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Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and the looming Republican civil war

A nickname sets the stage for a fight.

By Emily Tamkin

In a television advert published the week before 8 November’s mid-term elections Ron DeSantis, the newly re-elected governor of Florida, was presented as being on a holy mission.

“And on the eighth day,” a voiceover says, “God looked down at his planned paradise and said, I need a protector.” Images of DeSantis flash. “So God made a fighter.” The two-minute ad doesn’t just extol the virtues of DeSantis; it says that he was sent to the voters by God to fight for them.

Watching it, one had the sense that DeSantis wasn’t focused only on running for re-election as governor but perhaps on the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. It’s becoming an increasingly familiar feeling.

DeSantis, now 44, was first elected to the governor’s mansion in 2018, narrowly beating the Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum. He had previously been elected three times to the House of Representatives. It has been as governor, however, that he has tried to set himself up as a kind of successor to the former president Donald Trump and, more recently, as a foil to the current one, Joe Biden. Throughout the pandemic, for example, he boasted about “keeping Florida open” and dismissed wearing masks as “pandemic theatre”.

He has also set himself apart among the nation’s conservatives by championing legislation banning material on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through the third grade of school. After Disney, which has a theme park in Florida, came out against that legislation DeSantis retaliated, repealing the company’s status as an “independent special district”. He also signed legislation banning so-called critical race theory that, critics say, would severely limit how much is taught in schools about race and racism. All of this has boosted his national profile.

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Perhaps most saliently, in late September DeSantis attracted international headlines after he orchestrated a scheme in which Venezuelan migrants in Texas were recruited and flown on private flights to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. He is being investigated by the Treasury Department as to whether this was improper use of state funds (he has claimed the migrants were planning on going to Florida, though there is no evidence of this).

Tellingly, DeSantis is reported not to have let Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, who had also been sending migrants out of the state to Democratic cities and states as a sort of political message, in on this scheme. Though Abbott said he welcomed support, reports suggest there is a rivalry between the two. Some have wondered whether DeSantis was not consciously building a larger profile for national political purposes.

Certainly there are those in the party who want him to run in 2024. DeSantis, who graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School, has been hailed by some as Donald Trump “with brains”. He has even appeared at times to copy Trump’s speaking style, his hand gestures eerily similar to the former president’s.

If we have seen shadows of DeSantis’s 2024 presidential run, he is not the only one. DeSantis’s old ally has not yet relinquished his hold on the party; Trump is expected to announce that he intends to run again in the coming days. On 6 November, Americans got a sense of how the contest for the Republican nomination could play out. At a rally in Pennsylvania Trump referred to the governor as “Ron DeSanctimonious” while musing about his own favourable poll numbers. (The next day, when reporters asked him to clarify his opinion of the governor, Trump offered: “I’ve always had a very good relationship with him. But let’s see what happens.”) Given that Trump has teased a special announcement coming on 15 November, it seems clear that the nickname was an opening shot in the Republicans’ forthcoming civil war.

And how did the governor hit back? He didn’t. DeSantis allies, meanwhile, reached out to the erstwhile Republican punching bag, the media, to anonymously express disgust and say that people in DeSantis’s camp were encouraging him to go ahead with his presidential run. The very fact that the disgust was private suggests, however, that it’s Trump – not DeSantis – who is the real fighter, at least in terms that will be legible to Republican primary voters. DeSantis could have come out and said something publicly; he didn’t, presumably because he thinks he needs the support of Trump’s voters.  

It’s one thing to pick on teachers and students and undocumented migrants. To prove he’s the future and the God-given fighter Republicans want in 2024, DeSantis will have to take on his party’s biggest bully.

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