January 17, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

If he weren’t trying to be like Trump, DeSantis might be known as his most insightful critic

Maybe it takes a copycat to be so right about the frontrunner.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: Last week, I sent a message informing subscribers that I had caught the covid for the first time, and that I needed some time away from writing every day to heal and recover. After sending that message, I received an overwhelming number of get-well wishes and notes of encouragement. I was told to rest, rest, rest, for my own good health, but also because the work I do here at the Editorial Board is so important to democracy. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel. I’m so grateful to have so many supporters. Don’t worry! I’m still recovering. I’m only doing a little each day. Thank you! –JS

I think Bill Scher is right. (He usually is.) The politics editor of the Washington Monthly said that we can forget about New Hampshire’s primary next week. It’s not going to matter much. After Donald Trump’s dominance of the Iowa caucuses on Monday, Bill said, “the Republican nomination isn’t up for grabs.” 

“Historically, Iowa Republicans weren’t reflective of Republicans elsewhere, but today, they are,” Bill said. “Trump’s Hawkeye State romp roughly tracks the 50-point national Republican primary polls. To most Republicans, he is simply the incumbent and they’re sticking with him.”

But before we move on, consider what might have been. By that, I mean what might have been if Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who came in second in Iowa, with more than 21 percent of the vote, had decided to be a critic of the Republican frontrunner rather than his chief copycat.

You can’t be Donald Trump II and Not-Donald Trump at the same time. But a runner-up can provide insight into the problem of being a political party that has consolidated around one man’s shattered ego.

DeSantis pitched himself as Donald Trump without the baggage. For a brief period, that sounded pretty good – until his campaign was reminded that everything about GOP politics begins and ends with Donald Trump. You can’t be Donald Trump II and Not-Donald Trump at the same time. But a runner-up can provide insight into the problem of being a party that’s consolidated around one man’s shattered ego.

Occasionally, he did. DeSantis recently offered this blazing interpretation. Trump dominates, because he’s got “a Praetorian guard of the conservative media — Fox News, the websites. … They just don’t hold him accountable because they’re worried about losing viewers.” 

And it’s because of this “Praetorian guard,” and its profound ability to warp political reality, that the 2024 presidential election, instead of a referendum on the real incumbent (ie, President Joe Biden), will almost certainly be a referendum on the fake incumbent, Donald Trump. 

And if that’s the case, Biden wins. 

Just ask Ron DeSantis.

In August, DeSantis made news during an NBC News interview when he conceded that Donald Trump had lost the 2020 election. In the same interview, however, he offered this, another bit of blazing insight. 

“If the election is a referendum on Joe Biden’s policies and the failures that we’ve seen and we are presenting a positive vision for the future, we will win the presidency and we will have a chance to turn the country around,” he said. But “if the election is not about January 20, 2025, but January 6, 2021, or what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago, if it’s a referendum on that, we are going to lose.”

Pick me and we have a chance. Pick Trump and he’s going to be so insulated by that “Praetorian guard” that Biden ends up winning. I don’t think these words were just self-serving, though of course they were. I think they were right. DeSantis might be the best critic of Donald Trump, and no one will ever give him credit for it. Chris Christie is best known for saying why Trump should lose. But DeSantis has explained, in a rematch between Trump and Biden, how that’s likely to happen.

That insulation is rooted in practical necessity. Trump does not trim his rhetoric, as most Republicans do. He does not put a premium on “presenting a positive vision for the future” in order to hide the gothic consequences of Republican policies. For instance, DeSantis prefers anti-trans policies that are couched in care for “the safety of children.” Trump lumps all trans people among all enemies to be liquidated. 

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So the “Praetorian guard of the conservative media” works overtime trying to normalize the unthinkable. Meanwhile, the subtleties of language that make up the differences between Trump and DeSantis are lost. Without them, the only space left in the Republican Party is for unreconstructed white supremacists who get excited when Trump says things like immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country. (Per a recent CBS News poll, 81 percent of GOP primary voters agree.)

And of course, the unthinkable is about more than mere rhetoric. It’s about normalizing the historic and quite insane prospect of a major political party choosing to field a fraud, insurrectionist and proven rapist, to name only three disqualifying features of the soon-to-be nominee. And again, DeSantis demonstrated that understanding. 

“If Trump is the nominee, the election will revolve around his trials, perhaps convictions if he goes to trial and loses there, and about things like January 6th,” he said last night during a CNN town hall. “We are going to lose if that is the decision that voters are making based on that.” The election, in other words, won’t be about Joe Biden at all.

I don’t mean to suggest that more truth-telling by Ron DeSantis might have given him a better chance of beating Donald Trump. I agree with my friend Jill Lawrence. Today, for The Bulwark, she outlined the many, many reasons why he should be losing the primary, and that DeSantis “was never going to deliver the GOP or America from Trump or Trumpism, and that has nothing to do with his height or personality.” 

I do mean to suggest, however, that he was right on those occasions when he wasn’t trying to be his doppelgänger. If he weren’t trying to be Trump, he might now be known as his most insightful critic.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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