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By Ross Douthat
There is a presumption among a certain kind of analyst — rooted, I presume, in a deeply buried belief in the vengeance of Almighty God — that because Republicans morally deserve Donald Trump they will be stuck with him no matter what. That having refused so many opportunities to take a righteous stand against him, they will be condemned to halt at the edge of a post-Trump promised land, gazing pathetically across the Jordan even as they cast in their lots with the False Orange Messiah once again.
That assumption informs some of the reactions to the Trump indictment and the immediate rally effect that it produced among Republicans, with the former president’s (presumptive) leading challenger, Ron DeSantis, not only condemning prosecutorial overreach but promising some kind of Floridian sanctuary should Trump choose to become a fugitive from New York justice.
A certain part of the media narrative was already turning against DeSantis, or at least downgrading his chances, in part because he hasn’t yet swung back hard at any of Trump’s wild attacks. Now with the indictment bringing the Florida governor and most of the G.O.P. leadership to Trump’s defense, that narrative is likely to harden — that this is just another case study in how leading Republicans can’t ever actually turn on Trump, and they will be condemned to nominate him once again 2024.
In reality, the electoral politics of the indictment are just as murky as they were when it was just a hypothetical. One can certainly imagine a world where a partisan-seeming prosecution bonds wavering conservatives to Trump and makes his path to the nomination easier. But one can equally imagine a world where the sheer mess involved in his tangle with the legal system ends up being a reason for even some Trump fans to move on to another choice. (A poll this week from Echelon Insights showing a swing toward DeSantis in the event of an indictment offers extremely tentative support for that possibility.)
Either way, the response from DeSantis and others right now, their provisional defense of Trump against a Democratic prosecutor, is not what will determine how this plays out politically.
I have argued this before, but there’s no reason not to state the case again: The theory that in order to beat Trump, other Republicans need to deserve to beat him, and that in order to deserve to beat him they need to attack his character with appropriate moral dudgeon, is a satisfying idea but not at all a realistic one. It isn’t credible that Republican voters who have voted for Trump multiple times over, in full knowledge of his immense defects, will finally decide to buy into the moral case just because DeSantis or any other rival hammers it in some new and exciting way.
Instead the plausible line of attack against Trump in a Republican primary has always been on competence and execution, with his moral turpitude cast as a practical obstacle to getting things done. And as others have pointed out, including New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, nothing about defending Trump against a Democratic prosecutor makes that case any more difficult to make.
You can imagine DeSantis on the debate stage: Yes, I condemn the partisan witch hunt that led to this indictment. But the pattern with my opponent is that he makes it too easy for the liberals. If you’re paying hush money to a porn star, you’re giving the other side what it wants.
It was the same way all through his presidency — all the drama, all the chaos, just played into the Democrats’ hands. Into the deep state’s hands. He would attack lockdowns on social media while Dr. Fauci, his own guy, was actually making them happen. He tried to get our troops out of the Middle East, but he let the woke generals at the Pentagon disregard his orders. He didn’t finish the Wall because he was always distracted — there was a new batch of leaks from inside his White House every week. He’s got valid complaints about the 2020 election, about how the other side changed election laws on the fly during the pandemic — but he was president, he just watched them do it, he was too busy tweeting.
I admire what he tried to do, he did get some big things accomplished. But the other side fights to win, they fight dirty, and you deserve a president who doesn’t go into the fight with a bunch of self-inflicted wounds.
Is this argument enough? Maybe not. It certainly doesn’t have the primal appeal that Trump specializes in, where all those self-inflicted wounds are transformed into proof that he’s the man in the arena, he’s the fighter you need, because why else would he be dripping blood?
But it’s the argument that DeSantis has to work with. And nothing about its logic will be altered when Trump is fingerprinted and charged.
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