In the immediate aftermath of the November midterms, the media painted Donald Trump and his endorsed candidates as losers and Ron DeSantis, who won reelection as governor of Florida by a thumping margin, as the man of the moment. In response, Trump unleashed waves of online assaults on his onetime protégé. He was, in all likelihood, goaded to insult by a series of post-election polls showing that more GOP primary voters would choose DeSantis than would opt for a third Trump presidential candidacy.
Since then, Morning Consult polls have indicated that Trump’s position has stabilized, and that he would beat DeSantis were the election to be held tomorrow. Yet, those same polls also suggest Trump’s inherent weakness, showing that he would lose a rematch against Joe Biden while DeSantis would present a stronger challenge to the incumbent Democrat.
None of this bodes well for Trump’s staying power in the 11 months between now and the first primary contests for the 2024 nomination. Where he was once fresh, he’s now stale. Where he was once an outsider, he’s now very much an insider, with a pretty consistent track record of under-performing in recent elections.
Now, with his 2024 presidential bid gaining at best limited traction, Number 45 has, once again, taken to unleashing verbal riffs against DeSantis, hoping to preemptively intimidate his rival into not entering the race against him. “So now I hear he might want to run against me,” Trump told listeners to the conservative podcast, “The Water Cooler,” last week. “So, we’ll handle that the way I handle things.”
Aside from the fact that this sounded vaguely menacing — think of a mob boss talking about his enemies sleeping with the fishes — it was also patently absurd. Trump hasn’t exactly been “handling” anything well lately. Lest one forget, he is facing multiple criminal investigations — in Georgia, in New York, and at the federal level; most of his hand-picked candidates went down to defeat in November; his efforts to rally the enraged to Kari Lake’s voter fraud claims in the Arizona governor’s race went absolutely nowhere; he was widely derided for inviting neo-Nazis to dine with him in Mar-a-Lago, and for calling for a “termination” of constitutional rule in order to reinstate him in the White House; and it took 15 humiliating rounds of voting before Trump’s chosen yes-man, Kevin McCarthy — “My Kevin” as Trump condescendingly called him while in the White House — could win the speaker’s gavel. Even his own daughter, Ivanka, who during his time in office was arguably his closest counsel, has announced that she wants no part in another Trump presidency.
On January 28, Trump plans to hold his first campaign event, in the early primary state of South Carolina. But it won’t be a campaign rally. Instead, it will be a low-key affair, at the State House, with Sen. Lindsay Graham and Gov. Henry McMaster, two of his most reliable lackies, in tow. It’s in keeping with the new, uncharacteristically quiet approach that Trump has adopted since he announced his candidacy: To date, in the wake of the underwhelming elections results from November, he has shied away from the raucous rallies that, in 2016 and 2020, played so prominent a role in Trumpworld.
Trump’s team is trying to put it out that he is the inevitable nominee. In fact, there are many candidates in the wings, several of whom previously served in the Trump administration, looking to take advantage of Trump’s new vulnerabilities.
Former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has been dropping broad hints that she’s in the race — and has been picking up valuable support from fellow South Carolinian politicians. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is gunning for the evangelical conservative vote, and while he hasn’t formally announced his candidacy, he has told news outlets that his decision won’t be impacted by Trump’s being in the race. Ex-Vice President Mike Pence has made it clear he, too, wants to be the nominee, although he hasn’t yet filed any paperwork to enter the race. Other potential candidates include South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, as well as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and a bevy of Republican governors and ex-governors.
Trump is, in many circles, seen as irreparably damaged goods. In 2016, evangelical leaders came around to supporting Trump because of his position on abortion, in particular. In 2020, after he delivered three Supreme Court Justices to the anti-abortion cause, they were all in on his reelection, despite the myriad personal scandals surrounding the hotel magnate-cum-politician. This time around, however, those same leaders are refusing to jump out ahead of the curve in their endorsements. Trump no longer has their unalloyed support. Earlier this month, the Guardian reported that many of Trump’s funders, both large and small, were ditching him this time around. These include Stephen Schwarzman and Thomas Peterffy, two of the GOP’s biggest donors, both of whom have publicly stated that they won’t back a Trump campaign.
In 2016, Trump cut a swathe through the roster of GOP presidential hopefuls by swamping them with insults and social media attacks, and by using his speaker platform at his ugly rallies to rile up crowds against his opponents. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush — all were destroyed by his verbal fusillades. Seven years later, the modus operandi is simply formulaic. Everybody knows that Trump’s a bully, and thus there’s no surprise, no sting, when, from the sanctity of his Mar-a-Lago redoubt, he lobs a few insults DeSantis’s way, or tries to use his verbal toolkit to scare off all of the other would-be nominees circling on the edge of Trumplandia.
DeSantis and the others haven’t taken the ex-president’s bait and, so far, have avoided getting into a contest of insults with The Donald. In fact, they haven’t even officially declared their candidacy, leaving Trump having to set the pace for months on end on an otherwise empty racetrack. It’s an understandable strategy, as when Trump’s opponents felt compelled to respond to his insults in 2016, as did Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in particular, it was usually to their detriment. This time around, Trump is struggling mightily to gain traction, having no declared opponents on whom to focus his bilious outbursts, and desperately trying to ensnare DeSantis in a back-and-forth that the Florida governor is savvy enough to know he has to avoid.
With the better part of a year left until the first primaries, DeSantis — who polling shows is the GOP base’s current favorite or second-favorite candidate — is quietly building up a powerful campaign for a potential run for the presidential nomination. He is test-driving increasingly opportunistic far right policies, especially around education, designed to rile up conservative suburban voters. Witness the recent decision in Florida, clearly influenced by DeSantis’s priorities, to bar an Advanced Placement course on African American studies in the state’s high schools. Mega-donors, including the aerospace industrialist Robert Bigelow and hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, have poured tens of millions of dollars into the Friends of Ron DeSantis committee. The Club For Growth, one of the pillars of GOP conservatism and an organization that solidly backed Trump during his time in office, has also funneled millions of dollars DeSantis’s way.
Other GOP would-be candidates are also wooing the big money donors leery of another Trump White House bid. In late 2021, Forbes reported that 16 billionaires had already donated to Nikki Haley’s new PAC, Stand For America. In October 2022, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin huddled with 80 top GOP donors at a retreat outside of Charlottesville.
Meanwhile, Trump stews. With his potential opponents sidelining him by refusing to engage in theatrical back-and-forth, he is less likely to find a foothold to scale the 2024 heights. His upcoming campaign event in South Carolina will likely include the usual hyperbole and the usual bombast. But at the end of the day, Trump may be yesterday’s news — bacon that is no longer sizzling but instead is now rancid and cold.