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DeSantis Should Challenge Trump to a Fight
Taking Republican voters as they are
I’ve always felt that the success of op-ed columnists is to a great extent arbitrary. A lot of regular writers for outlets like the New York Times have good insights, but many could be replaced by one of a hundred others who could do just as serviceable a job if they had the right connections. I was reminded of this while reading a symposium of eight conservative writers at the Washington Post on the 2024 race. Here’s what Gary Abernathy says about how DeSantis might be able to beat Trump.
What we learned in 2016 with Rubio, Cruz, Jeb Bush, etc., is that you cannot win an insult contest with Donald Trump. He’s too good at it.
Going forward, whether in interviews or, eventually, on a debate stage, DeSantis should kill Trump with kindness and express confusion about Trump’s attacks — which is frankly what most Trump supporters feel about them. Even people who prefer Trump over DeSantis find Trump’s attacks on him baffling. DeSantis should acknowledge, “Yes, I’m following in Trump’s footsteps. He blazed the trail. He showed us the way. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish the job. We gave him a chance and he blew it. But where he failed, I’ll succeed, and I already have a track record of success.”
DeSantis should acknowledge and for the most part agree with what Trump (and Haley) are saying about him: Trump is responsible for his rise. He should express sadness and confusion over why his mentor has turned on him. Trump voters can relate and empathize with that, and it would paint Trump as a sore loser, a vindictive person who will turn on anyone, even his most ardent followers.
I haven’t been able to get over what a terrible understanding of the Republican base this shows. The phrase “kill him with kindness” sticks with me. Really? Is “kindness” the trait Republican voters seem most eager to reward in the Trump era? What about a patronizing tone expressing “sadness and confusion”? Wait until they find out that Trump is vindictive and a sore loser! That will be quite the revelation.
This passage made me realize that there’s been a common thread in every theory about how to beat Trump from within the Republican Party over the last eight years. They all assume that the voter is better than his support for Trump would indicate. Republicans must have legitimate concerns about trade, or immigration, or whatever. They would like a nice, respectable man to address those concerns, but haven’t found one yet, so they keep falling back into old patterns. Ted Cruz tried running to the right of Trump in 2016, and DeSantis has adopted the same strategy in 2024, but this time with a proven record of getting things done. This has worked in each case only to a very limited extent, definitely not enough to win.
I don’t think Trump can lose a Republican primary at this point. But if I were giving DeSantis advice, it would be to do the opposite of what Abernathy suggests. Republican voters love the stupidity, obnoxiousness, vulgarity, and simian chest-beating. While the conventional wisdom seems to be that Rubio and Cruz tried rolling around in the muck with him and failed, Rubio’s most vicious personal attacks in 2016 didn’t come until after Trump had won the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses, that is, pretty late in the game. And Rubio wasn’t the guy to do it.
Instead of seeing Republican primary voters as concerned citizens seeking a voice, try to imagine them as chimps laying around under a canopy. They’ve chosen the alpha male. He’s the loudest, most obnoxious member of the tribe, and his power depends on the degree to which other apes are afraid of him and give him symbolic displays of respect, which in this case has meant saying, for example, that he actually won the 2020 election. What could break this spell? Not reasoned arguments, but signs of weakness. And no, not weakness in the sense that he might not be the most electable candidate — that’s counting on a level of thinking that is far too abstract for this population.
Rather, one needs to emphasize literal physical weakness. Notice how obsessed Republicans have been with the real and imagined physical and cognitive shortcomings of figures like Biden and Hillary. In many corners of right-wing media, “our opponents are old, fat, ugly” seems to get at least as much attention as actual issues, especially during election season. In 2020, we saw doctored videos of Pelosi slurring her words go viral on social media, and this shows not only how susceptible the Republican base is to fake news, but also how obsessed they are with physical and physiological correlates of health.
The Dylan Mulvaney hysteria is another demonstration of the red tribe being driven by the most base and primitive instincts. These people started shooting beer cans with assault rifles because a company sent a six pack to a guy who acts like a sissy. Good luck explaining to them the importance of going after higher education accreditation agencies.
You might think it’s strange for a group like this to have chosen Trump as their leader. But when he posts memes of himself as an Adonis or says things like he’s in better shape than Obama or Bush were while they were in office, and no one corrects him, that serves to only cement his dominance over the party. Trump’s perfect body is like the unreliability of Dominion voting machines. Shirtless Putin has a similar effect in Russia. Educated Westerners roll their eyes at his primitive demonstrations of vigor, but I suspect that, like Trump, he’s a much better student of human nature than they are. The conspiracy theories might have been false, but the Trump-Putin bromance was real, and no accident.
This means that DeSantis’ best shot is trying to emphasize that Trump is physically weak and he no longer intimidates others in the party. You can’t do this with words alone. DeSantis can call him fat, and Trump can reply everyone is saying that I’m in the best shape of any man who’s ever lived, and the voters will eat it up. The Florida governor needs a way to clearly highlight that he’s younger, stronger, and more physically courageous.
DeSantis should therefore challenge Trump to a boxing match. Trump will almost certainly refuse, at which point he can say that this shows what a coward the former president is. Or, DeSantis could say that, on further reflection, maybe it wasn’t fair to challenge an 85 year-old man (yes, lie and exaggerate, Republican voters love that too), and he understands that his opponent is too feeble at this point in his life to get into the arena.
DeSantis shouldn’t do this out of the blue. He could start by trying to bait Trump into saying something particularly nasty about him, or preferably his wife or kids. Then he can play the role of the justifiably angry patriarch.
Every time Trump launches a personal attack, DeSantis can reply by saying that his opponent is a pathetic coward, and if he has a problem with him he’s already made clear that they can settle their differences like men. If he’s not willing to do that, then we can stick to the issues, at which point DeSantis can go on about whatever he did in Florida. At the very least, a challenge to fight will eat up all the energy and make sure no other candidate gets any attention, as one of the main things DeSantis needs to do is make the primary into a two-man race.
Right now, the DeSantis strategy is to try to get the Republican voter to ask questions like “who is more electable?” or “who has shown more focus in fighting woke?” Those are exciting questions to conservative intellectuals but way too boring for the Republican masses. They will never tell a pollster this, but they resent anyone trying to make them think too hard, which is part of the reason they hate liberals in the first place.
These people love sports, and would be much more partial to DeSantis if thanks to him they got to discuss questions like “can Trump’s height and reach overcome DeSantis’ speed and stamina?” If Trump refuses to do it, then he’s suddenly become the one robbing them of a chance to be entertained, which is what they want more than anything else. His insults and rants will start to look boring in comparison.
There are a lot of ways that this could go wrong, and it probably wouldn’t work. But I think people are still yet to truly understand that, if things proceed as normal, Trump is going to be the nominee. Making sure he’s not would require meeting Republican voters where they are, instead of continuing to wish they were something else.
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