Never-Trump Republicans got an odd bit of advice for their future from The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf over the weekend. Rather than permanently ally with Democrats or do the fruitless work of building a third party, Friedersdorf wrote, they should consider another option: Backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for president in 2024.
"The best way forward depends, in part, on how bad one believes Donald Trump himself to be for America," Friedersdorf wrote. "Is he no worse than any number of other populist demagogues who are capable of winning the White House, or is he sui generis, so that any likely alternative would damage America less? Probably the latter." Friedersdorf, a self-described "independent conservative," added: "DeSantis frustrates and disappoints me within normal parameters. He hasn't yet frightened me, as Trump does, as being superlatively incompetent, divisive, morally degenerate, or authoritarian."
The trouble is Friedersdorf's description of DeSantis doesn't ring wholly true. Competence? DeSantis has pretty much sided with anti-vaxxers in his state, even offering a cash bonus to police officers who have lost their jobs to mandates in other states, despite a summer surge of cases that pushed Florida into the top 10 states nationally in per-capita COVID deaths. Authoritarian? DeSantis governs a state that has stomped all over academic freedom by prohibiting state university professors from testifying in a voting rights lawsuit. If these are the "normal parameters" for conservatism, they're still alarming.
Friederdorf's analysis also relies too much on the notion that Trump is one-of-a-kind. Observers have long debated whether Trump is the culmination of decades of conservative culture warfare or something new and more dangerous. The best answer is probably "both." Trump might be uniquely awful, but his awfulness has acted as a catalyst for the entire Republican Party to become more extreme. GOP candidates now routinely make allegations of election fraud, while stalwart conservatives like Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) have been all but exiled from the party for their insufficient fealty to the former president. Even if Trump disappeared from the scene tomorrow, he has reshaped the GOP in his own image.
It doesn't seem likely that principled conservatives can reverse or much slow that process by backing a Trump-lite candidate like DeSantis. It also doesn't seem possible for any candidate to oust Trump himself: Nearly 80 percent of Republicans want him to run for president again, which he will almost certainly do. You have to feel sympathy for the Never-Trump Republicans who find themselves politically homeless — neither fully Democrat nor Republican. But it won't be Ron DeSantis who leads them out of the wilderness.