Donald Trump just neutralized Ron DeSantis

Trump is smartly running against DeSantis from the right on cultural issues and from the left on the economy

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 10, 2023 9:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Dark Brandon aimed his death ray at the congressional Republicans in front of the whole country this week and in the process seems to have banished all thoughts of a primary challenge should he decide to seek a second term. Unless something dramatic changes, it appears that the Democrats are not going to have a nomination fight on their hands. The Republicans, on the other hand, look to be gearing up for a knockdown, drag-out, bare-knuckled brawl — and the dynamics already taking shape are fascinating.

It was always a good bet that Donald Trump would run again for no other reason than he is the sorest loser in world history and he simply cannot accept that he lost the last election. He didn't expect to have any rivals, however, assuming that he would receive the nomination by acclamation and not really even have to campaign until the general election. He didn't realize that his epic pout after the 2020 election would turn off so many GOP suburban voters and no doubt believed that he would be a kingmaker in the 2022 election, reaffirming his position as the only possible candidate. None of that has gone as he'd hoped, however, and he's now faced with having to campaign in earnest amongst a crowded field as he did in 2016.

He's running as an outsider and making Ron DeSantis (or whomever else is left standing) into the swampy establishment.

Nobody but Trump has officially announced yet but the signs are everywhere that a number of people are contemplating jumping in. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has announced that she will be making an announcement and Trump has said that she called to tell him she was going to do it. He made a couple of sour references to her previous promise not to run but is also encouraging her, no doubt aware that a larger field will automatically benefit him since he has a very solid base of around thirty-five percent of the party that will stick with him no matter what.

The tension between his need to lash out at former sycophants even as he knows it's good for him if they run will be very interesting to watch, especially if, as expected, former VP Mike Pence and former Sec. of State Mike Pompeo get in the race in the next few months. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin are all reportedly also contemplating runs.

Once the games begin in earnest we can certainly expect the usual insults, lies, and character attacks against all who dare to step into the arena.

As we all know, Trump's main rival is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with some polls showing Trump in second place in a two-way race. DeSantis is the great hope of Republican establishment figures who don't care that Trump kissed up to every dictator on earth, botched a global health emergency and then attempted a coup, but are mad as hell that he isn't the winner he pretends to be. And the GOP base is certainly Ron-curious, attracted to his trollish, "own the libs" approach to the culture war in which he fearlessly attacks asylum seekers, transgender kids, gay teachers, AP history students and high schoolers wearing masks in public, proclaiming "Florida is where woke goes to die." He's one tough hombre.

This stuff is catnip to MAGA followers and Trump knows it. (He's got a highly developed nose for the wingnut zeitgeist.) He's decided to try to out-troll DeSantis — who is one of the leaders of the burgeoning anti-LGBTQ movement, and is getting a lot of love from the MAGA crowd for it — by coming at him from the right on the issue. Trump released one of his weird campaign videos last week in which he pledged to outlaw all gender-affirming treatment for minors and punish any doctors who provide it. And he doesn't confine his draconian proposals to kids. He's going after trans adults too. He proposes a federal law that recognizes only two genders and bars transgender women from competing on women's sports teams. He also pledged to immediately cease programs that promote the concept of gender transition "at any age," banning all federal dollars from being used for gender-affirming treatment. It's a full-on assault on transgender Americans of all ages. Trump's anti-trans proposal is as fascist a set of policies we've seen in America since Jim Crow.

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I'd imagine most of his people haven't heard about this yet but you can bet it will be a huge feature of his rallies. And just to make sure he's positioned as the one true culture warrior, he even re-posted a couple of Truth Social posts that recycled a picture alleged to be DeSantis during his brief tenure as a high school teacher, drinking with some underage girls, with the word "groomer" in the commentary.

It was a shot across the bow and DeSantis didn't handle it well when a reporter brought it up. He responded with a schoolmarmish reply that he doesn't spend his time "trying to smear other Republicans." (It's true --- he spends all his time smearing ordinary citizens.) But that response isn't going to work with Trump or the MAGA crowd. The dustbin of GOP history is littered with the political careers of Republicans who failed to parry his insults. And those who tried fared little better. He had better figure out how to take a punch from Trump or he'll be out as quickly as you can say the words "Scott Walker."

Trump's anti-trans proposal is as fascist a set of policies we've seen in America since Jim Crow.

But Trump isn't just trying to run to DeSantis' right on the culture war. He's doing something clever that helped him greatly in 2016 and will likely help him again. He's running to his left on economics. He's already trapped him (and the rest of the field) on the issue of cutting Social Security and Medicare, which almost all of them have supported in the recent past, including DeSantis. He's also tying him to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Speaker Paul Ryan, the hated RINO, by posting a video in which DeSantis praises Ryan's economic program — which proposed privatizing Social Security and Medicare. Sure the House Republicans became hysterical when Biden said they wanted to do all that in his State of the Union address, but Trump saying it too and using Biden's attack lines against his rivals makes for an interesting dynamic, to say the least.

This same formula allowed Trump to vanquish a dozen rivals in 2016 and it could work again.

He has a record now but it's hard to see how any of these people can persuasively condemn him for any of it since they were in lockstep with him all the way. Donald Trump, former president and current head of the Republican Party, is managing to do something seemingly impossible: He's running as an outsider and making Ron DeSantis (or whomever else is left standing) into the swampy establishment. Does the Republican Party want that this time? Just watch Fox for a few minutes or Steve Bannon's War Room and you'll get your answer. The only question is whether Trump can convince them that he's their guy one more time. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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