The Irrepressible Conflict
Yes, a Don/Ron brawl is inevitable.
Politics is a fickle thing, particularly in today’s ever-churning news cycle. Before winning back people’s support and sympathy with his recent indictment, Donald Trump was upsetting everyone for his comments at a recent rally in Waco, Texas. The former president went off against potential rival Governor Ron DeSantis, characterizing him as a weak politician who owes his rise to prominence almost exclusively to Trump’s support: “I did rallies for Ron, massive rallies, and they were very successful. So we got him the nomination. We then got him the election.”
Trump also claimed that DeSantis inherited a state that was already well governed: “Florida was tremendously successful under Rick Scott…. [And] whether you like him or not, Charlie Crist was very successful, he was a Republican at the time.” As multiple outlets have reported, this was met with awkward silence. Most conservatives, including those at Trump’s rally, actually like DeSantis. It was obviously uncomfortable to hear this kind of thing.
So many conservative voices have expressed their disapproval of Trump’s tactics. They argue that his insults are petty, wrong, and demonstrative of insecurity. It doesn’t seem like this reasoning has changed with the indictment, as The Babylon Bee demonstrated with the (admittedly hilarious) headline, “Trump Uses His One Phone Call to Ring Up Ron DeSantis And Yell At Him.” If only Trump used his influence to unite the party against Biden and talk about issues close to Americans, he would look more presidential and pull in more support from independents.
As reasonable as this sounds, this argument happens to be completely wrong—just ask every failed Republican candidate for president who has tried this. In his criticisms of DeSantis, Trump demonstrates that he understands politics far better than these pundits who discuss politics on a daily basis. In order to win the nomination as well as the general election, now’s the time to flatten the competition, speak inconvenient truths, and take up all the media attention he can.
It should be well known by now that when it comes to running for president, nice guys finish last. Anyone who shows the slightest weakness will be pushed aside and forgotten—even a world-famous brain surgeon like Ben Carson. Candidates have to start showing aggression early in the primary. Marco Rubio was a frontrunner in 2016 for his general appeal, but he was far too nice for far too long. His best moments came well after his chances for winning disappeared, at which point he finally decided to strike back.
Remembering this, Trump is re-establishing himself as a fighter. Seeing that his only real competition is DeSantis, he’s directing his attention on him. Even though it might make sense for Trump to take credit for a person he supported and endorsed, and whom people like, it makes even more sense to discredit that person before he becomes too strong. No one would reward him for doing the former, but doing the latter will win him the nomination once again.
In truth, this is something DeSantis should start doing in return if he really intends to run for president. Yes, he’s been a successful governor, and most conservatives love him. But if he keeps out of the fray, he will come across as entitled and aloof.
Moreover, as much as it pains DeSantis’s fans to hear it, Trump has a few underlying facts on his side. DeSantis is indeed a direct beneficiary of Donald Trump, and he really does follow a line of successful governors who helped make Florida a solidly red state (including Jeb!). This doesn’t necessarily detract from his own accomplishments, but it offers necessary context. Had he received support from the pre-Trump Republican Party to govern a purple or blue state, like Governor Chris Christie, he wouldn’t be nearly as effective or appealing.
This point matters enormously for a presidential run. Winning the votes of the whole country is not nearly as easy as winning votes from Floridians who have grown accustomed to competent Republican leadership. He will need support, and his main support up to this point has now become his main opponent. He could accept support from the never-Trump Republicans, but this wouldn’t lead him to victory. Like Senator Ted Cruz, he’d likely have fans from his own state and the few conservatives who dislike Trump, but like Cruz, he’d also be humiliated by Trump and finished politically.
Finally, and most importantly, hurling insults and attacking other candidates gets far more attention than discussing anything related to policy. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” However quiet the crowd was when Trump belittled DeSantis, this was more than offset by the news and commentary that his rant generated, to say nothing of his indictment a week later. The same can be said for Trump’s inflammatory posts on Truth Social.
By contrast, Trump’s governing agenda—though it proposes bold new strategies to address deep-seated problems and presents an inspiring picture of the nation—hardly receives a mention from anyone. Often Trump’s serious speeches, like the one he made at CPAC or at the announcement of his candidacy, are shrugged off as low-energy and boring. So it’s not altogether Trump’s fault that he resorts to his pro-wrestling antics. Whatever pleas they may make for normalcy and for “adults in the room,” this is really what the people and the media want.
If DeSantis ends up running, he will encounter this dynamic too. There’s no way around it. Even if he shuts out leftist news outlets and follows a script filled with red meat, he will still need to sling mud like the best of them and get people’s attention. He may not be able to out-Trump Trump, but he needs to at least hold his own.
However people feel about it, this is what politics has become in the social media age. Past successes, interesting policy proposals, and relevant experience are all secondary to mastering the medium and framing the narrative. While the corporate media outlets will gladly do this for Democratic politicians—allowing cognitively challenged men like Joe Biden or John Fetterman to cruise to victory without saying or doing anything of substance—Republicans have to hustle and frequently make fools of themselves. It may be ugly, and it may be stupid, but it’s the only way Republicans will take back the White House.
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