It was only a matter of time before Ron DeSantis’ rising star ran into the unmovable object of Donald Trump’s will to continue to dominate the GOP.
A spate of recent news stories has focused on the proto-feud between the past president with future ambitions and the protege who rode his endorsement to victory in a Florida GOP gubernatorial primary and has big ambitions of his own.
The level of the clash shouldn’t be exaggerated — so far, it mostly consists of muttering from Mara- Lago.
Obviously, it’s also insanely early. But the Trump-DeSantis storyline is inherently alluring, given the chances of a collision between two men who have been allies and the possibility of the subordinate in the relationship eclipsing the figure who helped to elevate him.
Whether that ever happens is unknowable, yet the spat is revealing, nonetheless. Some version of what DeSantis represents has the greatest odds of coaxing the party away from Trump and forging a new political synthesis that bears the unmistakable stamp of Trump while jettisoning his flaws.
There’s simply never going to be a GOP revelation in which the rank-and-file suddenly decides, “It was a mistake to ever embrace Donald Trump, and now we want to be the party of Adam Kinzinger.” There will be no Bourbon Restoration.
The challenge to Trump will have to come from the Trump wing — at this point, more like the Trump fuselage, wing and landing gear — of the party. After Trump’s presidency, the party is more populist, focused on the culture war, resistant to media narratives, and skeptical of business — and would it remain so if Trump retired tomorrow.
Although in many ways an orthodox conservative, DeSantis covers these bases. Importantly, he’s a lightning rod for criticism from the left — now a major plus for Republican voters — and gives as good as he gets in clashes with the media. There are few causes that light up the Republican base that he doesn’t find a way to address, whether on big tech or critical race theory, and he has emerged as the party’s exemplar on the pandemic, with his strenuous opposition to lockdowns and mandates. This gives him credibility with Trump voters and the foundation to compete with Trump, not as a critic or scold but as someone who can do it better.
In fact, it is likely that the most telling line of attack against a potential candidate Trump would come from the right.
That he elevated Dr. Anthony Fauci early in the pandemic and listened to his advice for too long. That despite all his talk of building the border wall, he didn’t get it done and left intact a desperately flawed immigration system.
That he rattled China’s cage but didn’t make fundamental changes to the trading relationship and was too complimentary of President Xi Jinping.
And, finally, that he lost to Joe Biden, a desperately flawed candidate who only made it into the White House because Trump made himself so unpopular.
Would DeSantis be audacious enough to run against Trump in 2024? The case against waiting is that that it’s extremely unlikely that the governor can maintain his exalted status in the party until 2028.
On the other hand, the case against running in 2024 is that it involves the enormous risk of encountering the business end of the Trump buzzsaw, which could change DeSantis’ image in the party forever.
Trump took a not-so-veiled shot at DeSantis in a recent interview, hitting unnamed “gutless” politicians who won’t say whether they’ve gotten a COVID-19 booster shot or not. DeSantis has been notably evasive on this question, and Trump was giving him a hint of things potentially to come.
For the moment, though, De-Santis should take the grumbling from Trump as a compliment — the past and current master of the GOP sees a future threat arising.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.