Former US president Donald Trump and his most serious potential rival Florida Governor Ron DeSantis laid out their sharply contrasting personalities and approaches with unprecedented clarity this weekend, with these likely to define the race for the Republican Party nomination in the 2024 presidential elections.
Trump served up his familiar brew of fury, name calling, and attacks on his opponents at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington on Saturday, billing himself as the only man who can save the planet from World War III and girding his adoring supporters for their “final battle” against communists, globalists, and the “Deep State” in the US.
“I am your retribution,” Trump declared.
“We will beat the Democrats, we will rout the fake news media, we will expose and appropriately deal with the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). We will evict Joe Biden from the White House and we will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all,” Trump said at the Maryland Convention Centre on Saturday.
DeSantis, who has yet to declare his campaign, used an appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on Sunday to channel the same conservative anger at what he claimed was a left-wing “woke” elite takeover of politics, education, Covid-19 public-health policy, and big business, all the while tapping into the modern-day Republican Party’s driving ideological forces.
Yet, he also offered a far more specific blueprint than Trump for a disruption of government as Americans know it, strongly implying that after implementing his hardline variety of conservatism in Florida, the Sunshine State, he will be able to deliver the policy goals that often eluded Trump in his chaotic White House years.
“I can tell you in four years you didn’t see our administration leaking like a sieve, you didn’t see a lot of drama or palace intrigue,” said DeSantis, whose punch-by-punch speaking style is far more orderly and methodical than Trump’s flights of rhetoric.
He told the crowd in Simi Valley that the “woke mind virus” infiltrating schools, corporations, and other institutions in California and other Democratic Party strongholds in the US had led to an influx of residents to his state, showing the popularity of his anti-liberal policies.
“We have had a great experiment, a great test in governance philosophies,” DeSantis told the audience in the Library’s spacious Air Force One Pavilion. “The American people... have voted with their feet. And if you look over the last four years, we’ve witnessed a great American exodus from states governed by leftist politicians imposing leftist ideology and delivering poor results.”
Lacing his remarks with statistics comparing Florida’s record on education, business creation, tourism, unemployment and other measures with states such as California and New York, DeSantis said his state’s results “speak for themselves.”
DeSantis touted his record on education, including restrictions on classroom discussion of gender identity among younger students, banning critical race theory, limiting tenure protection for university professors, and increasing school choice options, including scholarships to private schools.
“We are not going to teach our students to hate this country or to hate each other. We are not going to divide students on the basis of skin colour. We are going to teach them that what is important is the content of their character,” he said. “I believe parents should be able to send their kids to elementary school without having an agenda jammed down their throats.”
The Florida governor, whose wife and two of his three children were in attendance, said he viewed these issues not only as a legislator but also as a “dad”.
Speaking in the shadow of former US president Ronald Reagan’s former Air Force One Library on Sunday, DeSantis seemed to be trying to build a conservative coalition that would appeal to Republicans who have soured on Trump after his record of two impeachments, a US Capitol insurrection, and a disastrous intervention in the 2022 midterm elections.
His hope is that this might also peel away some Trump supporters who still love their champion but doubt that he has the discipline and appeal needed to win another national election.
However, if DeSantis were to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 elections, there would still likely be questions over whether his own radicalism will hurt him in the same swing state districts in which Trump lost the 2020 elections, notwithstanding a public persona that is more disciplined than Trump’s.
DeSantis was not the only possible alternative to Trump for the Republican nomination who laid out his case in recent days. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who has already launched a campaign, and ex-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who may do so, both braved the lions’ den at CPAC and both launched veiled attacks on their former boss.
“If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation,” Haley said, playing into criticisms that both Trump, 76, and Biden, 80, should yield to younger leaders.
Pompeo, who like his former cabinet colleague got a fairly tepid reception on the ex-president’s turf, stacked his speech with plausible deniability to avoid taking on Trump directly. But one remark could be read as a criticism of the ex-president as much as it was of the Democrats whom he specifically targeted when he said that “we can’t become like the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”
Given his strong hold on the Republican base, Trump is likely to be seen as the favourite for the nomination, but he also appears to recognise the potential threat he faces from DeSantis and has already accused him of disloyalty after endorsing him in his first race for the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.
He has also started giving DeSantis nicknames such as “Ron DeSanctimonious”.
DeSantis now trails Trump in a two-man race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination by nearly eight points, according to a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll.
Forty-seven per cent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they would vote for Trump in their state’s primary election, whereas 39 per cent said they would vote for DeSantis, the poll found.
Trump and his campaign have begun adjusting to the new reality that the former president may be the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, but he is no longer the only leader of his party.
The threat of indictments hanging over the former president in several cases related to his period in office and the 6 January 2020 riots is just one reason that the 2024 elections could unfold in the most untraditional of ways.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly