Just based on public behavior, you’d think Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis weren’t even interested in running for the same office.
Trump’s approach has been, as is his wont, directly at odds with the traditions of running for office. Normally, a candidate would want to reestablish the sense of a once-and-future political predator building a dominant effort to return to his former job. Consisting of splashy media events like his recent trip to East Palestine, flamboyant social media haranguing, and a campaign operation that has more questions than answers, the Trump show will be on display this week at his old haunting grounds of CPAC. It was the conference that gave him his start in the conservative movement.
It’s bizarre to see a former president, beloved by the GOP base and still the likeliest nominee of his party, with fewer than twenty endorsements from the same Republican members of Congress who depended on his support to take their House majority. DeSantis isn’t just skipping CPAC; he’s doing so while promoting a book — the opposite of the typical approach for a conservative politician with something to sell (Mike Pompeo will be there to promote his). DeSantis’s book, The Courage to Be Free, is a classic campaign introductory — in that it exists to be signed rather than to be read — albeit one with the rare distinction of premiering at number one on the Amazon bestseller list.
DeSantis’s nationwide book tour is the first time many of his fans from outside the Sunshine State will have the chance to interact with him. They can finally judge whether he’s the introverted wallflower the Trump team accuses him of being. The implication is that, if you’re a politician who isn’t constantly tweeting or Truthing, are you even a politician in this day and age?
What CPAC could provide is a renewed illustration of just how dominant the Trumpian energy is among the conservatives who first fought him and then embraced him. The convention’s events are decidedly reflective of Trumpian priorities, featuring House Oversight chairman James Comer on “The Biden Crime Family,” “Finish The Wall, Build the Dome” with Trump advisor Stephen Miller, and “They Stole it From Us Legally,” an apparently retitled panel, to the chagrin of the officials on it.
One wonders what Ronald Reagan would think of his namesake dinner’s keynote speaker, Kari Lake. Tickets are still available.
Since Trump departed the White House for Mar-a-Lago, the success of DeSantis has clearly prompted many to ask what life would be like with a leader who didn’t regularly commit self-sabotage via social media. The potential of a president born after the moon landing has additional appeal, even among the many younger conservatives who flock to conferences like CPAC and Turning Point USA.
One new wrinkle: we can’t underestimate the negative influence Trump’s success has had on so many of the failed candidates of the 2022 midterms — and not because of media-hyped “election denialism,” though that certainly didn’t help. The lesson many of these candidates took from Trump’s rise was that success could come just from earned and social media. If tweeting and TV was enough to elevate you, and small dollar donations could sustain you, the need to do the traditional shoe leather work of politics became unnecessary.
That approach was obviously rejected by voters in 2022. It turns out that many of the traditional things campaigns do — like, say, having a campaign manager and a clear internal hierarchy — don’t need to be thrown out as the pointless work of swampy campaign consultants. Sometimes you do things for a reason. The 2016 nomination battle showed a very different approach. Whether that turns out to be a fluke or the new reality could go a long way toward telling us who’s going to win in 2024.