For weeks, the political heavyweight face-off has been on everyone's mind: former president Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The 2024 election cycle is already heating up, and these two are on the lips of every Republican - whether to their ire or delight.
Over the weekend, the former president played it cool when asked about facing off with DeSantis in 2024, but behind the scenes he may be more worried than he's letting on. For DeSantis' part, he's too busy quietly fanning the flames of a growing culture war in Florida - and hoping it'll pay off.
Even though the Florida governor has said he doesn't intend to run for president in 2024, it's hard to imagine making the big moves and taking on the big baddies that DeSantis is without designs on the White House, so his involvement in the race is being all but assumed.
Here's what Trump had to say about the potential face-off, and what DeSantis has been doing - why it might work for and against him.
Donald Trump: 'I think I would win'
The former president has long handled rivals by treating them with derision - "I can easily beat that guy, he's nothing." So the tone he's taking against DeSantis does little to dispel the rumor that he's worried by a potential 2024 face-off. If anything, Trump's faux-casual tone and apparent "I haven't thought about it" attitude reinforces the idea that he is in fact worried about DeSantis, and considers him someone worth brushing off publicly.
The New Yorker spoke with the president about his sometimes-fraught relationship with DeSantis; "Trump told me that he was 'very close to making a decision' about whether to run. 'I don’t know if Ron is running, and I don’t ask him,' he said. 'It’s his prerogative. I think I would win.' In nearly every poll of likely Republican contenders, Trump still has a solid advantage: DeSantis’s constituency was Trump’s first. Trump seems to want to keep it that way. A consultant who has worked for several Republican candidates said that the former President had talked with confidants about ways to stop DeSantis: 'Trump World is working overtime to find ways to burn DeSantis down. They really hate him.'”
There's good reason behind that animosity. When Jacksonville, Florida, native DeSantis first entered the state-wide political arena, it was Trump's endorsement that put him over the top. But DeSantis, a brooding, driven and focused politician, didn't particularly enjoy owing his rise to anyone and chafed under the uneasy friendship.
While the two appeared amicable in public, in private DeSantis distanced himself from the former president - even as he adopted some of his physical gestures and combative stances.
In essence, what DeSantis was doing was plucking the useful from Trump and using him for his own gain; something Trump isn't used to experiencing. After Trump lost the election in 2020, DeSantis made sympathetic noises and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the win of President Joe Biden, but kept his language carefully focused: it wasn't Trump who was betrayed, it was the voting public, according to DeSantis.
Now, even though Trump lives in Florida at Mar-a-Lago, the pair may be more at odds than ever. Trump will have to weigh all of his options before hitching his horse to DeSantis' cart for midterms this Fall.
After all, if he endorses DeSantis to a win in 2022 - that puts him in a better position to challenge in 2024.
Meanwhile, in Florida...
But while Trump is busy doing pretending to look anywhere but at DeSantis and somehow conveying that he can't look away, DeSantis is laser-focused on his agenda in Florida. Currently, there's a culture war raging - and the state's most vulnerable are being caught in the crossfire.
The pandemic struck the state halfway through his first governorship, and it has been both a curse and a boon for his career. The Florida governor appears on TV to be a politician like Trump; blunt, emotional, and combative. But in private, only the last is true. The governor is a driven and academic opponent who is described by those who know him as having a chip on his shoulder.
DeSantis took the pandemic and turned it to his advantage; championing an open economy made him seem like he cared about the working class. Refusing to impose mask mandates and lockdowns after the first one was lifted made him appear to be an advocate for individual rights.
But even while DeSantis was loudly talking about his support for blue collar workers and refusing to listen to recommendations from the nation's highest health institutions, the Florida unemployment infrastructure was collapsing and leaving tens of thousands desperate and waiting for money with no sign of hope or answers on the horizon. It was a jarring juxtaposition of failure that he could only overcome by being charismatic, loud - and distracting.
Enter: Disney and the "woke" culture wars.
DeSantis quickly realized that to capture the energy of Trump supporters who are rabidly anti-establishment, he'd have to find something to fight. The Florida governor decided to fight everyone. The LGBTQ community, "big Hollywood Liberals" like Disney, and anyone who might have an agenda left of far right; they were all targeted by a laser-focused governor. Vulnerable minorities suddenly found themselves the target of DeSantis's "lightning bolt legislation;" a tactic the governor employs where he chooses a target seemingly out of the blue and hits hard with public speeches and executive orders before opponents know where he's planning to move.
It's been effective for passing a conservative agenda that is nonetheless heavily contested in Florida because of the dubious legalities in some cases. But for DeSantis, sometimes picking the fight is the point - not winning.
While DeSantis says he's keeping his attention on Florida and the work he's doing there, most people don't believe him; the big culture war fights he's picking seem designed to appeal to a national voting public who loves Trump's own culture war and politicians who don't mind swinging hard at opponents.
The Washington Post reports, "Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the governor’s fiery and culturally divisive approach will backfire, particularly among the area’s younger or more moderate voters.
'DeSantis says Florida is the 'freest state in the nation.’ Well, apparently not if you are a woman and want the right to choose, apparently not if you are Black and want to cast your ballot, and apparently not if you are LGBTQ and don’t want to be harassed,' Rep. Charlie Crist (D), who is running against Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said in an interview with The Washington Post."
Minority groups across the state are energized to vote in 2022 and show their disdain for DeSantis's culture war, which very well could backfire for the up-and-coming conservative star. But Republicans love their guy, and that love could well carry him to the White House in 2024. The question is, who wins: Trump or DeSantis? Polls lean in Trump's favor currently, but it's clear that the former president is nervous - and with good reason.