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Why DeSantis is losing Republicans to Trump

Consider for a moment what Donald Trump gives to his average follower. Membership in a vast nationwide communion of like-minded people. A paternal figure in a confusing world. The frisson of transgression: middle-aged whites don’t often in life get to play the rebel.

Next to all this, what is the marginal benefit of seeing him win an actual election? What, after that, is the marginal benefit of watching his policies come into force? No doubt, Trump fans would rather have these bonus items than not. But he has done them a profound emotional and almost spiritual service before it ever gets to that.

It is not clear that Ron DeSantis understands this about populism. Until he does, he won’t displace Trump as the leader of the movement in the US. The governor of Florida trades on his electability and administrative competence. But if either of these things was paramount for voters in the Republican primaries, the contest would already be over.

Trump lost the midterm elections in 2018. He lost the presidential election in 2020. He is the only president in the 80-odd-year history of the Gallup approval-rating poll never to score 50 per cent. Republican candidates who bear his stamp have a mixed electoral record at best. Even allowing for the widespread and false belief that he was diddled out of a second term, there must be lots of Trump fans who know, deep down, that DeSantis or Nikki Haley would do better with the national electorate in 2024. No matter. Neither confers on them the sense of tribal belonging that he does. Neither upsets the liberals as much.

The governor’s other boast — his executive grip — matters even less. Just because liberals have always feared the emergence of a competent demagogue doesn’t mean populist voters have yearned for it to the same degree. How much of his base did Trump lose after failing to build that wall on the Mexican border? How much of it has gone over to Joe Biden as thanks for passing the biggest protectionist bill in memory?

DeSantis is logical, poor man. He thinks modern politics is about doing things. The extent to which it is about belonging — about replacing the group identity that people once got from a church or a trade union — is lost on his rationalist ken. In this one sense, he thinks like a liberal. The left is forever trying to “answer” populist concerns by reshoring industrial jobs or devolving power. It is very sweet, this. And yes, perhaps at the start, populism was about tangible grievances. But once people took sides, around 2016, that group membership started to mean more to them. (As in a long-running war whose original cause is lost on the belligerents.) Trump perceives this more clearly than his rivals.

DeSantis believes that politics is downstream of culture, that culture is shaped in institutions, that conservatives have ceded those institutions to the organised left. The Gramsci of Tallahassee doesn’t just diagnose the problem. He is creative and dogged in installing a rightwing counter-hegemony. Ask Disney. Ask the educational bureaucracies of Florida.

This is more thought and work than Trump has ever put in to the cause. It is also perfectly beside the point. I am no longer sure that populist voters want to win the culture war. Just being in it gives them meaning. If anything, there is more group identity in losing, more solidarity under siege than in triumph. If I am right, none of the governor’s arguments against Trump — his electoral repellence, his boredom with detail — are half as wounding as he hopes.

DeSantis is a case study in the vibes theory of politics. It doesn’t matter that he is a sincere and effective populist. He “presents” as a creature of the establishment. It is something to do with the Ivy League and navy past, the dour style of speech, the apparent rectitude (no sexual or financial scandals) and the lack of a visual hook in all that neat hair and sober tailoring. Even his record as the leader of a big state counts against him. No populist worth the name would be reading his briefs and enacting ideas with such bureaucratic patience. “Neeeerrrrd,” you can imagine Trump shouting at him, à la Homer Simpson, across a TV debate studio.

So, a strident rightwinger, from a far humbler background than Trump, is framed as though he were the latest scion of the Bush clan. He can console himself that he is in illustrious company. Rishi Sunak championed Brexit before Boris Johnson did. He subsidised people to dine out during a viral pandemic for which there was no vaccine. His reputation among populists? Company man.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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