Donald Trump is not the most rightwing candidate running for the White House. That is a statement few would have thought possible after the former president’s brand of nativist-populism reshaped the Republican party’
But as the Republican primary election for 2024 gathers pace, Trump finds himself eclipsed on the right by Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who is betting that the party’s voters are spoiling for an even more extreme agenda.
From Covid to crime, from immigration to cultural issues, DeSantis is staking out territory that leaves the 76-year-old frontrunner fending off a once unthinkable criticism: he might be a bit too liberal.
“DeSantis’s strategy for now is that he is going to try to outflank Trump to the right and there’s opportunity there,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution thinktank at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “He can go after Trump’s record as president on spending. He can go after Trump on refusing to address entitlement reform, which Republicans seemed to abandon writ large.”
This week, Trump was indicted on charges of mishandling classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. DeSantis did not attempt to capitalise but rather condemned the “weaponization of federal law enforcement”. He has been dubbed a “mini-Trump” who seeks to emulate the former president. But in his first 10 days on the campaign trail, DeSantis has assailed Trump from the right.
He told a conservative radio host “this is a different guy than 2015, 2016,” before deriding bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation that Trump championed as “basically a jailbreak bill” letting dangerous people out of prison.
On immigration, DeSantis has played to the base by flying migrants from Florida to Massachusetts and California while arguing that Trump “endorsed and tried to ram” an “amnesty” bill through Congress. The governor even claimed Trump’s signature issue for himself by asserting that he would finish building a wall on the US-Mexico border.
DeSantis can point to a hard-right record in Florida and suggest that he gets the job done in contrast to Trump’s unfulfilled promises at the White House. He has accused Trump of “turning the reins over” to Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, during the Covid pandemic while he says he kept Florida open for business. “We chose freedom over Faucism,” DeSantis told voters last week.
Whalen, who served as a speechwriter for the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign, said: “What DeSantis is going to attack him on is that Donald Trump turned loose Anthony Fauci. Trump at no point fired anybody. Trump let Fauci drive children’s healthcare policy. If Trump wants to engage with this on a conversation over who handled Covid better, boy, if I’m Ron DeSantis, bring it on.”
Extraordinarily, Trump finds himself on the defensive over what many neutral observers and critics regard as one his few positive achievements: the development of coronavirus vaccines in less than a year.
Campaigning in Grimes, Iowa, he received a pointed question from a woman who claimed that “we have lost people because you supported the jab,” a reference to conspiracy theories about mRNA vaccines, which have been credited with saving millions of lives.
While Trump did not dismiss her suggestion – and stressed that he was never in favour of mandates – he explained that “there’s a big portion of the country that thinks that was a great thing, you understand that. Not a lot of the people in this room, but there is a big portion.”
DeSantis has also taken a swipe at Trump for saying he did not like the term “woke” because people struggle to define it. The governor retorted: “Woke is an existential threat to our society. To say it’s not a big deal, that just shows you don’t understand what a lot of these issues are right now.”
The skirmishes imply that DeSantis and Trump are running separate races. While the governor is aiming to woo Republican primary voters who have spent years embracing extremism, Trump is already looking ahead to a general election against Joe Biden where moderate swing state voters are critical.
Trump has repeatedly hit DeSantis from the left, arguing that his votes to cut social security and Medicare in Congress will make him unelectable in a general election – even though Trump’s proposed budgets also repeatedly called for major entitlement cuts.
Although Trump is quick to remind voters that he appointed three supreme court justices who, last year, helped end the constitutional right to abortion, he has also suggested that Florida’s new six-week abortion ban is “too harsh”.
In a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity, he urged pragmatism with an eye on the general election: “I happen to be of the Ronald Reagan school in terms of exemptions, where you have the life of the mother, rape and incest. For me, that’s something that works very well and for probably 80, 85%, because don’t forget, we do have to win elections.”
Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “Trump’s current campaign strategists know that abortion is a huge weakness for the Republicans on a national stage going into 2024, evidenced by what happened in the midterms with the issue of abortion.
“Trump is trying to thread the needle and sound more pragmatic on that because he’s actually thinking about the general at this point for that specific issue. There’s a good chunk of Republican voters who are not happy with the extreme abortion bans that are being pushed by the party.”
DeSantis’s even-harder right approach could backfire in a national race against Biden, according to Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill.
“It’s a risky proposition by the DeSantis camp to try to run to the right of Trump at this point because it feels as though it’s a very myopic strategy to just get out of the primary. Given how extreme his policies have been in Florida and what he’s advocated for, if by some miracle he did defeat Trump in the primaries, how does he walk all of that back to appeal to a general election electorate in this country?
“This idea that he wants to scale up Florida is anathema to what the majority of the American people across the country actually want policy-wise. It’s not out of the ordinary that candidates tack more to the middle once they get into a general but we have never seen this level of extreme policy positions in a primary translate to a general election and be successful.”
Trump is not willing to be entirely out-Trumped.
He has pushed the death penalty for drug dealers and renewed his pledge to use the US military to attack foreign drug cartels. He also revived his pledge to end birthright citizenship, saying he would sign an executive order on the first day of his second term to change the long-settled interpretation of the 14th amendment.
The posturing from both men might come to nought. History suggests that policy can be less important to voters than personality. Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “DeSantis is running to the right of Trump on policy. The particular niche of Trump is that his rhetoric and his populism remains further right than DeSantis.
“DeSantis has been a governor, a member of Congress. For all of his rhetorical policy stances and the policies he’s signed into law, he’s still part of the government. Sure, Trump was president, but he has carved a place for himself as a demagogue, as someone who is running both for and against the political and economic system in America.”
Jacobs added: “DeSantis would like him to run on policy and then DeSantis can run on his record of what he’s accomplished and try to win over Trump’s rightwing base.
“But I don’t think Trump is going to let him do that. He’s going to continue to mock and portray DeSantis as part of the problem, someone who’s feeble and lacks the grit and the guts of a strong leader.”
Trump allies dismiss DeSantis as an imitator who rings hollow. Roger Stone, a political consultant and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” based in Florida, said: “He can try to sound like Trump, he can try to position himself like Trump, but I don’t think those are his real politics. He’s an establishment Republican. If you have a choice of seeing the Beatles or seeing a Beatles tribute band, which one are you going to go see?”
David Smith in Washington
Published: 2023-06-11 10:00:48