Can DeSantis Unseat Trump?

The long-awaited Republican reckoning has only just begun, says David Frum.

Ron DeSantis stands at a podium, his arms spread open. Donald Trump stands just behind him, on the left.
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis at a midterm campaign event in 2018 (Mark Wallheiser / Getty)

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My colleague David Frum wrote this week that Tuesday’s midterm was the latest loss for Donald Trump and a major win for newly reelected Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has a chance at the GOP crown. Can DeSantis rise to the challenge? And will Republicans finally break with Trump? I called David to find out.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


“The Trump Way”

Kelli María Korducki: You write that DeSantis is now about to show the public whether he’s “a leader or a follower, a man or a mouse.” How so?

David Frum: DeSantis wants the top job in the Republican Party. But to date, he’s been hoping that somebody else will hand it to him on a platter. He’s not challenged Trump on anything—not on election denial, not on Ukraine, not on taking government documents and stashing them at Mar-a-Lago. Indeed, when he’s spoken, he’s given Trump his backing. He has put himself in a subordinate position, and now he’s challenging one of the most aggressive and abusive figures in American politics. He’s going to have to stand up to that or be crushed by it.

Kelli: Is there any indication of which direction he’ll go?

David: So far, DeSantis says remarkably little about anything that is difficult. I don’t think I’ve been able to find a word that he’s spoken, for example, about the war in Ukraine since its outset, over which Republicans are divided—some stand with Ukraine, some against, and we can’t tell where Ron DeSantis is. That’s a good path if you are content to end your career as governor of a state. But if you want to get the party nomination away from the current frontrunner, who is this domineering presence, you have to do more than that.

Kelli: And yet, DeSantis isn’t exactly a picture of docility.

David: That’s what makes DeSantis’s subordination to Trump so striking. He has been very aggressive toward other targets. His message is that he’s a fighter; that was his closing ad in his gubernatorial-reelection campaign. He picks fights with the Walt Disney Company. He picks fights with school teachers. He picked fights with high-school students who wore masks in his presence. He’s willing to fight with just about everybody. But those people don’t have the job he wants. Donald Trump does, as the leader of the Republican Party. And so far, he has not done anything to challenge that job.

Kelli: What are the potential consequences if DeSantis decides to speak up against Trump? And what if he doesn’t?

David: The potential consequence of not speaking up is that he will just be overlooked. It’s quite possible that if the Republicans had had a better night on Tuesday, DeSantis might have been too intimidated ever to declare for the top job at all, and Trump would’ve won it unopposed. Now it looks like there’s more momentum to DeSantis challenging Trump.

But if you are going to challenge Trump, you have to fight him, because he’s going to fight. He’s going to call DeSantis names; he’s going to verbally abuse his loved ones and his children. That’s the Trump way. And if you just take it, you end up looking like a weak person in a party where strength is the thing they care about most.

Kelli: Is there a distinction between “strength” and “the Trump way”?

David: In the real world, the world we teach our children to live in, there’s a difference between strength and aggression. Strength is a moral quality adjoined to a sense of right, a sense of dignity. It’s adjoined to respect for others. But that’s not the world in which Trump plays politics.

In 2015, during the presidential race, he insulted Jeb Bush’s wife. Jeb Bush later stood on a debate stage beside Donald Trump and demanded that Donald Trump apologize. Trump refused. And Jeb Bush was left to stammer and yammer. That’s the game, and this is Ron DeSantis’s opponent.

DeSantis has to figure out how to look strong against that opponent so that the constituency he wants to win over will recognize his strength. They’re not looking for quiet dignity. They’re looking for more than that.

Kelli: What are Republicans and their voters looking for?

David: Well, there are important details that are still uncertain. We don’t yet know whether the Republicans will end up with control of the House of Representatives or a majority of the Senate. Both of those things remain possible.

What we do know is that their hopes have been disappointed. Even the best case that’s available to them now is way less good than the best case they were expecting on Tuesday. They have suffered a psychological defeat. Even if they end up controlling the House, they will almost certainly feel defeated, like they lost. And the places where they suffered their worst defeats were in places where Trump picked the candidate.

Kelli: Would it be fair to say that is a moment of reckoning for the Republican Party?

David: The reckoning has been coming; now it’s a moment where the reckoning can’t be denied. Trump has been a very unsuccessful politician compared with other people in the party. He lost the popular vote in 2016, and he lost the House in 2018. He lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College in 2020. His interventions cost Republicans two Senate seats in 2021, and with them control of the U.S. Senate. Now you have the 2022 underperformance by Republicans. And yet, Republicans convinced themselves that this guy was a big winner. The reckoning was always waiting to happen, but now it’s unavoidable. There’s no escape.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Dozens of congressional races remain unresolved, including close Senate contests in Nevada and Arizona; the Georgia Senate election is headed to a runoff.
  2. Consumer Price Index data showed that inflation cooled more than expected last month.
  3. The Washington, D.C., attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Washington Commanders, the team owner Dan Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the NFL, alleging that they deceived D.C. residents about an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

Dispatches

Evening Read
Illustration of a couple riding the same skateboard and holding hands. The skateboard's wheels are smiley faces.
(Jan Buchczik)

Marriage Is a Team Sport

By Arthur C. Brooks

Celebrity news doesn’t typically interest me, but a quote from the actor Scarlett Johansson recently caught my eye. The 37-year-old has been married three times, and in an interview, she gave her assessment of why so many celebrity marriages seem to fail. The reason she cited from firsthand experience wasn’t being too busy, or apart too much, or filming sex scenes with someone who isn’t your spouse. “If one person is more successful than the other,” she noted, “there may be a competitive thing.”

It’s easy to see how competition could wreck a marriage when millions of dollars and adoring fans are at stake. But the rest of us really aren’t so different. We all have individual interests that are important to us, and they can readily fester into competition in a relationship. Small things such as who unloads the dishwasher can become a contentious issue of fairness; when one partner earns more money than the other, it can stimulate rivalry even between people in love.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Martin McDonagh portrait in black and white
Martin McDonagh (Antonio Olmos / Eyevine / Redux)

Read. Looking to process the past few days? Our writers chose the books that explain American politics today.

Watch. The Banshees of Inisherin, in theaters, might be the director Martin McDonagh’s best cinematic work yet.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

At any given time, David is usually reading one book and listening to another—and “both of them take me far away from where we are,” he says. He’s currently listening to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which he’s revisiting for the first time since college. This time, he says, “I keep being weirdly disappointed by what a strange and wacky book it is.” Fortunately, his print pick, Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, is “absolutely fabulous.”

—Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.