Asked about the possibility of facing Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2024, Trump was hugely dismissive.
“If I faced him, I’d beat him like I would beat everyone else,” Trump told Yahoo Finance late last week. “I think most people would drop out, I think he would drop out.”
Make no mistake at what Trump is doing here: He is sending a very clear shot across DeSantis’ bow, making sure the newest and biggest star in the national Republican firmament knows that he can’t possibly hope to beat the former president — and shouldn’t even try.
Whether Trump’s aggressive approach to a DeSantis’ candidacy impacts the Florida’ governor’s thinking about 2024 remains to be seen. But like with so many things Trump says about other people, it’s deeply revealing about the former president and how he thinks about himself and his role in the party and the country.
Trump views himself, effectively, as the king of the Republican Party. In his mind, everyone is not only below him but also owes him a debt of gratitude for having any sort of power. And that view very much informs how he sees DeSantis.
DeSantis was a largely unknown Republican member of Congress when Trump endorsed him in late 2017. “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!,” Trump tweeted.
That endorsement propelled DeSantis to a come-from-behind win in the GOP primary — and, eventually, the governor’s mansion.
Trump, as he does, took full credit for DeSantis’ success. “He was at 3, he had no money,” Trump said in February 2020. “Somebody else was at 38 and they had $22 million cash, right? I said, ‘Look, if it’s important, I’ll do it,’ because he’s been another great warrior. And, by the way, he ran, I endorsed him, his numbers went through the roof.”
What Trump likely didn’t plan for is how DeSantis, once in office, has emerged as a conservative hero.
Much of that rise has to do with his bucking of the science when it came to how best to combat the spread of the coronavirus. DeSantis resisted shutting his state down and reopened it quickly, insisting that this was a fight about liberty as opposed to a public health crisis. DeSantis has drawn national headlines with his skepticism about mask wearing. And an attempted exposé by “60 Minutes” that suggested a link between a campaign donation and vaccine distribution in the state turned into an utter debacle for CBS — and manna from heaven for DeSantis. He’s also used his office to fight back against alleged “wokeness” in higher education.
In so doing, DeSantis has become the most popular Republican not named Trump among the GOP base. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, two 2024 straw polls were conducted. The former president won the first straw poll. DeSantis won the second, Trump-less one. (DeSantis took 21% in the straw poll with Trump, the only candidate other than the former president to gain double-digit support.) At the Western Conservative Summit in June in Denver, DeSantis actually got the most votes (275) among attendees when it came to who they would approve of running for president in 2024. Trump came in second, with 265.
And that’s right about where DeSantis went from being a proud project for Trump to a potential threat. See, Trump is not the leader of the Republican Party in any traditional sense. If he was, promoting young, conservative stars would be the sort of thing that he would (and should) do. Trump doesn’t see his role that way. His job is to be the unquestioned head of the party while everyone else’s job — including DeSantis — is to bow down to that reality.
Which is what makes 2024 intriguing. If, as expected, Trump does run to win his old job back, will everyone — including DeSantis — just fall in line behind him? Or will someone — or several someones — run to move the party beyond Trump?