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28 July

Ron DeSantis’ rise is proof Trumpism will survive without Trump

Florida voters are already giving their state’s governor a 14-point lead over the former president for the 2024 Republican primaries.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

There’s good news and then there’s bad news that robs you of all the satisfaction of hearing the good. Last week the US House Select Committee on 6 January Capitol riot wrapped up its case to the American people that Donald Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. As predicted, the hearings did little to change minds: Democrats are slightly more fervent in their belief that Trump is a threat to democracy and Republicans appear to have dug their heels in deeper in his defence. According to a recent CNN poll, only 36 per cent of Republicans say that the events of 6 January were a major problem, and 79 per cent say Trump’s statements did not encourage violence.

On the surface these numbers appear to indicate an unwavering loyalty among Republicans to their former president. While this is certainly what Trump would like to believe, right-wingers’ reactions to the 6 January committee aren’t so much a display of love for Trump as they are a show of defiance against Democrats who would dare tell them that their side committed any errors.

This hatred for the opposing ideological tribe, known as “affective polarisation”, is deeply felt on both sides of the US political divide. A recent poll from the University of Chicago showed one in three Republican respondents would be willing to take up arms against the US government.

Unfortunately for Trump, this hatred of Democrats has little to do with him and everything to do with a feeling of displacement that right-wingers lay at the feet of a nebulous liberal elite. Instead of campaigning on lower taxes and less government involvement like the Republicans of yore, the modern-day right-wing candidate needs to stir up feelings of paranoia and racial animosity to get into office. The thing is, they don’t need to wear a red Maga hat to do it.

[See also: Don’t let Republicans rehabilitate their party through the 6 January hearings]

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One Republican who will not be seen wearing cheap, red Trump memorabilia any time soon is Florida Republican governor Ron DeSantis. In March he signed the Florida “don’t say gay” law that would forbid public schools from talking about LGBT issues. He’s vowed to allow Floridians to openly carry guns without a permit (not that getting one is all that difficult anyway), and signed the “Stop WOKE Act”, which was one of the first bills of its kind to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. And unlike Trump, he’s got an extensive vocabulary that he can attribute to an “elite” education at Harvard and Yale. This, of course, doesn’t stop him from sounding all folksy with targeted lines like: “You can whizz on my leg, but don’t tell me it’s raining.”

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Although many Republicans still cling to Donald Trump’s innocence, signs are beginning to surface that just as Trump’s star is waning, DeSantis’ is rising.

One indication is that Fox News has slowly been giving Trump less airtime. Instead of covering his political rally in Washington on Tuesday 26 July, the network showed Mike Pence giving a speech one mile away. Republican voters are also souring on Trump, with a recent New York Times poll revealing that almost half of all Republicans would choose someone else over him in a Republican presidential primary. The same poll showed that Trump maintained a double-digit lead nationally over DeSantis, but Florida voters, who are familiar with their governor, give him a 14-point lead over Trump.

For those who have been gunning for Trump’s demise ever since he gave his first campaign rally in 2015 calling Mexican immigrants rapists, his fall from grace feels as gratifying as watching a schoolyard bully trip on his shoelaces. However, this feeling will be short-lived if a smarter and meaner bully with more potential to do harm takes over.

[See also: Facts are mere weapons in the war of Capitol riot narratives]