By Rick Wilson
As an anthropologist of what was once called the Republican Party and arguably the person deepest inside the twisted mechanics of Donald Trump’s mind, the last week has been no surprise. It’s a job I’d readily trade with a guy in Bangalore sorting toxic waste from old iPhones or the assistant chum-maker on an Alaskan fishing boat, but it does make politics explicable.
In the last seven days, the primary for the Republican nomination for President came to a crashing halt.
First, all the wannabes, also-rans, and VP aspirants (looking at you, Nikki Haley) bent the knee, caught in the cruel political singularity of Trump’s utter dominance of the MAGA base. Every single one of them took the weapon of Trump’s lavish and constant criminality and tossed it on the ground. They joined the hallelujah chorus in the House of Representatives and attacked District Attorney Alvin Bragg instead.
Ron DeSantis, dream date of the Establishment, came closest to an attack, swiping at Trump with a mumbled line of “I don’t know what goes into paying off a porn star.” It fell so utterly flat with the Republican base voters, the MAGA online horde, and the mainstream media that he repeated it again to Piers Morgan on Fox Digital with the same…exact…intonation.
It’s no wonder Fox is already not-so-subtly making the turn back toward Trump.
Pros noted DeSantis’ lack of political felicity on his first big road test, and while many have analogized DeSantis to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, those comparisons only go so far.
The real vibe DeSantis was giving this week was Hillary Clinton.
The expected establishment choice. The safe bet. The letter-perfect resume with all the signifiers the meritocracy finds so comforting. An army of media Stans who declare the perfection of their policies, views, history, and prospects. Like Hillary, Ron DeSantis seems fundamentally uncomfortable with this work. He lacks that grace and ability natural candidates show without trying; Ronald Reagan had it. Barack Obama had it. As painful as it is to admit, Donald Trump had it.
For Puddin’ Ron (a nickname that will live in infamy), every interview gives America a chance to watch the gears moving in his head, calibrating and trimming, desperately hoping never to put a foot wrong. For all his bluster about never backing down, the howls of laughter across the political world could be heard all the way to Tallahassee when DeSantis reversed his position on Putin and Russia.
Last week, he was a proud isolationist Putin-symp, declaring that Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine was a mere “territorial dispute” and put himself soundly into camp of such noted pro-Russia cheerleaders as Steve Bannon, Seb Gorka, and Jack Posobiec. After clearly getting his bell rung by more serious people, DeSantis reversed course and declared the wee Russian dictator a war criminal.
Far from being rewarded, he has been nuked into a radioactive puddle by MAGAs declaring him to be a neo-con warmonger shill and by foreign policy grown-ups who view his transparent attempt at needle-threading as wholly inadequate.
Candidate quality matters, and Ron DeSantis is shaping up to be an average to poor example of the class.
By last night, DeSantis had to face the stark 2024 reality that he was the exception to a political rule as old as time; for almost all campaigns, the easiest and best day is the first day of the campaign.
For DeSantis, whose campaign effort hasn’t formally launched but has been painfully obvious, relentlessly promoted at his Fox SuperPAC, and by an army of desperate conservative writers trying to build a post-Trump future, it was bad news. His poll numbers versus Trump in the latest Morning Consult poll were a miserable 54%-26%.
Ron’s numbers seem to have peaked at the beginning of the year and have been on a steady decline ever since. Trump’s have steadily climbed.
Here’s what happens next for the rest of the field; disaster. First, the small-fry live-off-the-land types will keep going to the East Des Moines Garden Club Fish Fry, where a claque of muttering blue-hairs will sit listlessly as they grind through their stump speeches.
Every night in a Day’s Inn will drain their spirit a little more, burn down a little more campaign cash. They’re not raising small-dollar money, and the establishment cash, the Wall Street banking and hedge fund bros, and the Silicon Valley Thiel claque are all-in on DeSantis.
Their consultants will start -- quietly at first, then much more urgently -- trying to find a way back to Trump or the sucker pool of DeSantis cash. They will understand it’s over, but some will try to hang on until the first debates, hoping against hope to somehow, some way land a knockout blow against Trump. Good luck with that.
DeSantis is larding on consultants into his SuperPAC, and his burn rate is escalating. Soon, that burn rate will be a conflagration of cash, and even though he has promises from the billionaire class that he’ll never run out of money, every Presidential campaign in the history of time runs out of money. Jeb Bush’s doomed SuperPAC somehow incinerated over $100 million dollars before he withdrew from the race after South Carolina. All that sweet cash Trump’s banked will be gone, and sooner than they think.
And as he continues his deliberate, constant destruction of DeSantis, the billionaire class will stop answering the phone…slowly, then all at once. The rest of the field is a footnote.
Trump will play the outrage card over and over. As he starts providing the networks with prepackaged rally content, even Chris Licht’s CNN (perhaps especially Chris Licht’s CNN, given its vanishing ratings) will flood the zone with Trump coverage once again.
The spectacle is too much to resist. Trump will return to Twitter with an army of 89 million followers and blast his attacks, accusations, fantasies, grievances, and assorted word salads into the minds of his followers.
Not one candidate in this field has learned the most basic rule; once you hit Trump, you can never, ever, ever stop. Once you attack, that’s all you do until Trump is defeated. Not one of them can sustain it.
Their bubble of comfortable illusion was popped this week, and not one has the courage and strength to stop playing Trump’s game.