, however, about holding DeSantis’s views from a decade ago against him. Politics isn’t static; ideologies and coalitions change. A generation ago, nearly every educated person was a free trader. Protectionism and “America First” weren’t despised concepts; they were unknown. If someone on the Right claims he was against the Iraq War in 2002 and his name isn’t Ron Paul, he’s lying. In 2013 Bill Kristol, David French, Max Boot, and Jonah Goldberg were conservatives in good standing. People we now consider to be genuine conservatives, like Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance and Federalist editor Mollie Hemingway, didn’t necessarily start out that way.
…And Against Him
Given DeSantis’s many virtues and the misgivings many now have about Trump, it may appear that DeSantis is the easy and obvious pick to be the nominee. But there’s no reason to believe that DeSantis will get any better treatment from the media than Trump. True, DeSantis will give them a less obvious target—but that’s what lying is for. As they have done to opponents from Clarence Thomas to Brett Kavanaugh, the Left will simply fabricate a scandal. The more salacious the better, which is why they prefer to fabricate sex scandals. It won’t matter that it’s false. They coalesce around a narrative, repeat it endlessly and breathlessly, and a large portion of the electorate believes it. Lefties will believe it for ideological reasons, and normies will believe it because they are intimidated into accepting what they are told by “reputable” sources.
Moreover, being president of the United States is far different from being governor of Florida. Besides the obvious, such as governors not having to deal with foreign policy, there is the reality of our post-constitutional regime. As governor, DeSantis can actually govern. Through him and their legislature, the people of Florida have a real voice in decision-making. In other words, the state of Florida remains, largely, a constitutional republic. Not so the federal government. After more than a century, the Progressive mission to supplant the constitutionalism of the framers with an administrative state has mostly succeeded.
The federal government, as Trump uncovered, is largely out of the control of the people and their elected representatives. Any lingering control elected officials may have exercised disappeared more than a decade ago, when Congress stopped exercising the power of the purse in any meaningful or effective way. Those who occupy the permanent positions of power in this system are almost uniformly leftist, and they will freely wield their formal and informal power to preserve that power and advance their ideology. The example of Donald Trump’s four years in the White House proves that they will stop at nothing to destroy anyone who threatens their power or their ideology.
The Wrong Friends
Particularly disconcerting is the Republican establishment’s emerging support for the Florida governor. As Daniel McCarthy writes in the Spectator,
pay attention to those Republican mouthpieces of yesteryear who have not followed Bill Kristol and Max Boot into the embrace of the Democratic Party. Media outlets and individual voices who opposed Trump in 2016, then reluctantly supported him once he was in power, are now boosting DeSantis. This is not because they think DeSantis will be a more effective populist conservative president than anyone else, though to be sure many risk-averse Republicans believe the governor has a better chance of winning in 2024.
They have their own purposes, and those purposes have nothing to do with restoring constitutional government, protecting American citizens and workers, or vanquishing woke tyranny. Do they know something about DeSantis we don’t? Or do they just see him as a pawn to reassert their control over the party and protect their own sinecures?
The GOP establishment (GOPe) proved itself once again in 2022 to be completely worthless. Where are the phalanxes of attorneys that were supposedly retained and prepped to challenge Democratic election shenanigans? The victims of those shenanigans, like Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, have been left to fend for themselves. Worse than that, GOPe was positively malicious, actively sabotaging Republican candidates that were too nationalist or populist. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell starved Trumpist Senate candidates like Arizona’s Blake Masters, while pouring money into Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s re-election campaign against another Republican. (Alaska recently implemented a non-partisan, ranked choice voting election system.) Will GOPe back his nomination and then abandon him in the general election, as was the case with Tudor Dixon in Michigan?
The Brutal Reality
While interesting and necessary, there’s a great deal of whistling past the graveyard in all of this conventional talk about the politics of 2024. What good does it do the country in general, or Ron DeSantis in particular, to nominate him and send him out to face an unwinnable election? As Dan Gelernter recently observed in American Greatness, “DeSantis isn’t going to win in 2024. No Republican is, unless voter fraud is addressed first…. If we don’t fix that—and we’re not fixing it—it does not matter who the candidate is: Trump, DeSantis, or any other Republican. None of them have a chance in hell. It has nothing to do with who they are.” In the current landscape, this would only serve to take DeSantis away from the office where he is doing good work, discrediting him at the national level to no effect.
Republican candidates have long been forced to overcome the “margin of corruption” in order to win, but until recently that margin was manageably small. Since Trump’s election in 2016, all that has changed. The Left cheats, and they tell us to our face that they cheat. In February 2021, Time magazine published a long-form piece by Molly Ball detailing the way the Left and their allies comprehensively sought to transform our election process, putting their finger on the scale to ensure that the manifest threat to Our Democracy™ that is Donald Trump was ousted. In the process they created an election process that to any rational observer resembles the corrupt “republics” of the Third World.
As far as we have drifted from the vision of a constitutional republic that was established in Philadelphia in 1787, until recently elections still functioned as a real check on the excesses or failures of the parties. Sweeping Republican victories in the midterm elections of Barack Obama’s presidency are evidence of that. That world no longer exists. The Left has created an election system that allows them to govern from the hard Left and face no consequences. This system is now the law of the land in all the critical states that decide national elections: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Here in Michigan, these practices are not simply law; they are now part of our state constitution. They’re here to stay.
The brutal reality is that the constitutional republic created by the Founding Fathers is, to all practical purposes, dead. We still adhere to its forms and rituals, but that’s primarily for the sake of reassuring normies who won’t, or can’t, face reality. Michael Anton predicted in his 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election” that the Left would eventually realize that elections are no longer required to confer legitimacy on their power. The last six years have borne this out, to the extent that we have retained the forms, and destroyed the substance, of democratic elections. They get all the legitimacy, with none of the nervous anxiety that comes with waiting to see the results. From a constitutional republic, we have descended into an oligarchy with the trappings of republicanism.
This brutal reality leaves its opponents with a range of not-very-appealing options. The first is submission. This seems to be GOPe’s preferred posture, for which they will be well rewarded. Or not, if they are deemed superfluous.
The second option is judicial intervention. The Right should know by now that this is an exercise in waiting for Guffman. The courts seem determined to stay out of these election disputes. Besides, if the Democrats maintain control of the elected institutions long enough, they will either replace conservatives jurists as they retire or die or simply pack the courts and be done with the matter.
Third, Republicans can learn to beat the Democrats at their own game: “Fortify or Die,” as Ned Ryun and Erik Root say. These banana republic laws are here to stay, so let’s use them. As Glenn Ellmers points out, however, this is fraught with danger as well, including undermining the very norms and values we profess to hold.
If we continue down the road we are now traversing, we will be completely enslaved in a globalist, oligarchic, neo-Marxist tyranny. The future, however, is a funny thing. Events are fluid, and there’s no way to know what will happen to upset this seemingly invincible progress toward tyranny. However difficult or bleak our predicament, nothing is inevitable.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is an example of this lack of inevitability. Even a few months ago the idea that Twitter’s role in our politics would change so dramatically would have been laughable. Musk’s purchase is a major crack in the Left’s domination of the flow of information. He is now exposing the corruption and collusion of our elite political, corporate, and cultural institutions, and the consequences could be transformative. The media has gone from dismissing the “Twitter Files,” to ignoring them, to denouncing them as a QAnon conspiracy. They know these files are big, and they’re trying everything to discredit them.
Whether Trump, DeSantis, or someone else is the best person to capitalize on this fluidity is beyond my capacity to discern. Events are moving rapidly, and much will happen in the interim. The best we can do for now is to heed Abraham Lincoln’s parting counsel in his 1852 eulogy on Henry Clay: “Let us strive to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.”
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.