Challenging Donald Trump in a Republican primary may not be a fool’s errand after all. After years in which the Orange Autocrat’s command of the GOP was taken for granted as absolute, support for the man seems to be softening in key places as the country approaches midterms on which Trump has staked even more of his prestige. The proof for this comes both from polling and from the crucial chatter pitter-pattering back and forth on all-powerful Fox News. And the implications for the party, and the country as a whole, are immense.
A poll of Republican primary voters recently came out bearing striking results. In it, 55% percent of Republican voters expressed their desire to nominate a different candidate than Trump in 2024. As Thomas Mills has noted, poll respondents often opt for an imagined alternative regardless of what they really think, so this poll could be dismissed as an artifact of that trend. But other polling, too, has found a softening of Trump’s support led by college-educated Republicans. It’s logical to infer that more-educated Republicans may be losing patience with Trump’s interminable grievance-venting, and possible that their less-educated fellow partisans may eventually come around to this assessment.
Furthermore, there is an alternative Republican to whom these disenchanted Republicans could turn. Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, offers GOP voters much of what they adore about Trump while also seeming to be a personally functional human being, unlike the Orange Autocrat. If there are two through-lines in DeSantis’s political career, they are hardline fiscal conservatism and partisan nastiness. For many Republicans, it was Trump’s orthodox tax-cutting conservatism on policy–and his extreme viciousness toward their shared enemies–that bonded these voters to a man with whom many of them had actually had some qualms in the 2016 campaign. From minimizing taxes to deploying the power of the state to retaliate against cultural enemies, Ron DeSantis is a remarkably similar politician to Trump himself. And he comes with less of Trump’s tiresome baggage.
In the Republican Party, there are three primaries: the invisible primary, the voting primary, and the Fox News primary. The second is downstream from the third. If you aren’t part of the right-wing tribe, you may not appreciate the vast power of Fox News. One study found that when Fox News is simply placed lower on a market’s cable dial, support for the Republican Party goes up by 1%. Rupert Murdoch, it appears, is tiring of Trump and his madness, and Murdoch’s empire has turned its attention to experimenting with other options–including DeSantis. Being the Fox News candidate would immediately make DeSantis a viable challenger.
Donald Trump is still by far the first among equals in the GOP. Most GOP voters continue to adore him, and he would entire a 2024 primary as the favorite. But often lost amidst the fact that he beat Hillary Clinton is the reality that Donald Trump is a below-average politician. Twice he’s run behind Republican Congressional candidates, an indication that he’s less politically adept even than the mediocrities who make up much of his party’s House caucus. Running against a more talented–and, crucially, equally authoritarian–Republican in Ron DeSantis or someone else could indeed result in a defeat for this cancer on America, and open up a whole new kettle of fish.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.