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The Trump-critical right faces a difficult choice
Sometimes we talk about our country as if 2016 represented a hijacking. As if we were shining, in the sparkling glory of our exceptionalism—only for the defiler to come along and ruin everything. As if he wasn’t a genuine American creation.
This is the delusion swallowed by everyone who took Obama’s campaign slogans a little too seriously, who saw in America’s election of a black man the realization of a postracial epoch. It made sense, from this perspective, to find the prospect of Trump beating Hillary too morally frightening to take seriously.
Never Trumpers, too, showed their naïveté. They sometimes acted as if Trump came along and spoiled a perfectly good party. As if Boehner and Ryan and Romney and the rest of them were at an elegant diner having a sophisticated conversation about the garishness of welfare provisions only for Trump to bulldoze in and raze the building to the floor.
But Trump didn’t represent an intrusion into an otherwise healthy society. His rise was symptomatic of a rot already there. That a person as comprehensively detestable as he is managed to ascend to the highest office in the land, and to engineer a complete takeover of one of our two major parties, is a permanent indignity—one that doesn’t merely implicate his supporters but implicates us all.
The long-term goal, for centrists and center-right people, shouldn’t be to make sure Democrats enjoy a lasting majority. It should be to help make America permanently inhospitable to the very idea of a Trump presidency, or to anything sufficiently like it.
That “anything sufficiently like it” part is crucial. It’s what a lot of center-right people find themselves thinking about as 2024 draws nearer.
Anything can happen between now and then. But at this point it appears the best hope of keeping Trump away from power is for the Republican Party to nominate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The nomination alone would be sufficient. If DeSantis went on to win the presidency, Trump would never again be in a position to do so himself—but even if DeSantis lost, Trump would be too old to run again in 2028. A DeSantis nomination in 2024 would decisively end Trump’s hopes of returning to the White House.
Thus the question centrists and center-rightists are grappling with: Is Ron DeSantis fundamentally a Trumpian politician, or is whatever Trump affinity he possesses less politically salient than other things about him?
Late last month, Conor Friedersdorf offered an exhortation to disaffected conservatives: Back DeSantis. Friedersdorf is obviously aware that the guy who once cut an ad in which he read The Art of the Deal to his kid during bedtime isn’t exactly the Never Trump ideal, but he thinks a DeSantis nomination represents the best chance the right has to once and for all rid itself of Trump.
By failing to unite around any candidate in 2016, Trump’s opponents all but guaranteed that the celebrity businessman would coast to the nomination. In 2024, DeSantis may not be the president that Never Trumpers would choose. He’s too Trumpy for their taste. But their options are limited, and if beating Trump is their highest priority, as I think it should be, DeSantis may be their best bet.
Charlie Sykes, in his Bulwark newsletter, disagrees with Friedersdorf. His first reason is political: backing DeSantis won’t work because if Trump runs DeSantis won’t run against him and even if he did Trump would beat him. But it’s Sykes’s second reason that gets at something deeper and more philosophically interesting: the soul of the Republican Party.
Embracing DeSantis accepts and ratifies the permanent Trumpification of the GOP — the cultural grievance, crude demagoguery, anti-democratic contempt for constitutional norms, and the not-very-subtle embrace of identitarian politics.
And this is where Friedersdorf misreads the tattered remnant of Never Trumpers. I obviously can’t speak for all of them, but some of us who remain here in the political wilderness object not merely to Trump himself, but to the entire constellation of impulses that he has loosed on our politics.
Obviously Never Trumpers want to beat Trump (again), but the larger (and perhaps much more difficult) project is to stand against Trumpism and its continuing assault on the conservative mind (or what is left of it).
The alternative is to normalize political deviancy.
To capture the disagreement here: Friedersdorf thinks Trump is quite a bit worse than DeSantis, which justifies strategically backing DeSantis as an anti-Trump play, whereas Sykes thinks DeSantis is sufficiently similar to Trump such that a DeSantis presidency would not only represent a continuation of the Trumpian project but would permanently establish Trumpism as the GOP’s core identity.
Both concerns are well-stated, but for me, keeping Trump away from the presidency takes precedence over everything else.
I’m sometimes asked what it is about Trump that I find so reprehensible. I usually rattle off a few of his greatest hits, or bring up a policy or two that I particularly loathe. I do that because, as with entering “explain to me why jazz is good” territory, those things are easier to communicate than the main reason, which can sound esoteric to someone who is basically fine with a person like Trump in office. So I just list a few things here and there and that’s the end of it.
But of course the real awfulness is Trump himself; the true scandal is Trump, the person. Someone with Trump’s psychology, with his inclinations and attractions, with his traits and concerns, should remain as far away from the presidency as it is possible to be.
All politicians serve themselves to an extent. But the degree to which Trump inverts public office so that it functions—transparently, shamelessly, entirely—as a vehicle for his own interests is beyond anything else we’ve seen.
In its clearest moments, the Never Trump movement understood this, which in turn helped it better understand itself. It’s a mistake to conceive of the Never Trump ethos as just garden-variety concern over a candidate doing a few bad things here and there, as if this was Clinton concern after Lewinsky, or Bush concern after Katrina—rather, what animated the Never Trump movement was the unassailable conviction that Donald Trump, the person, is constitutionally unfit for the presidency in nearly every way it is possible to measure such things.
The Never Trump stance didn’t base itself on a single failing, or a single instance of misbehavior, but rather on a single person: Trump. Certainly the person was responsible for the failings, some of them sui generis in their offensiveness. But the disastrous things Trump did in office were downstream from who he was; they inexorably flowed from it.
The justification for being Never Trump came from the relentless desecration of the presidency Trump achieved just by being him, just by occupying the Oval as himself. This is why his unfitness is in an important sense overdetermined. If you were to dissect all of the tendencies and actions of his which incontestably disqualify him from leading a country, you could generate a hundred thousand unfit presidents from those building blocks.
The call to the Ukrainian president was an entirely different episode than his 2020 election trutherism, just as his mocking of a journalist with a disability was something totally unrelated to his effusive praise for some of the world’s most barbaric strongmen—and each of these moments are independently disqualifying. They are not cumulatively disqualifying—they constitute unfitness within them individually.
It’s like someone serving multiple life sentences. When we deem a criminal action, or a series of criminal actions, to be so bad that a single life sentence is insufficient to redress the balance, the offender is handed a sentence that outlasts his own lifespan. Trump carries within himself innumerably invalidating characteristics, and uncountably many failings, each of which are by themselves disqualifying.
Friedersdorf and Sykes agree that Trump is bad: Friedersdorf’s recommendation is based on keeping Trump out of office, and Sykes’s recommendation is based on keeping Trumpism out of office. Their concerns have more overlap than at first appears.
As I see it, keeping Trump out of office is the best way to keep Trumpism out of office. But the larger concern, as I tried to describe above, isn’t Trump himself but a country that remains disquietingly open to being governed by him, or someone like him. This is why a good portion of our reformist energies moving forward should be assigned to figuring out how to Trump-proof our society in ways that are consistent with democratic principles.
Some on the right believe, as Friedersdorf does, that DeSantis is “within normal parameters” and backing him represents an important first step toward de-Trumping our country. Others believe, as Sykes does, that DeSantis represents too much of a continuation of the Trumpian project to allow us to meaningfully detoxify ourselves of the MAGA venom.
My own view, as a moderate and a Floridian, is that while there are many things that give me pause about DeSantis, he is far better than Trump. We don’t know what a DeSantis presidency would look like, but we know Trump. And he must never be allowed to win again.