Why Never Trumpers Should Bet on DeSantis Now

The Florida governor is flawed, but within normal parameters. The former president poses a unique threat.

Ron DeSantis
Joe Raedle / Getty

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Donald Trump is trying to hang on as the doddering boss of the Republican Party. Earlier this month, he threatened that his supporters may stay home in 2022 and 2024 unless others in the GOP validate his delusion that he beat Joe Biden.

Were the GOP base less easily duped, it would move on, as when George H. W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney lost White House bids. As president, Trump failed to build his border wall or bring home the troops. No 75-year-old candidate who lost the popular vote to general-election opponents as weak as Hillary Clinton and Biden portends future glory for his party. And Trump energizes intense opposition like no one else, uniting otherwise divided Democrats while alienating a faction of conservatives and independents who normally vote Republican. As if that weren’t enough, America would be weaker with him as president because he tears us apart.

Nevertheless, Trump remains more popular among the shrinking Republican base than anyone else. So in publications including National Review, The Dispatch, and The Bulwark, anti-Trump conservatives are now debating what to do. They all view the 45th president as an unacceptable leader, deplore the Trumpist turn in the GOP, and lament the dearth of promising strategies for reversing it. Alongside the options they’re considering, I’d add one more: uniting behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the GOP rising star who can boast both conventional political achievements and credibility on the Trumpist right. 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.

DeSantis frustrates and disappoints me within normal parameters. He hasn’t yet frightened me, as Trump does, as being superlatively incompetent, divisive, morally degenerate, or authoritarian. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough put it last June, when COVID-19 numbers were failing and DeSantis was peaking in the polls, “We’re going from the political heroin to the political methadone.” However bleak the analogy, that’s a significant step toward recovery!

At just 43 years old, DeSantis offers a sharp contrast with both Trump and Biden, two of our oldest presidents. The Florida governor grew up middle class: His father installed Nielsen TV-ratings boxes, and his mother was a nurse. He graduated from Yale and Harvard Law, served in the Navy from 2004 to 2010 as a JAG officer, worked as a federal prosecutor in Florida, then ran for Congress in 2012, where he was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus and opposed funding the Robert Mueller investigation, arguing that the Department of Justice’s approach “didn’t identify a crime to be investigated and practically invites a fishing expedition.” In 2017, as DeSantis prepared to run for governor of Florida, Trump supported him in that state’s Republican primary. He remains a plausibly acceptable candidate for anti-Trump conservatives, in part because winning narrowly in a purple state has all but forced him to moderate his populism. He has pursued substantive initiatives––such as expanding access to monoclonal antibodies and attracting successful businesses with a friendly regulatory climate––that appeal to moderates and traditional conservatives.

Of course, anti-Trump Republicans have had other things to think about than the 2024 election. Even before the Capitol riot on January 6, lots of anti-Trump Republicans had already left the GOP. Afterward, tens of thousands more Republicans changed their voter registration to quit the party, Politico’s David Siders reported. That’s the context for the intra-right debate of the moment.

Surveying all the tumult, Bill Kristol, the longtime movement conservative and Never Trumper, published a February 22 column at The Bulwark setting forth a controversial proposal: “Why shouldn’t anti-Trump Republicans at least consider becoming a kind-of-Old-Republican wing of Joe Biden’s Democratic party?” he asked. ”Moderate Democrats, historically speaking, get no respect. Sure, they win elections. And they govern pretty successfully. But they get ignored by the media, by their side’s intellectuals, by donors, even by Democratic political pros. And now they’re getting ignored by Never Trumpers. Maybe it’s time they get attention and respect.”

Another faction believes it’s unrealistic to expect many conservatives to cast votes for a Democratic Party that takes positions opposite theirs on abortion, guns, foreign policy, and tax-and-spending issues. So is a third party a better alternative? In a recent Los Angeles Times column, the conservative author Jonah Goldberg suggested “a third party with a simple, Reaganite conservative platform combined with a serious plank to defend the soundness of elections.” If a Republican nominee met its requirements, “a new party of the right could endorse the Republican, the way New York’s Conservative Party does. If not, a non-Trumpy candidate could play the role of spoiler by garnering enough conservative votes in the general election to throw the election to the Democrat.”

But a third party struck National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke as highly likely to backfire. “The implication of Jonah’s piece is that if the GOP loses yet another election, it will learn precisely the lessons that he thinks it needs to learn,” Cooke wrote. “In the real world, though, this almost never happens … Games such as the one Jonah proposes to play aren’t how you get rid of a Donald Trump. They’re how you get the next one.” Dan McLaughlin, also of National Review, added, “​​The battles that Jonah wants to fight are very much worth fighting. But the place to fight them is in Republican primaries.”

The best way forward depends, in part, on how bad one believes Donald Trump himself to be for America. Is he no worse than any number of other populist demagogues who are capable of winning the White House, or is he sui generis, so that any likely alternative would damage America less?

Probably the latter.

For that reason, Trump’s opponents should pursue all potentially viable strategies for keeping him out of the White House. I agree with McLaughlin that a primary fight is worth having. Then, if Trump still wins the GOP nomination, Kristol should support the Democratic nominee and Goldberg and others should encourage a conservative third party, even if that risks inspiring “the next Trump,” because even another right-wing populist is likely to be less bad than Trump––less depraved, less shameless, less able to rely on fame and riches, less imbued with a bullying charisma that makes his sadistic cruelty seem more acceptable. Republicans need to know that, if they renominate Trump, the right will be bitterly divided, while the faction of the country that wants to elect a Democrat will grow bigger, more energized, and more united.

Of course, Trump’s divisiveness will seem like a compelling reason for the GOP to dump him only if an alternative nominee can better unite the right’s Trumpist and anti-Trumpist factions. Put another way, a viable Trump primary rival isn’t going to be the Republican that Kristol or Goldberg, let alone a longtime independent like me, would most like to elevate. A successful unity candidate can neither repudiate all of Trumpism’s excesses, as I would prefer, nor embrace Trump’s most authoritarian attacks on American democracy, as Trump himself would prefer.

So far, DeSantis has threaded that dispiriting needle more deftly than most other Republican contenders. My colleague David Frum wrote in an April profile that the DeSantis approach is “a form of political judo that works by employing judicious but limited provocation, followed by a deft, just-in-time retreat to the center,” arguing that “the Florida governor has figured out that Republicans love a culture-war brawl, but that overdoing it can alienate a general-election electorate.” I strongly disagree with DeSantis on some issues—such as capital punishment and the drug war—and have all the policy objections you’d expect from a classical liberal. Yet I would be relieved to grant him four years in the White House if, in return, I could be assured that no Trump would ever again be president.

DeSantis himself has tried to tamp down speculation about a 2024 run. Perhaps he truly doesn’t plan to run, or maybe he wants to postpone the moment when Trump attacks him as a rival.

Trump said in early October that, if he faced DeSantis, he would beat him, but that he expects most people, including DeSantis, to drop out of the GOP primary if he runs. Trump may be right, because he leads all candidates in the polls. But Trump is not invincible. He lost the popular vote twice, lost the Electoral College to Biden, and helped the Democratic Party win majorities in the Senate and the House. He is guaranteed the GOP nomination only if his is the only GOP faction that congeals behind a single candidate. And for anti-Trump conservatives, anything that denies Trump that prize is the least bad option. So it isn’t too early to start the “if not DeSantis, then who?” conversations to avoid repeating their 2016 mistake of failing to unite around anyone. Unless anti-Trump conservatives can think of someone more likely to beat Trump, they should be working on how to beg, cajole, or entice the Florida governor to contest the 2024 nomination.