That the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Florida home has become a rallying point for Republicans—ever eager to demonstrate fealty to the former president and rage at government overreach—is not exactly a shock. What is noteworthy is how the news might shift political considerations in MAGA world.
In another universe, last week’s FBI search could have provided a perfect opportunity for a wannabe party leader like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to set himself apart. A reckless has-been running off with nuclear secrets? Not my president! But in this universe—and given this particular cult of personality—DeSantis has parked his wagon next to all the others encircling Trump.
“These agencies have now been weaponized to be used against people that the government doesn’t like,” DeSantis told a crowd on Sunday at an Arizona political rally alongside the GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and the Senate candidate Blake Masters. If the Florida governor had been gearing up to launch his own presidential bid, the FBI search—and what could come after—might be forcing him to rethink his plans. “Now that Trump is beleaguered and in legal trouble and the current narrative is Rally to the king!, he will rally to the king,” Mac Stipanovich, a Florida Republican strategist, told me.
DeSantis has Trump to thank for his political success. The president’s endorsement—and multiple campaign appearances—helped him when he was the underdog candidate in his 2018 Republican primary, and ultimately led to his slim victory in the general election. In the three years since DeSantis got the keys to the governor’s mansion, he has worked diligently to position himself as the natural inheritor of Trumpism. He’s waded dutifully into the culture wars, opposing lockdown orders, blasting critical race theory and banning lessons on sexuality in school. He’s even mastered Trump’s hand gestures.
If the former president should decide not to run again in 2024, DeSantis has seemed ready and willing to accept the baton. In polls, Republican voters have consistently chosen him as their second-favorite choice for president.
Some strategists told me that DeSantis might even try to challenge Trump in a primary by arguing—carefully, respectfully—that the MAGA movement does not belong to just one man. “Before the Mar-a-Lago raid, I was of the mind that it would be a crowded primary” in 2024, David Jolly, a former GOP representative from Florida, told me. “DeSantis has been so strong that he could say, ‘Enough voters are asking me to get in the race; I’m going to stand. But if Trump wins, I’ll support him.’”
The FBI search, though, might have sabotaged DeSantis’s diligent plans. The news was read by MAGA world as the opening salvo of a war on Trump, and every Republican with a political survival instinct has proclaimed righteous anger on his behalf. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted an upside-down American flag in apparent support of Trump; “We are seeing the justice system being used as a hammer to batter political opponents,” the Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano told Newsmax. Even former Vice President Mike Pence came to Trump’s defense, despite recent reporting that Trump had expressed support for Pence’s hanging: “I share the deep concern of millions of Americans over the unprecedented search of the personal residence of President Trump,” Pence tweeted.
DeSantis, too, was not about to bite the hand that feeds. He issued an angry tweet condemning the Biden “Regime” for its overreach. As DeSantis continues to campaign for MAGA-type candidates ahead of the midterms, including Mastriano in Pennsylvania and the Senate candidate J. D. Vance of Ohio, you can bet that he’ll keep talking about “the raid,” pointing to it as evidence of a leftist takeover of American government. This may be pure pandering. “There is no [advantage] in being seen to betray Donald Trump in his hour of travail,” Stipanovich said. Doing so risks appearing like a traitor to the MAGA cause and losing the base’s admiration. The most that DeSantis or any other presidential hopeful can do is be a loyalist and hope that, eventually, Trump falls or makes room for them to run.
Still, even in his condemnation of the search, DeSantis appears to be walking a careful line. During his speech in Arizona, he didn’t actually mention Trump by name. Instead, he accused the FBI of “targeting people who go against the regime.” The remarks seemed intended to demonstrate loyalty to the base rather than to Trump himself. Maybe DeSantis assumed that the audience wouldn’t notice? Or maybe he’s making a judgment that MAGA world wants Trump’s rhetoric but no longer requires Trump the man to be its mouthpiece.
DeSantis could be leaving himself a small opening: If the various investigations into Trump never amount to anything, DeSantis might still have room to challenge the former president. But if Trump is actually indicted for a crime related to the Capitol attack on January 6, or to whatever classified documents he’s allegedly taken from the White House, last week’s rally-round-the-king moment offered a glimpse of what we can expect. Every Republican politician, including any potential challengers, would be forced to choose between defending Trump and siding with Joe Biden’s corrupt, leftist “deep state.” “The prosecution of Donald Trump would be the most catalyzing moment available to the former president,” Jolly said. “That’s a harder case for DeSantis to get into the race.”
Last week, after the Mar-a-Lago search, Trump’s lead over DeSantis in a potential primary matchup widened by 10 points. But beyond gaming out DeSantis’s diminished options, the takeaway from the federal investigation is the simple fact that an angry septuagenarian still holds the Grand Old Party in a vise grip. Whatever succession plans those who dutifully kissed the ring were hatching, their political fortunes and futures remain tied to Trump.