On the Road to 2024: Whose Got the Sling?
Analogizing Trump’s 2024 presidential bid to Goliath of Gath feels like I’ve snatched at a low-hanging fruit: A nine-foot high, burly Philistine clad in a coat of bronze/bronzer is standing alone. He lingers in the public square, day by day, bellowing for some sap to come forward and fight him to the death. For those who didn’t attend Sunday school, the story in 1 Samuel 17 continues: the Israelite warriors cower as Goliath mocks them for forty days and nights. Eventually, a humble shepherd boy, David, who will later rule over Israel, volunteers and slays the giant with his slingshot and a smooth stone.
Up to a point, this sums up well the Republican 2024 primary. But there’s an issue: the GOP hasn’t a single Republican David to send out, not anymore.
For the purposes of analysis, David’s character will be considered the way most Trump voters would perceive him: a byword for righteous leadership, a man after God’s own heart. And, even among his most loyal supporters, that’s hardly ever been their read on Donald Trump. He’s always been more King Cyrus than King David.
I’ve heard it up, down, and in reverse, from Republicans from Northern Ohio to the Southern-parts of Louisianna, preachers and sinners alike, “The Lord used him. But now, I’d rather see him step aside. And gently.”
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy to erase your priors.
The Options, Although Many, Are Few
After eight years of MAGA, the GOP has licked Trump’s shoe polish for long enough that there’s hardly a Republican who doesn’t bear his mark or hasn’t had their career destroyed by publicly denouncing him. Everybody bears scars. The Cheneys and Romneys don’t have a chance in national or even statewide elections. Then there are the Kemps, who’ve successfully distanced themselves from harmful branding but will be fatally weakened if Trump wields his core support and opposes a non-MAGA nominee. To be fair, Brian Kemp’s potential is real, but he’d have to pull off a near-flawless campaign and stumble into a few piles of good luck to change the direction of the Republican party in 2024.
This leaves two options:
b) A Republican who does a decent 45-impersonation.
And there’s one more thing. To stand out, any Trump impersonator must likely let a little sunshine out of their pocket and bring forth a message of hope. Because right now, the GOP is in desperate need of some form — even if it’s a total pretense — of a vision. While Trump still has a good chance of winning the primary, this much is known: Republicans, from the top down, are vocally exhausted from bearing the mark of their beast. It makes sense; the past is a hard thing to carry. And Trump, refusing to let it go, is being sunk by it.
Of course, one name stands out from all the rest: Ronald DeSantis, devoted ringmaster of the state of Florida.
DeSantis plays the part of fools gold well. It doesn’t matter how you feel about him; he seems to be doing a decent job from the shadows convincing Republicans of his strongman qualities, the type that lit the bonfire in 2016 — that he’s every inch a culture warrior without the baggage.
Ron is up on Don in most polls, some showing leads of over 20 points. Yet, nobody quite knows why they prefer him, outside that his ruddy face might look good next to either Biden’s or Trump’s on a debate stage. And, wow-oh-wow, isn’t he one helluva liberal basher? And, as a kicker, he doesn’t hold a Nebraska-sized grudge over the 2020 election outcome.
Every one of his attractive elements to Republican voters seems to be a reflection of the man he’d be running against. But this whole Trump-but-not-Trump isn’t a problem for DeSantis yet. In fact, his shrouded stances, saddled with the fact that people desperately want to believe he’s the next savior, are working well to his advantage. He’s done a good job at keeping his David image intact.
So, it makes sense why he has yet to launch. That, and that Trump gets what he wants as soon as DeSantis announces: something real, real and big, to tear down. As Jeb Bush knows too well, being the frontrunner from Florida is no blessing.
Waiting on a Challenger
Trump clawed his way to the top of the GOP on rancor alone. He survives on it. But it’s clear that the thrill is gone when he’s without conflict. Trump’s raves on eagle-dicing windmills or even the incendiary remarks about the southern border just aren’t violating sensibilities or inspiring frustrations as they used to. However, once he has subjects for new material, it’s hard to imagine he won’t start drawing camera time. And once this happens, the airtime will surely flow, both from left and right-wing media outlets; just look at how gleefully everyone flocked to the shameful proceedings of the House speaker vote. The prospect of the DNC’s two biggest villains going at each other’s necks is sure to make good ratings. And that’s just what Trump hopes for, to spank his biggest opponent in front of America — free of charge.
In one sense, DeSantis is wise to tarry; fingers crossed that Trump’s legal issues kill him off before he needs to get bloody. Allowing Trump to rattle around the country alone is exposing his weaknesses. But there’s always an opportunity cost.
As DeSantis waits, others will announce, initiating their mating calls. The more crowded the field, the weaker Ron becomes, especially if he has yet to announce. Then, people start getting used to the look of other names stuck into their front lawns.
The more fractured the field, the more dizzying the cycle, and the better for Trump. This way, in the chaos, people might get tired of the promises, the arguments, and the same-sounding platforms, becoming more likely to vote for their ex. After all, it’s clear that Republicans still back Trump, but they doubt his electability and are tired of bearing his shame; if he can drag the others through the mud, not allowing them to set themselves apart, all the better for him.
A Field of Elephants
DeSantis is stuck. Because the more Republicans in the octagon, the flimsier his chances. And the sooner Trump gets to start slashing, the sooner he displays why he became their guy in the first place.
But, beyond all that, there’s a deeper issue. As stated earlier, now as a question (a question for Republicans): Is DeSantis the David to Trump’s Goliath? In all the responses I’ve heard from the right, –both pundits and laypeople — clearly something’s being forced.
DeSantis will have to prove that he can unlock a dimension beyond what is already shown if he’s to outlast Trump and draw back the jaded, dog-eared Republican voter base amidst a crowded field. So far, that’s not clear. He lacks a certain social quality, seemingly unable to make people feel at ease. He relies too heavily on cynical stunts and ferocious cultural positioning. Which, to be clear, is something prized by Republican voters. But he lacks the oft-missed factor that the non-radicalized GOP voters (most of whom are open to voting for someone outside of Trump, and perhaps even non-MAGA) are looking for: someone that bears an ounce of general Bush-era geniality and compassion — just so long as it’s not towards liberals.
It’s important to remember that even among strictly Republican nuclei there have been awkward encounters over Thanksgiving weekend and splintered and weakened relationships and familial bonds over, not necessarily political differences, but the character, decorum, and integrity of their leader; many Republicans want someone to reunify their party. And, as of yet, any attempt on DeSantis’s part to come across as genuine or likable appears either, depending on how you view him, hamfisted or demonic.
Especially after Republicans have gone through what will soon be their version of 4 years of “famine,” there’s been a whole lotta shame that Republicans would rather not continue swallowing. Now more than ever, they want to feel pride in their party and respect the person who leads it.
They want their David. But looking around, they find only invertebrates, reptiles, and jackals.