Jon Chait at New York Mag thought DeSantis would beat Trump in the 2020 primary but admits now that possibility looks remote. He says he underestimated “the elemental bond…between the Republican base and the candidate it seems determined to nominate as president for the third straight election.”
To illustrate that bond, Chait quoted a letter from a listener that wingnut pundit/podcaster Mollie Hemingway shared about why candidates who criticize Trump are failing in the GOP primary:
Keep in mind that supporting Trump came with costs never associated with supporting Bush, McCain, or Romney. Trump supporters lost friendships. Brothers and sisters stopped talking to each other. There are parents whose children disowned them, and grandparents who will never see their grandchildren again because they stood by Donald Trump.
Every Republican has these stories. Every Republican knows Republicans who have these stories.
Attacking Trump was effectively telling every Republican who made real sacrifices that they were stupid for doing so because Trump was just a poser.
Those supporters were stupid to value Trump more than friends and families, and Trump is just a poser. But as we’ve observed around here, it’s humiliating to admit you’ve been conned. That’s what they can’t bring themselves to do — maybe even precisely because the con cost them relationships they valued.
It would be flattering to my prognostication to blame the failures on small things like DeSantis’s messaging choices. But I think the truth is that I made the larger error of analyzing the primary as though it were a normal party nomination, when in reality DeSantis is attempting the far more difficult task of displacing the leader of a personality cult.
In 2016, Trump dumbfounded prognosticators, who assumed the conservative base was motivated by conservatism, by adopting a series of heterodox positions without suffering the customary penalty. The apparent lesson was that Republican voters cared more about confrontational affect than policy substance. DeSantis, absorbing this conclusion, served up relentless hostility against the left, which he promised to humiliate and destroy, using authoritarian methods if necessary.
But it wasn’t mere pugilism that Republican voters turned out to crave. Trump had redefined the party’s identity around loyalty to himself. That loyalty could mean posing as a champion of gay rights and posing with a Pride flag, as Trump did just three years ago, praising China’s response to COVID, flattering Democratic leaders, or any other act that would normally be evidence of betrayal. Trump has regularly described his own appointees, whom he once lavished with praise, as pathetic losers. His fans have grown accustomed to altering their beliefs about everything and anything to conform to their leader’s ever-changing line.
DeSantis built a following in Florida based on lib-owning, which I dreaded he could replicate nationwide. But Chait makes a sound point about Trump’s frequent reversals. He senses where crowds are and reflects their hate and fear back at them — Trump’s comments on trans issues are an example of this. He admitted at one rally that it wasn’t an issue that riled people up in 2016 but does now.
DeSantis tried to turn that johnny-come-hately-lately stance against Trump via the Nazi/incel-themed video, suggesting DeSantis was hating on LGBTQ people back when Trump was welcoming Caitlyn Jenner to the ladies room at Trump Tower and posing with a Gays for Trump pride flag. But it didn’t land, and not just because the Nazi/incel memes put people off. Maybe the turnoff was related to what Hemingway’s correspondent said — it made Trump supporters feel like chumps (which, of course, they are).
Chait on what he got wrong:
The Trump cult is hardly a new development, of course. How did I miss it? My error was to assume the cult could be manufactured by political elites. George W. Bush enjoyed a robust cult following in his heyday. Conservative media figures routinely described him in terms that bordered on the religious, or pornographic, or both — he was the swaggering, clear-eyed Good Man sent by God to lead America through a decisive struggle.
The most striking aspect of the Bush cult phenomenon was how quickly it disappeared. In 2006, after the Iraq War and his failed attempt to privatize Social Security had tanked his popularity, Republican elites quickly and ruthlessly cut Bush loose. Conservative media suddenly sent out the message that Bush was not the true son of Reagan after all, but a heretic who had betrayed conservatism. Some combination of right-wing elites — Rupert Murdoch, the Republican groups convened by Grover Norquist — seemed to have its finger on the button that could turn the cult on or off.
What I took away from the experience was the belief that Republican loyalty to a single leader could be transferred quickly and easily from one object of worship to another. But what may have been true before 2016 seems to no longer hold. Murdoch spent a year overtly trying to build a DeSantis cult through his media empire, only to find the button had stopped working.
I think Chait’s making an error even now by conflating whatever Repubs felt for Bush II with a cult. I remember the gross slobbering over Commander Codpiece too, but it wasn’t in the same universe as what we’ve seen with Trump, at least not on as massive a scale. I don’t know what’s behind it, but the personal investment — the “elemental bond” — is different for reasons I will never fathom.