While it may feel somewhat satisfying to celebrate the implosion of Ron DeSantis’s comically inept presidential campaign, this moment almost certainly also signifies something far grimmer: Donald Trump’s ascension to his third Republican nomination. Of course, that’s assuming he can beat Nikki Haley, his last remaining rival, who’s praying for an upset victory in New Hampshire to pierce Trump’s aura of inevitability. But even if Haley does somehow prevail in New Hampshire, a Trump victory feels all but certain, at this stage, given his resounding victory in Iowa, and the most recent polling, which shows Trump with a commanding lead in New Hampshire.
In retrospect, Ron DeSantis’s epic self-destruction also should have seemed inevitable, in what was perhaps the most catastrophically mismanaged presidential campaign in recent American history, bungled from start to finish. It was difficult to imagine a more deeply flawed campaign and candidate, and was a lesson in political failure, and the price of hubris.
Indeed, his (late) campaign began with a glitch-ridden debut on Twitter, sputtered on through chaos and poisonous infighting from within, and finally ended with a bloodbath in Iowa from which there would be no recovery. Interspersed in the middle was Ron DeSantis burning through mountains of donor cash, and spewing indecipherable political jargon directed at the most Foxified voters, all without ever being able to actually connect to those voters, or land a single punch against his chief rival.
Throughout, he appeared visibly miserable with the glad-handing and retail politicking expected of national candidates, and seemed totally unable to project anything resembling confidence, or even a basic comfort at being in his own skin. Rather, Gov. DeSantis appeared tortured, cagey, frustrated, and ill at ease; in turn, it was torture just watching him.
Additionally, there was a constant drip-drip-drip of details about his campaign’s worsening financial problems and personnel struggles, and the governor’s own penchant for flying in private planes, not exactly a good look. Trump’s savage mockery, and DeSantis’s pitiful inability to respond forcefully, completed the dejected portrait. The narrative was sealed.
Driving this slow motion car crash was the Florida governor’s own repellent personality, revealed under the harsh glare of national media scrutiny, and his own deeply flawed political calculations. He seemed simultaneously peevish, whiny, awkward, and vicious, hardly a winning combination. Thus, it was likely a campaign destined for failure from day one, despite the fact that he began it as Trump’s heir-apparent, and as the man theoretically best positioned to continue the MAGA legacy, absent Trump himself.
But Trump was not absent, and following a major political revival following his first indictment, began a steady trajectory upward, to the extent that he ever lost the Republican base of support in the first place. By now, it’s abundantly clear that a majority of Republican voters continue to adore Donald Trump, in a Republican Party that has become the definition of a cult of personality. This left exceedingly little room for Ron DeSantis, who tried to make up the difference by tacking even further to the right on issues like abortion, immigration, and his favorite, culture war.
However, there’s a big difference between attacking Mickey Mouse, and confronting the brutal former president you so obviously emulate. In the end, DeSantis revealed himself to be little more than a bad imitator of Donald Trump’s, and ultimately, a victim of the cruelty to which he aspired.
So, while the country will no longer be forced to endure painful coverage of Ron DeSantis’s tepid town halls, or swallow memes of his bizarre facial tics, fake lip-licking smiles, fake laughter, and cruel policies attacking gay people, black people, trans people, women, Dr. Fauci, Disney, etc, it’s not exactly a win. That’s because we’ll all be forced to stare a little harder at wall-to-wall coverage of the man who schooled DeSantis in how to be a vicious right-wing demagogue in the first place, and who finally dispensed with his stumbling underling: Donald Trump himself.
And Trump is far more dangerous because he’s far, far more charismatic, at least to a certain portion of the population. In other words, DeSantis’s political flameout is merely coming full circle, as the man who created him destroyed him. The New York Times published an article today about Trump’s remarkable “campaign of emasculation and humiliation,” in which Trump suggested that DeSantis “wore high heels, that he might be gay, and that perhaps he was a pedophile.” Ouch.
Worse, DeSantis flinched, and refused to counterpunch with anything but the weakest little jabs. This secured his true political death sentence, in a populist Republican Party that prizes masculine toughness to the point of caricature, and demands effective political bloodsport and total fealty to Donald Trump from its candidates. Presenting himself as a tough MAGA culture warrior, but without the gall to defend himself from lacerating personal attacks, there was little to endear him in the eyes of the constituency he craved. Ultimately, DeSantis paid dearly for his political calculation that attacking Trump would turn off Republican primary voters, and which led him to endure months of unceasing humiliation with nary a word to say about it.
At the end, DeSantis immediately endorsed Trump, like a succession of other Republican leaders, bending the knee to the man who humiliated them, the only way to exist in this modern Republican Party. Still, that doesn’t make it any less pitiful. Sadly, most of the GOP exists in this wretched state, with leaders who despise Trump but are terrified of incurring his wrath, and forfeiting their political careers. Survival is the game.
While he likely would have lost the race anyway, DeSantis might have preserved some of his personal dignity by actually standing up to his opponent, who thrashed him like a stuffed doll. Alas, we’ll never know, because he never did anything but mewl at his opponent like an abused pet. Honestly, it was difficult to watch this spectacle of debasement, though it seemed fitting for a politician who has made a career picking on the weakest and most marginalized people to be reduced to a burnt cinder via Trump’s ridicule.
Certainly, no one is going to shed any tears for Ron DeSantis. He richly deserved his comeuppance; the bully merely met a bigger bully, who then beat him to a pulp. Now, that bully is moving on to pummel American democracy more generally.
Indeed, Donald Trump is again ascendant, and will almost certainly claim his third Republican nomination, despite being riddled with criminal indictments. Why? Because voters in the Republican Party want him back in the White House, where he’ll be able to see out his campaign of vengeance on his enemies, and enact his authoritarian vision on American government more broadly. As he himself has said, in his typically unrestrained style, he’ll be a “dictator on day one.”
As for Ron DeSantis, it’s hard to imagine the Florida governor recovering from this, at least on the national stage. His political and personal prestige are in tatters, and he’s going back to Tallahassee to lick his wounds and nurse his broken ego.
Meanwhile, the country has far bigger things to worry about.