Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Desperately Seeking DeSantis (and Youngkin)

Hoping for a post-Trump future.
November 9, 2021
Desperately Seeking DeSantis (and Youngkin)
(Photo Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Original Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

On the election night 2021, mere minutes after the Virginia governor’s race had been called for Glenn Youngkin, Ross Douthat tweeted:

No need to wait for Youngkin to pass legislation. Or create jobs. Or “fix” Virginia’s public schools. Or even be sworn in. Just advance to 2024 and collect your $200 million. But I get why some Never Trumpers are giddy over Glenn. His fusionist campaign could provide a purple state template for threading the needle between motivating MAGA enthusiasts and keeping the mostly suburban, Trump-averse GOP voters of old within the ranks.

Additionally, shortly before the election, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece arguing that Never Trump and Trump-skeptical conservatives should now be uniting behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, so as to propel him past Trump in the 2024 Republican primaries.

Leave aside that DeSantis would almost certainly not challenge Trump, should Trump run. Or that most Never Trumpers won’t find Trump’s most sycophantic apologist an acceptable champion for the future of the GOP. What we have here are the initial gropings toward a post-Trump future by the intellectual right.

And while I share Douthat and Friedersdorf’s desperate desire to move past Trump, our mileage is going to vary considerably on what we consider acceptable accommodations to Trump and his followers.

Because while there’s no doubt that being Trump-friendly is strategically necessary to win Republican elections, we should spare a moment to consider whether—and to what degree—it’s morally correct.

Why did a tiny minority of professional conservatives—and a relatively large number of suburban Republican-leaning voters—find themselves in opposition to Trump? It wasn’t just the tweets. It wasn’t only a question of style. It was the recognition that having a major political party submit to a conspiracy-minded, amoral opportunist would ultimately corrupt the party by forcing people to excuse and defend the indefensible. And that this corruption of a major party would ultimately create dangers for the country.

Not that anyone is keeping score, but . . . this view has been vindicated—fully, entirely, completely—by history.

So what would turning the Republican party over to DeSantis do, exactly? If it were 2018 and the full corruption of the Republican party had not yet taken place—if the party’s voters and politicians had not yet been forced to defend two impeachments and an insurrection while the vast majority of them decamped to an alternate reality where Trump’s 7 million vote loss was a sacred landslide victory—then maybe DeSantis would be . . . fine, I guess. After all, while he has proven himself to be a craven politician whose ambition is unstaunched even by the deaths of 60,000 of his constituents, at least DeSantis is not nakedly pro-authoritarian.

Not yet, anyway.

And so the folks who are desperate not to have to rethink any of the big questions focus on the small question: Does DeSantis (or does Youngkin) seem likely to attempt to overturn the results of an election? To incite an insurrection? So long as they can tell themselves, “Probably not . . .” then they’re good to go and ready to be everyday players on Team Red again.

And that’s what this is really all about. So many on the Trump-skeptical right seem to be given over to the idea that with Trump no longer in the White House, the tribal rules of political gravity should reassert themselves. Never mind if a candidate aligns themselves with Trump, gives cover to baseless conspiracy theories, or flirts with the Big Lie. Trump the man was the problem—not any forces he may have unleashed.

But if you want to understand this impulse, consider why so much time is spent rationalizing why Real Conservatives™ should support people like DeSantis but not, say, Liz Cheney. Or Larry Hogan. Or Adam Kinzinger. Or Charlie Baker. We’ve gone from “But the judges” to “Trump may be bad, but the Democrats are extreme socialists” to, now, “DeSantis & Co. are versions of Trump who can win.” By this reasoning, the problem with Trump was ultimately the result: He lost power for Republicans. Therefore, what the party needs is a version of Trump who will win power. And no one ever asks whether the party, as currently configured, ought to be entrusted with power.

Even when the question answers itself.

Matt Lewis says that those of us imposing a Trump purity test are creating a Catch-22 for Republican candidates. He writes: “Either a candidate publicly disavows Trump (guaranteeing they lose) or they don’t (disqualifying them from winning).” Maybe! But let’s move away from the modes of disavowing or embracing and instead talk about something more concrete: saying who won the 2020 election.

In a Republican primary today, can a candidate win if they stipulate that, however lamentable it was, Donald Trump did lose the 2020 election? Or is this statement of fact disqualifying to Republican voters?

We know the answer—that’s why Glenn Youngkin danced around the question throughout his campaign (despite not having to actually face Republican primary voters).

So what does that answer tell us about the actual Republican party as it is composed of millions of real, Republican voters? Are they a healthy force in political life? Is it unreasonable to expect that a Republican politician should be able to make such a simple statement of fact without incurring their rage? Is that really a Catch-22?

Or is it a setting forth of standards? The most minimal standard being: If a political party is so sick that it cannot abide objective truth, then maybe that party is a danger to itself and others. And anyone worthy of leadership ought to be able to pass the simple test of saying out loud a fact that is true without infantilizing his base.

And if this is literally not possible—if it is completely unreasonable to ask Republican candidates to counter the Big Lie—then maybe we shouldn’t be rushing back to our tribal homes and pretending that everything is back to normal. Because it isn’t.

The plain truth is that we won’t get back to normal unless people within the Republican and conservative movements are willing to pitch in to move us in that direction.

A few—very few—of them have. For their trouble, the Liz Cheneys and Adam Kinzingers of the world are losing their places. But, to me, they are showing the way forward in a healthier way than DeSantis—or even Youngkin—are.

Rallying to Ron DeSantis and hoping that the crocodile eats you last is not going to transmute the Republican party from toxic to healthy. Doing something about Trump—actually speaking the truth and treating the Republican voters who have descended into fantasy like adults—is the only way forward.

It will be hard work. And anyone signing up to do it is likely to pay a professional price. It’s much easier to just hope that DeSantis and Youngkin will make everything safe again for democracy. And maybe they will. Stranger things have happened.

But hope is not a plan.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.