Will he, or won’t he? Should he, or shouldn’t he? Will it help him or hurt him? Should Donald Trump welcome a great apostle with open arms, or insist that only he is capable of fulfilling his own MAGA agenda left unfinished and that all others are mere pretenders?
Those are the increasingly burning, and fascinating, questions as the 45th president of the United States, intent on becoming the 47th as well, ponders whether to break his silence and endorse the re-election of the governor of Florida. There are a variety of defensible answers. Trump could stay out and make it easier, or maybe harder, for Ron DeSantis to win. Trump could endorse him, but watch that endorsement thrown back at him if DeSantis decides to run for president in 2024. There are calculations on many levels that Trump must make, but time is now of the essence, with the election less than seven months away, and friends and enemies alike engaging in widespread, yet still blind, speculation about what Trump will – or won’t – do.
If he does not endorse, does that mean Trump feels threatened by DeSantis? Does it mean he’ll be damned if he’s going to elevate the man who might replace him in the hearts and minds of not just the most rabid America First crowd, but conservatives and Republicans writ large? Can he risk providing his seal of approval to a polished and rising national figure, seemingly every bit as willing as Trump to make all the right enemies, and see a significant percentage of his supporters conclude that, while Trump is a heroic figure, he has been tainted to the point of unelectability?
If he endorses and DeSantis wins, will Trump jump in and claim credit? But if DeSantis loses, will Trump be blamed, and thus hinder his own presidential candidacy, likely to be announced in early 2023? Trump may have ultimately revealed his mindset on the question when he told a prominent Washington newspaper recently, regarding DeSantis’ victory in Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial race, “You know Ron was at 3 percent, and the day I endorsed him, he won the race … As soon as I endorsed him, the race was over.”
On the other hand, as politicians are wont to say, might Trump go ahead and embrace DeSantis as the chief apostle and ultimate successor in his MAGA movement, and thus possible running mate? After all, there is barely a crack of daylight between either their attitudes or policy positions. They were close allies at one time, but could Trump’s ego bear the thought of sharing the spotlight with anyone? One of the principal reasons the selection of Mike Pence for vice president in 2016 was so shrewd was Pence’s buttoned-down conservative orthodoxy and dutiful willingness to serve as the yin to Trump’s yang. DeSantis would represent the opposite.
Trump is acutely aware of DeSantis’ growing popularity, his battles with Disney, his “don’t say gay” law, and how many of his own most loyal believers are convinced that DeSantis is the closest thing to Trump, likely closer than anyone they believed would arise in the wake of the 45th president. Many see him as Trump without the instant love/hate duality, a more measured version of Trump tempered by a lengthy and successful career in politics that commenced long before Trump jumped off the high wire seven years ago.
At the same time, Trump also knows he has clobbered DeSantis in every head-to-head and more inclusive poll of potential GOP contenders – both the Liberty Nation poll and CPAC survey of conservative activists put Trump ahead by more than 30 points. And it’s not like Trump has refused to endorse anyone who might choose to seek the GOP presidential nomination. He has thrown his support behind South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tim Scott (R-SC), all of whom have been mentioned as future (and in Rubio’s case, past) presidential hopefuls.
DeSantis has certainly proven his fundraising chops, building a war chest of more than $100 million for his campaign against the Democrats, who appear likely to nominate the ultimate political chameleon, Charlie Crist, who has alternately presented himself as a Republican, Democrat, and independent. The latest polling on the race has DeSantis leading by more than 20 points. Should Trump jump aboard the bandwagon now, sit astride it, claim credit for it – or do nothing?
It may well be that the former president is holding back his endorsement until and unless DeSantis pledges not to challenge Trump for the presidential nomination. If the governor does provide such an assurance, Trump would have little reason not to endorse his apostle. But is DeSantis willing to make such a pledge? Perhaps he is not, given his highly ambitious and restless personality. But perhaps he is; time is on his side, and, unlike Trump, the 43-year-old likely has many years ahead to seek the presidency. Either way, rest assured that Trump’s decision will depend on the degree to which he fears the pupil might have outdistanced the teacher.
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