The GOP's heart of darkness: Why Ron DeSantis can never beat Donald Trump

No Republican can beat Trump, because no one else can command his coalition of damaged, discarded, marginal people

By Mike Lofgren

Contributing Writer

Published May 20, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

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

In the last few weeks the mainstream media have not only buried the presidential ambitions of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, they've driven a stake through the corpse's heart and stuffed its mouth with garlic. The epitaphs have been quick in coming; Maureen Dowd's recent column in the New York times may serve as representative of the conventional wisdom.

Why did DeSantis' exploratory campaign flame out so spectacularly? Here Dowd, standing in for dozens of commentators, judges that DeSantis was simply not likable (in Dowd's world, everything in the known universe is reducible to sophomore class in high school, and people elect politicians for the same reasons they form lunchroom cliques). 

DeSantis' political stunts apparently exacerbate his unlikability. Calling in an establishment voice for backup, Dowd quotes David Axelrod, former chief campaign strategist for Barack Obama: "The kind of tricks you use to get elected to other offices don't work in a presidential race because you get scrutinized so closely."

And on it goes: DeSantis is by turns "contrived," "robotic," "inept," "nasty" and "dull." OK, Maureen, we get the picture.

While the media sages are probably right that DeSantis (or a similar Republican like Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas) is unlikely to defeat Donald Trump in a primary, they are wrong in their explanation of why. In fact, their rationales demonstrate that, once again, the media profoundly fail to understand Republican voter psychology and its connection to Trump.

How could Axelrod, an intelligent political observer, think that stunts and tricks somehow disqualify a Republican candidate from holding office? Wasn't Trump's entire candidacy in 2016 based on stunts and tricks? For a decade or more, Republican officeholders at every level have ceased to govern in the traditional sense: infrastructure, education, health care, national security, environmental issues and so on simply do not interest them except when they can be exploited for demagogic stunt-pulling. 

Education, for instance, has been reduced to ranting about transgender people and burning woke books. Military policy amounts to attacking the Pentagon for no longer honoring treasonous insurrectionists by removing their names from military bases. Health care means inciting death threats against Anthony Fauci. In that context, DeSantis' asinine feud with Disney is simply mainstream Republican politics, no different than the fake border wall Trump pretended to build.

DeSantis may be this election cycle's Scott Walker: Both are governors who achieved re-election and subsequent national stature by employing a focused, ruthless competence in turning their states into politically rigged authoritarian systems on the pattern of Viktor Orbán's Hungary. Florida was once a swing state; currently Republicans enjoy a supermajority in the legislature that allows them to pass such enlightened measures as using radioactive waste to build roads. Wisconsin had voted for the Democratic presidential candidate every time since 1988 — before Walker's tenure, that is; what should be safe Democratic territory is now a toss-up.

From the point of view of GOP political operatives and Republican megadonors, a DeSantis or Walker represents their dream candidate. They can forgive their cold, robotic lack of charisma because they are politicians who can transform independent legislatures into rubber-stamp Supreme Soviets and deliver the goods — business fascism in a suit and tie rather than jackboots and swastika neck tattoos. They have undoubtedly enacted more of their own agendas than Trump managed in his tenure in office.

These Republican presidential wannabes certainly do not lack Trump's nastiness. Abbott vowed to pardon a man convicted of killing a protester even before the court sentenced him to 25 years. That stunt has all the Trumpian hallmarks: a blatant perversion of the justice system, an appeal to racism and performative cruelty toward the relatives of the slain person. Yet we can't quite picture Abbott outpacing Trump.

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To understand why is to peer into the dark heart of America, an undertaking no one in the establishment media wants to perform. Instead, they prefer to serve us a heaping helping of sentimental Americana. 

No media coverage of a political campaign would be complete without the small-town diner story featuring salt-of-the-earth folks in John Deere hats descanting their cracker-barrel wisdom about the state of the world. I suspect this media ritual is the expression of an inferiority complex by journalists; they may have advanced degrees and the privileges that go with their status, but they feel somehow less genuine than the ur-Americans in the provinces. Hence the pilgrimage to the diner in Iowa is a form of penance, like the road to Canossa in medieval times.

But something is going on in America, and particularly in the red states, that does not comport with the Norman Rockwell mythology. After a decade-long stagnation in life expectancy, the United States has suffered a two-year drop in longevity that is unprecedented in American history and has continued even after the end of the pandemic. 

The steep rise in gun violence is one notably grisly example, but Americans are killing themselves at record rates in all sorts of ways: drugs, booze, suicide, obesity, even car accidents. The longevity plunge, something almost unheard of in developed countries in peacetime, is extraordinary in itself; the fact that it is intimately connected to Republican politics ought to make it the story of the decade, if not the century.

Since the rise of the Tea Party, droves of people have left the GOP, including yours truly. This has not damaged the party electorally in any serious way. Yes, some of that is the result of gerrymandering and vote suppression. But it does not explain the 74 million Americans who lined up to vote for Donald Trump, having had four years to evaluate his presidency. The party's secret sauce to stay competitive, to replace those who bolted the party, is something nobody cares to talk about because of the light it casts both on electoral politics and society. 

The GOP has attracted to its base the hitherto apolitical and disregarded: rednecks living off the grid, armed-to-the-teeth survivalists, psychopathic grifters and con artists, violent criminals, borderline psychotics, incels in their mothers' basements.

The GOP has attracted to its base the hitherto apolitical and disregarded: rednecks living off the grid, armed-to-the-teeth survivalists, psychopathic grifters and con artists (who may have been attracted by Trump's transparently crooked fundraising), violent criminals, the borderline psychotic, incels living in their mothers' basements, hitherto tiny political extremist groups. 

In better times, these disparate groups of antisocial lunatics were institutionalized, socially marginalized or physically isolated from each other. The GOP's vast media-entertainment complex has given them a cause, mobilized them and made them march in unison. One may think there aren't enough of the people I have described to constitute a mass movement. But there are certainly millions of them in a country of a third of a billion, and their presence in a major political party works as a kind of psychological Gresham's Law, resulting in the worst elements driving out the good.

If these groups' demographic weight in the GOP weren't enough, they are augmented by heretofore ostensibly sane people who have gone around the bend. To put it bluntly, four years of nonstop bellicose shrieking from the Trump White House, culminating in the most deadly pandemic in living memory, caused a lot of formerly stable Americans to go nuts. Over the last decade, virtually every one of us has known a friend, a co-worker, or an Uncle Ned who was previously personable, but now rants about how George Soros controls the weather. This is currently the vital center of the Party of Lincoln.

In American journalism it is permissible, although not as common as it needs to be, to call an elected scoundrel a scoundrel. But Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar (who is so toxic his own family disavowed him) were not installed in federal office by Martians; a majority of their voting constituents elected them knowing full well what they stand for. But the great, unwritten taboo in establishment media forbids any critical discussion either of the ethics or the sanity of great swathes of the American electorate.

What is it that attracts these types to Trump specifically? I believe that he, more than any other candidate on offer, represents the archetypal abusive father figure with whom many of them have a masochistic and sexually charged relationship. Having been abused himself as a child, Trump now transmits abuse to others. The Trump base, disproportionately conservative and religious fundamentalist, is also likely to have been the subject of punitive and authoritarian upbringings; rather than making a clean break with the sickness, they keep replicating it in their lives. Their slave-like loyalty to Trump is a form of masochism towards the angry yet protective family patriarch. 

Those who think I am practicing psychiatry without a license might have difficulty explaining the cult of Trump. One of the little-noticed aspects of his presidency was the emergence of a right-wing cottage industry cranking out kitsch portraits of their leader as a heroic figure who has somehow shed 60 pounds and displays implausible muscularity. Likewise, the schlock statues, like this example at a CPAC convention, which are apparently not meant as a joke. Some of these efforts are embarrassingly Freudian if not homoerotic. The idea of Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott becoming the subject of devotional folk-art is highly implausible.  

And what do these people want? They don't want better health care, fiscal responsibility, better infrastructure, clean drinking water or anything on a policy menu that serves rational ends. They don't necessarily even want a competently administered fascist state such as DeSantis or any number of other Republicans might bring them. The result would bore them; what use do "burn it all down" nihilists have for a detailed political platform?

What they truly want is demons to wrestle with till the end of time. They want revenge. That is why the people they elect to Congress are such a bad fit for a system that requires consensus and compromise. They crave contentiousness and conflict 24/7. 

Scholars studying the conspiracy theories these people fall for sometimes belabor the issue of whether they really "believe" such crackpot notions. Whether they believe is probably unknowable, but that is less important than the fact that loudly saying they believe it creates endless friction with relatives, co-workers, and neighbors. Being abrasive, if not actually threatening, gives them a sense of identity and attention they would otherwise lack.

Other than tax cuts for the rich (and for himself), Trump hardly undertook any policies in his four years in office; instead he filled his time with giving his base a whole menagerie of demons to contend with. It is no coincidence that the people he verbally assaulted, be they politicians, the press or election workers, were soon besieged by death threats from his unhinged followers.

The real glue between Trump and his devotees is his endless assurances that their lot in life is not the result of their own laziness, irresponsibility or failure to seek counseling. No, they are innocent victims, endlessly picked on by elitists, socialists and foreigners. These sinister groups are constantly changing according to expediency, but the point is to keep his acolytes in a constant state of agitation.

The real glue between Trump and his devotees is his endless assurances that their lot in life is not the result of their own laziness or irresponsibility. They are innocent victims, endlessly picked on by elitists, socialists and foreigners.

He accomplished the difficult feat of demonizing Muslims (Trump's first presidential campaign took off like a rocket after the December 2015 mass-shooting in San Bernardino by a Muslim extremist) while going on to set up business deals (meaning bribes) between his family and the Persian Gulf despots. He even sided with the bloodthirsty Mohammed bin Salman over the Saudi-American journalist whom the Saudi princeling had murdered and dismembered. Did Trump's followers even notice the hypocrisy?

More than 80 years ago, George Orwell commented on the malleability of the endless hate propaganda of earlier charismatic dictatorships; it sounds eerily like the Trump technique: "As for the hate-campaigns in which totalitarian régimes ceaselessly indulge, they are real enough while they last, but are simply dictated by the needs of the moment. Jews, Poles, Trotskyists, English, French, Czechs, Democrats, Fascists, Marxists — almost anyone can figure as Public Enemy No. 1. Hatred can be turned in any direction at a moment's notice, like a plumber's blow-flame."

Trump's hold over his base, a force that none of his Republican opponents can quite replicate, is ultimately predicated on the implied threat of violence. As armies, gangs and cults have demonstrated, violence is a tacit loyalty oath that bonds one member to another and above all the group to the leader. The simmering air of menace that characterizes Trump rallies is the sadomasochistic tie between Trump and his followers turned outward as hatred towards the rest of society.

As this was being written, two staff members of Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, were attacked and injured by a baseball bat-wielding assailant. According to news reports, the attacker was schizophrenic and had not taken his anti-psychotic medication. That may be so, but it raises rather than answers a key question: Was it purely random that an insane man entered the office of a Democratic congressman and used potentially lethal force against his employees? Following last October's assault on the husband of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, we begin to wonder where mental illness ends and the stochastic incitement of terrorist violence begins.

The reason for the fanatical attraction of the Republican base to Donald Trump is the aura of violence that surrounds him. His pronouncements to his followers are functionally no different than an imam in a failed Middle Eastern state issuing fatwas to kill the infidel. Low as their standards are, even the producers at CNN ought to have considered that fact before handing him an open microphone. 

By Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a historian and writer, and a former national security staff member for the House and Senate. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted."

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