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This Is Not "Punching" Back
Nikki's choice and the GOP's magical thinking
(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
No one has learned anything.
The last six years have been chock full of lessons, cautionary tales, and the sort of clarifying moments that come with placing your face on a hot stove. On Earth 2.0, the impeachments, sedition, the prospect of indictment, and electoral defeats would marvelously focus the mind, especially for Republicans.
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the GOP was so rattled that it actually conducted its own autopsy, which made a series of recommendations for fixing the part that it promptly and thoroughly ignored.
After 2016, 2018, 2020, 2022, the party needed an exorcism. Instead, the GOP looked itself in the mirror, shrugged, and said, looks good to me.
So we get this: “GOP report shows plan to ramp up focus on disproven election fraud claims.”
After GOP underperformance in November’s midterm elections, the Republican National Committee is doubling down on its anti-abortion stance, formally urging GOP lawmakers and campaigns to “go on offense in the 2024 election cycle” and to pass the strictest anti-abortion legislation possible.
I had some thoughts:
No, he’s not punching back
Speaking of not learning anything…
Over the weekend, Donald Trump ramped up his attacks on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, with his usual mixture of bombast, name-calling, and historical revisionism.
Trump apparently decided that the nickname Desanctimonious had too may syllables, so he is now hitting him as RINO Globalist Ron, which is both snappier and more user-friendly for right-wing conspiracists.
“The real Ron is a RINO GLOBALIST, who closed quickly down Florida and even its beaches. Loved the Vaccines and wasted big money on ‘Testing.’ How quickly people forget!,” Trump wrote on his social media platform, Truth Social.
Escalating even further, Trump put out a video of a younger DeSantis saying that wanted grow up to be like Paul Ryan, which in MAGAWorld is blood libel-ish stuff. “WOW!” Trump exclaimed in ALL CAPS.
The New York Daily News reported “Ron DeSantis hits back after Trump launches attack on COVID and ‘disloyalty’.”
In a sign the two Republican rivals could be headed for open political warfare, DeSantis dismissed Trump’s attacks as no different from any other political potshots and said Florida voters gave him a decisive thumbs up on his handling of the pandemic.
Politico’s headline declared: “DeSantis snaps back at Trump: I got reelected.”
“I roll out of bed, I have people attacking me from all angles, it’s been happening for many, many years,” DeSantis said during a press conference in Bradenton where he was asked about Trump’s recent digs at him.
“The good thing is, is that the people are able to render a judgment on that whether they re-elect you or not. And I’m happy to say — you know in my case — not only did we win re-election, we won with the highest percentage of the vote that any Republican governor candidate has had in the history of the state of Florida. ... That verdict has been rendered by the people of the state of Florida.”
But you see what didn’t happen here: DeSantis did not actually hit back or snap back, or punch back.
He just basically came out and said “Scoreboard!” He didn’t even say Trump’s name.
It’s still not clear whether he ever will.
And this is the GOP’s lingering problem. As the NYT noted yesterday, potential rivals are still “wary of becoming a sacrificial lamb on Mr. Trump’s altar of devastating nicknames and eternal fury.”
So they are waiting for someone else to do it for them. Or they are waiting for the indictments. Or a meteor. Or for Trump to die, or just go away. Writing in the Atlantic, McKay Coppins calls this magical thinking, “a plague of self-deception among party elites [that] contains obvious echoes of Trump’s early rise to power.”
Terry Sullivan, who ran Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me that Trump’s rivals failed to beat him that year in large part because they were “always convinced that his self-inflicted demise was imminent.”
“There is an old quote that has been attributed to Lee Atwater: ‘When your enemy is in the process of drowning, throw him a brick,’” Sullivan told me. “None of Donald Trump’s opponents ever have the balls to throw him the damn brick. They just hope someone else will. Hope isn’t a winning strategy.”
So, despite the headlines, DeSantis is not throwing him the damn brick. Like Trump’s rivals in 2016, he doesn’t want to risk Trump’s wrath or offending the still-loyal MAGA base. “Why risk alienating his supporters when nature will take its course sooner or later,” writes Coppins.
Peter Meijer, a former Republican representative who left office this month, termed this strategy actuarial arbitrage.
“You have a lot of folks who are just wishing for [Trump’s] mortal demise,” Meijer told me. “I want to be clear: I’m not in that camp. But I’ve heard from a lot of people who will go onstage and put on the red hat, and then give me a call the next day and say, ‘I can’t wait until this guy dies.’ And it’s like, Good Lord.” (Trump’s mother died at 88 and his father at 93, so this strategy isn’t exactly foolproof.)
The result is this phony war, in which the Great Florida Hope plays rope-a-dope with TFG.
One guy who gets this dynamic is progressive pundit Dean Obeidallah, who notes the asymmetry of the Trump-DeSantis contest so far.
Trump repeatedly opens fire upon DeSantis, who has failed to respond, with the “overwhelming force” that he vowed he would unleash. In fact, DeSantis hasn’t fired back at all. It appears the Florida governor is backing down from the fight.
Maybe DeSantis is just waiting for Godot… or Fani… or Jack.
Perhaps DeSantis — a Harvard Law School graduate and former federal prosecutor — is waiting to see if Trump is criminally indicted, in the hopes he doesn’t have to meet him on the field of battle. Just last week, Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis told a judge that “decisions are imminent” in her investigation into efforts by Trump and his allies to interfere in the 2020 election in Georgia.
There’s also special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Trump over the January 6, 2021, attack and the trove of classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago that might yield charges. While Trump can still legally run for president while under indictment — or even if convicted of a crime — as a practical matter it would likely be devastating to his election prospects.
But, writes Obeidallah, “if DeSantis wants to win in 2024, he can’t keep ducking Trump’s barbs.” At some point, “you have to put up a fight.”
There could come a time when GOP voters view DeSantis’ refusal to defend himself and punch back as a sign of weakness.
The longer he is silent in the face of Trump’s barrage of punches, the more likely people will ask themselves, as Rocky’s nemesis did: If he ain’t no coward, why won’t he fight?
Back in 2021, Tim Alberta’s Politico profile of the former UN ambassador was headlined: “Nikki Haley’s Time for Choosing,” with this provocative subhead:
The 2024 hopeful can’t decide who she wants to be—the leader of a post-Trump GOP or a “friend” to the president who tried to sabotage democracy.
She still can’t decide. But she’s running anyway.
Back in 2021, when she spoke with Alberta, you might recall that she had a momentary flash of something like conscience:
“I think [Trump] is going to find himself further and further isolated,” Haley said. “I think his business is suffering at this point. I think he’s lost any sort of political viability he was going to have. I think he’s lost his social media, which meant the world to him. I mean, I think he’s lost the things that really could have kept him moving.”
I reminded her that Trump has been left for dead before; that the base always rallied behind him. I also reminded her that the argument for impeachment—and conviction—is that he would be barred from holding federal office again.
“He’s not going to run for federal office again,” Haley said.
But what if he does? Or at least, what if he spends the next four years threatening to? Can the Republican Party heal with Trump in the picture?
“I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far.”
This was the most certainty I’d heard from any Republican in the aftermath of January 6. And Haley wasn’t done.
“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she said. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
But that was then. After a brief flirtation with independence, Haley returned to the fold, posing for pictures with Diamond and Silk, and repeating hot MAGA mantras on cue.
So what can we expect from her campaign?
One big tell: Trump doesn’t seem to mind. He says he encouraged her, and he hasn’t started calling her names. Why? Because Trump knows that the bigger the field — especially with candidates who will never take a shot at him — helps him. He doesn’t need a majority of GOP votes to win renomination. He only needs a plurality in the winner-take-all primaries, so the more the merrier.
And he knows that he has nothing to worry about from Nikki circa 2023.
Who’s up for a podcast?
Check out the latest Bulwark Podcast here.
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Beg to Differ here.
The Focus Group here.
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TONIGHT: Thursday Night Bulwark for February 2
Special guest Radley Balko, who has long covered policing in America and now publishes The Watch on Substack, will join Ted, Mona, and JVL for a deep dive into what happened in Memphis and the state of policing in America. The program will start at 8:00 p.m. ET on Zoom. Details here.
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The GOP Is Just Obnoxious, By David Frum
Trump’s Escalation in the ‘Gender War’ By Giselle Donnelly
How Rod Dreher Caused an International Scandal in Eastern Europe By Balázs Gulyás