September 25, 2023

In late 2015, I ran into a veteran Republican on the streets of Washington, D.C. This gentleman had worked in several Republican presidential administrations. I asked him what he thought of Donald Trump. He launched into a diatribe against him, declaring Trump a buffoon with no chance of winning the GOP’s presidential nomination, let alone the White House. I politely listened, but I didn’t find his bitter remarks very convincing. I suspected even then that Trump would win the nomination and the presidency.

In truth, I had devoted little thought to Trump until he addressed The American Spectator’s 2013 Robert L. Bartley Gala. His performance that evening was a revelation to me. He was weirdly charming, magnanimous, and politically adroit. Ever since then I have viewed Trump as a figure of some fascination — a veritable American original.

I fell into the camp of GOP voters who took Trump seriously but not literally. I recognized the validity of many of the criticisms against him, but I generally found the anti-Trump sniping too dismissive. I still do. Is he really a spent political force, as the Never Trumpers bay? I find the evidence for that claim pretty weak. For the last week or so, I have been talking to Florida Republicans about Trump, and they certainly don’t view him as politically dead. Some of them, of course, consider him a “jackass” and would prefer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries should he run. Almost every Florida Republican I have met gushes over the exemplary performance of DeSantis during the COVID hysteria. A commercial banker told me that the sane stance of DeSantis during that period saved countless jobs and businesses — a display of common sense and courage in the face of relentless media criticism that no Republican, he said, would forget.

Even the Republicans exhausted by Trump’s antics told me that they admire his policies and his guts.

This gentleman made it clear to me that he would unhesitatingly vote for DeSantis in the primaries but admitted that all Republicans would fall in line behind Trump if he won them. The gentleman acknowledged that Trump remains a potent force in Florida, marveling at the “fanaticism” of his MAGA supporters. “Trump could rape their daughters and they would still vote for him,” he said bluntly.

One theme that emerged from my interviews is that Trump’s pugnacity — his willingness to fight the Left with greater vigor than his GOP critics do — makes it difficult for Republicans to abandon him. They remain loyal to him despite all his flaws out of gratitude for a populist presidency that they continue to view as successful. Even the Republicans exhausted by Trump’s antics told me that they admire his policies and his guts.

Opinion is clearly divided on whether DeSantis should run in 2024. The “smart” move for him is to wait, said a retired business executive, who noted the youth of DeSantis — he is still in his 40s — and the danger that he faces in an unfolding rivalry with Trump. Could he leave the 2024 race as battered as Trump’s 2016 primary foes? Some Florida Republicans fear so and would like to see DeSantis continue to flourish as Florida’s governor. Others, however, see the overwhelming popularity of DeSantis as his “peak” moment and root for his entrance into the race.

I have heard almost no Republican criticism of DeSantis, except from a few social conservatives who view his anti-wokeness as inconsistent. One social conservative complained that DeSantis has shown no interest in advancing significant pro-life measures in the state. Another social conservative said that DeSantis only opposes the “T” in LGBTQ and that, even there, his opposition is limited. He opposes transgenderism for children, she said, but not for adults.

In 2018, DeSantis initially balked at engaging the issue of transgenderism. “Getting into the bathroom wars, I don’t think that’s a good use of our time,” he said at a candidate forum. That statement dismayed some social conservatives. A few of them even ended up supporting his primary opponent.

But these days many Florida Republicans, including self-described “moderate” ones, approve of DeSantis’ stances in the bathroom wars. One Palm Beach Republican who voted for Obama praised DeSantis for fighting the “madness” in public schools. This gentleman told me, “The Democrats have shown us who they are.” He said that he would never vote for a Democrat again. He tangentially noted that he recently sold one of his homes and that the first “seven” people who tried to buy it were all Californians fleeing that state’s left-wing insanity. He said that he ended up selling the house to a New Yorker also fleeing blue-state dysfunction. (READ MORE: Florida, the New Capital of Red State America)

Is Florida a solidly and permanently red state? It would appear so. Republican registration now outpaces Democratic registration, and once formerly strong Democratic enclaves, such as Miami-Dade County, now vote Republican. Some Republicans told me that it was the irrationality around COVID and the refusal of DeSantis to buckle to it that turned Florida into an irrevocably red state. “Keep Florida Free” signs abound across the state.

None of this, however, suggests that DeSantis would beat Trump in the primaries. Trump remains a formidable figure whose charisma dwarfs the personality of DeSantis, as even a few of his supporters acknowledged to me. They are quick to note that DeSantis has improved as a retail politician since his wobbly run in 2018. But they admit that he could struggle against the more dominant Trump.

Trump is far from a spent political force, if my conversations with Florida Republicans are any indication. If anything, these conversations lead me to believe that it will be easier for Trump to win in 2024 as a former president than it was for him in 2016 as a political neophyte. Once again, it appears that his critics, not Trump, are headed for the ash heap of history.