Trump and DeSantis: A Comparison
Derek Suszko is an associate editor for The St. Croix Review.
It is natural, in times of great partisanship, for developments in politics to be very rapid. If we consider what a novelty Donald Trump represented in 2016 and now, merely six years later, how much we take his conservative “populism” for granted, we ought to be astonished; but the observation is justified by considering the alarming descent of the Left into a politics of total national degradation. Trump, who seemed so novel and radical a solution to the dilemma of a middle America besieged by coastal ideologues in 2016, now appears almost quaint, and though he dominates the Republican Party, it is fair to question whether a future Trump administration will go far enough in its commitment to the quickly evolving conservative agenda. Conservatives by their nature do not like to disrupt “the state of things” too abruptly, even when that “state” is incremental political and cultural domination by the Left. But it is apparent that only an aggressively assertive and disruptive agenda, with bold demands and decisive methods, will be capable of stemming and reversing the tide of the leftist takeover of government, culture, and freedom. Trump remains the bastion of the Republican Party, but it is entirely fair to ask if he is the most capable individual to implement such an agenda of the future.
Of all the alternatives to Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stands alone in having successfully assimilated the new brand of conservative populism while preserving (and even enhancing) his essential individualism. This cannot be said for those national figures Trump diminished (Rubio, Cruz) or for those he advanced to prominence (Pence, Haley, Pompeo). All five of these figures have rumored presidential aspirations, but at the present moment each of them appears decidedly regressive in the necessary evolution of conservatism in comparison to Trump. Some of them are fatally linked to the DC establishment, and if they are not (as in the case of Cruz) they give off too much the savor of calculation. Only DeSantis has demonstrated a potential advance upon Trump, and, as of this writing, he represents the only truly desirable alternative. No doubt it has been an immense boon to DeSantis to be governor of an electorally crucial state. But much of DeSantis’ gain in reputation has been due not merely to circumstances but to his own knack for publicity and his willingness to venture boldness in policy and narrative when so many Republicans are content to be docile or parrot talking points. Perhaps having learned from the Left, DeSantis creates talking points for the purposes of policy advancement. He is shrewd enough to recognize the energy and outrage that animates conservative voters, who have too long been in the thrall of half-hearted politicians giving token acknowledgment of cultural and economic grievances while doing nothing to pragmatically address them.
It remains very early in considerations of 2024, and politics is a fickle arena. One false step can crater a promising career, and any politician, no matter how charismatic, can be wafted far and wide by changing circumstances. Trump will almost certainly run, and it is likely that DeSantis will resist the urge to challenge him, recognizing that a failure to defeat him could spell doom for all his future prospects. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on conservatives to carefully and dispassionately weigh the available options, and to confront as objectively as possible the question: Who is most capable of achieving a triumph for the conservative agenda? If a Trump nomination is inevitable, it does not follow that he should feel no pressure from the urgent demands of his voters, or that he should be comfortable in the conceit of certain power. I present this comparison of Trump with his strongest intra-party rival not to endorse one or the other but to objectively weigh the demonstrated merits of each in various domains, and to offer a summary vision of expectations for the conservative voter.
Politics is grand theater, and Trump is the consummate political actor in all American history. So much of Trump’s success, both in business and politics, was contingent on his ability to perform his part to perfection. Like all great actors, Trump is entirely without self-consciousness, a quality which charms even as it intimidates. His rallies are masterclasses in palpable spontaneity, as evidenced by my favorite Trump aside, made on October 18, 2018, at a rally in Montana:
“The choice could not be more clear. Democrats produce mobs. Republicans produce jobs. It’s true. It’s true. By the way, this is the most beautiful sky. Well, it’s big sky. I guess there’s a reason for everything, right? No it’s just — I got out and I’m looking. . . . Someday one of you will explain exactly why, but that is a beautiful, beautiful, big sky. But Nancy Pelosi, crying Chuck Schumer, and the radical Democrats, they want to raise your taxes, they want to impose socialism on our incredible nation. . . .”
That apparent sincerity is unmatchable, and no politician should be foolish enough to attempt an imitation of Trumpian stream-of-consciousness in addresses to the public. They must find their resonance elsewhere. DeSantis has learned a great deal from Trump’s bully pulpit techniques but has been careful to ensure that he retains his own unique brand of presentation based in firmness and precision. While DeSantis has copied the many hand gestures employed by Trump, the words are quite different. He always remains focused and clinical, and avoids the subjective assertions of which Trump is so fond. Trump remains the great original in this area and undoubtedly outshines all competition, but DeSantis could hold a stage with Trump better than anyone.
The special allure of celebrity will belong exclusively to Trump in any race, but such a quality is never sufficient of itself in acquiring and retaining the hearts of voters. Reagan had this quality also, but more important was his emotional directness, his ability to sever the barriers between himself and his audience through a shared sense of feeling. Trump only displays this empathetic understanding indirectly, and one rarely senses that Trump is speaking with immersive sympathy. Celebrity is colorful but inevitably bears the hint of frivolity, and even after six years at the center of American political life, Trump cannot always shake free from an air of levity, even when he is discussing deeply serious matters. If DeSantis seems more distant, he also seems more probing, and this produces its own kind of magnetism: one that is firm and passionate but, most importantly precise. In times of crisis, people do not follow flamboyancy and spectacle but pragmatic and focused resolve. They seek competence and vision over entertainment, and DeSantis, even in his most passionate moments, always projects total assurance. If DeSantis can carry these essential qualities to the national spotlight, he stands a chance of muting the special advantages of Trump’s stardom.
Historically, the issue of education has been a political winner for the Left. This was often due to the Left’s success in its intentionally naïve framing of the issue as being a question of “funding kids and teachers” by increasing expenditures in public schools. The breathtaking corruption and incompetence displayed by public teachers’ unions were well hidden by the Left, and they were often able to reduce considerations of levies to a virtue signaling exercise in “supporting” teachers. But the prospects for this issue are changing for conservatives, who have finally recognized the insidious nature of the Left’s desire to infect the young with ideological bile as early as possible. DeSantis has been at the forefront of this realignment, most crucially in the signing of the “Parental Rights in Education” bill (derisively termed by the Left the “Don’t Say Gay” bill), which aims at a school’s funding should the staff be found spreading gender ideology to younger elementary-aged students. As always with conservative policies, the ability to present a clear counter-narrative to the Left is pivotal, and in focusing on parental rights DeSantis has uncovered the defining angle on this issue. No matter how much they deny it, the Left is after children. They seek malleable minds that are susceptible to predatory propaganda, and there is no better forum for them than in the public schools, where they can seek to influence children outside the guiding eyes of parents. In the long term, the American public education system ought to be entirely dismantled and reformed on new lines, but for the present the ideal conservative platform should focus on encouraging those who can afford to remove their children from the system to do so, and to protect those who cannot. DeSantis is the greatest conservative voice on this issue.
It is irrefutable that were it not for the pandemic, Trump would have won re-election. The pandemic obliterated Trump’s greatest political asset in the strong economy, and deprived him of his ability to hold rallies. But Trump still might have salvaged the situation had he taken a more forceful control of the narrative. Many circumstances conspired against him. In the early stages, when information on the true risks was scant, Trump was forced to rely on the “expert” bureaucrats in the CDC, a group that uniformly despised him and had no interest in doing him any political favors. As the pandemic continued, and the partisan divide on pandemic policy became apparent, Trump declined to create a firestorm by removing Antony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, though he had the authority to do so. Trump put his political fortunes in the hands of the developers of the vaccine, which was developed in an astonishingly rapid timeframe, a success that for reasons almost certainly political, was not announced until after the election. To this day, nothing during his tenure gnaws Trump so much as the general failure on the part of both his base and his opponents to credit him for this achievement. But Trump must be careful on this point. It is a political reality that a sizable number of Trump voters distrust the vaccine and remain unvaccinated, and this distrust has only exacerbated in the aftermath of numerous vaccine mandates at the state and municipal levels. The central contention on this issue has moved from being one of vaccine availability to one of bodily autonomy and free choice, and Trump has sounded out of touch in his post-presidential comments on the vaccine. DeSantis has emerged from the pandemic far stronger from a conservative perspective, and in retrospect was the only real national figure to have kept his head in the chaotic early days of panic and fear. Recognizing earlier than most that the highest-risk populations were the elderly and that others were low risk, DeSantis organized policy implementation to favor the appropriate populations and was always careful to recommend vaccination for those at risk and to defend the right of free choice for those who declined it. He was among the first governors to combat the mask mandates in schools and workplaces, and though he was defeated in state court on his executive order surrounding mask mandates, his rhetoric exposing the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of pandemic policy contributed to blunting its influence at the national level. On this issue, DeSantis has demonstrated a stronger understanding of the positions of the Republican electorate.
While conservatives have made encouraging inroads on the narrative hegemony of the Left on issues of education and voting, health care remains the Achilles heel of the platform, largely because conservatives have failed to formulate any comprehensive counter-proposal to the leftist pursuit of state encroachment in the health care industry. Mere repeal is not a compelling option, and it is no wonder that after the failure to reverse Obamacare in 2017 (by McCain’s single vote) the Republican Congress made no more attempts to do so. Health care was a fertile bastion for the Democrats in the midterm elections of 2018, and they will continue to be formidable in any election cycle in which they can convince independent voters that Republicans are after their coverages. But the bloated health care bureaucracy and the system it has wrought remains a severe instance of policy failure and a reckoning will come, especially since the prevalence of medical debt and the ghastly costs passed onto the federal budget is a prime breeding ground for the next major recession. Any conservative policy offering on this issue must center on lowering costs without interfering with existing coverage and breaking up the medical cartel that sets prices at levels far beyond market determinations.
Another issue in which the Republicans have seized the initiative is that of voting, and Trump is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing it to prominence. A good many Republicans would like the issue to go away, thinking that it sets dangerous precedents, but the truth is that there are major problems with national elections because of the machinations of Democrat operatives, by which I do not necessarily mean to imply the outright forging of votes. The prelude to the 2020 election saw the passage of mail-in-voting laws in states with Democrat governors designed intentionally to generate fraud and voting discrepancies. These policies (which will be repeated in 2022 and 2024) were coupled with disinformation campaigns in establishment media to protect the candidate Biden and the suppression of accurate reporting in the days leading up to the election. The Democrats are also playing the long game of altering the electorate by encouraging the settlement of migrants in red states and even moving to red states themselves and advancing the very policies that destroyed the states they came from. Whether they are engaging in fraud at the counting level (and they likely are) is negligible next to these more serious efforts. Trump is merely accurate when he describes the election as illegitimate, and it should be the expectation that future elections will be the same. This should not, as it proved in the Georgia run-off elections of 2020, deter conservatives from participating in elections. Rather, it should encourage them to adopt election integrity as a fundamental component of the platform, and to aggressively combat all leftist attempts to generate voting fraud by challenges in the courts and bills in the legislatures. Thus far, Trump has been the only major Republican to be outspoken on this issue. Many have been unacceptably lukewarm. DeSantis cleverly navigated the potentially fraught political terrain in the immediate aftermath of the election certification, and it was fortuitous for him that his state results were not in doubt, else he might have found himself in the unenviable position of poor Brian Kemp to the immediate north, who was forced to publicly avouch Trump’s defeat. Trump has been, and will continue to be, tenacious on this issue. It remains to be seen whether DeSantis, or any other prominent conservatives, will follow suit.
Foreign Policy & Immigration
Trump has been fond of lamenting in recent months that he has not received the appropriate credit for the speed of the vaccine rollout. With even greater justification, he might claim that he has failed to receive appropriate credit for his foresights in foreign policy, for nowhere has Trump been so vindicated than in the arena of foreign affairs. Ridiculed as a crackpot by the Europeans throughout his administration, Trump nonetheless offered a witheringly accurate and refreshing assessment of the hypocrisies and contradictions in play in European presumptions about NATO. Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, nations like Germany find themselves in the awkward position of simultaneously sanctioning Russia and being reliant on the purchase of its oil. Never has Trump’s insistence on American oil independence and support for the Keystone pipeline appeared as prescient as now, when gas prices have exploded all across the country. Trump is hardly an intellectual, but he often has an uncanny intuition of basic facts denied and obfuscated by “experts,” and his sense of outrage at the fact of other nations “taking advantage of us” was one of the most endearing of his recurring contentions. It is possible on the other hand to pronounce the Trump administration a failure on the issue of immigration since it failed to pass comprehensive immigration legislation during the two years when it was possible. This was due both to lockstep Democrat opposition and a sizable Republican refusal to compromise on “pathways to citizenship.” But Trump retains his pulse on the issue, correctly and shrewdly associating the immigration problem with the theft of jobs and stagnant wages, and it is certain that a second Trump administration would represent a great deterrence to the mass illegal migration which has been rampant under Biden. At present, he is the only firm authority for conservative voters on both this issue and many aspects of foreign policy.
Big Advantage: Trump
Many commentators, opposing and friendly, on the Trump phenomenon were baffled by an apparent contradiction: how could it be that a billionaire urbanite, whose whole life was spent in the glamor of celebrity culture, would prove irresistible to millions of rural, working-class voters? How could an overtly ungodly man gain the reverence of evangelicals? The answer lies not only in the essential fascination of contradiction but also in Trump’s role as the living embodiment of the myth of the self-made American. Brash, irreverent, yet also immensely patriotic, Trump can appear almost quintessential. That intrinsic sense of Americanism is what unites Trump with his supporters. Yet Trump’s apparently uncanny connection with his base is not unassailable, and he must guard against any tendencies to diminish it. Trump adores adulation, but curiously, this sometimes seems to extend to a craving for affirmative acknowledgment from political enemies. Trump is always on the lookout for praise from unlikely sources, and was quite joyous some months ago when Jen Psaki credited him on vaccine messaging. He also had this exchange with Maria Bartiromo in an interview on December 20, 2021:
Bartiromo: “Should you have fired Fauci?”
Trump: “So a lot of people ask me that question, and I don’t, right? ‘Cause if you do fire him you’re gonna have a firestorm on the Left again.”
This is a most disappointing response. Why does Trump care about the opinions of political enemies who hate him? If Republicans are unwilling to create firestorms on the Left, then they are as good as worthless. Trump’s base is a powerful force in national politics, yet too much of this kind of talk will erode its devotion even from the man who galvanized it. Trump cannot take them and their political demands for granted.
It is hardly unjustified to consider age in assessments of presidential suitability. The present administration is led by an empty figurehead who has lost necessary cognitive capacity due to old age. Were Trump to win re-election, he would be 78 on Inauguration Day, matching the record mark just set by Biden. While Trump shows infinitely more energy and gumption in his mid-70s than Biden, it is fair to doubt that he will be capable of maintaining the tenacity requisite for a Republican president in promoting the agenda or that he will be able to approach policy considerations in a detail-oriented and rigorous way. The coronavirus scare at the end of his administration was a demonstration that Trump’s health may not be as impeccable as he claims. DeSantis, meanwhile, is 43 and hardly lacking in experience, having served in the House before his tenure as governor. His dynamism is obvious, and his charisma is enhanced by his youth. DeSantis gives the GOP the kind of figure that the Democrats churn out in droves: one who projects an image of the future and not of the past.
Big Advantage: DeSantis
Trump’s lauded slogan of “Drain the Swamp” can be credited with being the most concise assertion of the necessity of disrupting the power of bureaucracies for the achievement of any conservative policy goals, but in the end he did very little draining. Notable achievements such as cleaning up the Veterans Administration aside, Trump was generally content to polemicize against the corruption and ideological degradation of the federal government without offering overtly disruptive action to combat it. He relied on too many appointees who were fundamentally uneasy with him. Any future conservative administration must be willing to do two things to counter the bureaucracies: 1) assert, up to and through judicial challenges, the absolute right of the President to remove “inferior officers” for any cause, and to contend the unconstitutionality of any Congressional laws restricting such a function and 2) a willingness to attack the departments in the realm of funding if they are uncooperative with conservative policies, corrupt, or advancing Leftist propaganda internally. The first point concerns the will, the second the method. DeSantis has demonstrated in his tenure as governor an eagerness to play the disruptor, removing longstanding bureaucrats for politically motivated sabotage of policy implementation and threatening various leftist-infested bureaucracies with reductions of budget allocation. But the federal government is an unconstrained animal like no other, and reining it in will require a rhetorical adeptness to assuage enough of the public combined with a persistent temerity. At least at the state level DeSantis has proven such a commitment.
It should be clear that no conservative movement can any longer afford out of principle to abjure the powers which are available to it for the achievement of political objectives. Whoever represents the Republican Party in the next election and in elections to come must possess an almost pathological forcefulness in the pursuit of destroying the power of the Left. The Left dominates the government and the culture, but much of the country is energized against the madness and excess it has fostered. It requires art and rigorous determination to transform voter enthusiasm into enduring policy, and therefore it is crucial for the conservative leader, whether Trump, DeSantis, or someone unforeseen, to maximize this energy while maintaining an ever-vigilant eye on the proper methods for the fulfillment of pragmatic designs. *