Polls tell us the Republican base is still fired up by the thought of Donald Trump remaining the party's standard bearer in 2024. Others despise Trump and hope to see someone else (Mitt Romney? Liz Cheney? Larry Hogan?) take a stand in favor of a return to the deposed Reaganite consensus.
But for another more mainstream faction on the right, there is only one option to defeat the Democrats and win the White House in November 2024: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
This is mainly a story about the evolution of National Review and the circle of writers closely associated with it. The magazine has a storied history on the right, with a singular role in galvanizing the conservative movement during the 1960s and 1970s. When Trump gained traction prior to the GOP primaries in 2016, the magazine took a strong stand against him, going so far as devoting an entire issue of the magazine to a symposium bluntly titled "Against Trump."
Many conservative intellectuals embraced Trump wholeheartedly after he became president. Others, including a couple from NR's inner circle, remained steadfastly Never Trump and bolted oldline publications to start new ventures. But NR attempted to stake out a middle position — dropping its principled opposition to the 45th president, defending him when possible (often in anti-anti-Trump terms), and criticizing him when the editors felt they had no choice.
That explains why the magazine would prefer someone other than Trump become the GOP nominee two years from now. But why DeSantis? Judging by the series of mash notes former NR editor-in-chief Rich Lowry has penned over the past year or so, the answer is that the Florida governor wins the Goldilocks contest on the right: He has all of Trump's strengths but none of his weaknesses.
On substance and style, this mainly means DeSantis takes aggressive, pugnacious stands on culture-war issues and appears to relish coming off like a complete jerk in public. He fights just like Trump — and he does it without falling into Trump's trap of personalizing every battle with flagrant displays of pathological narcissism.
This explains why NR likes DeSantis. But it doesn't solve the mystery of how he can become the GOP nominee in 2024 when Trump shows every indication of running while continuing to lap all competition in the polls. As Lowry has acknowledged, challenging Trump for the nomination would involve running into "the business end of the Trump buzzsaw," which could permanently damage the governor's image in the party. That makes the fixation on DeSantis a fantasy — just a slightly more plausible one than those entertained by conservatives more openly hostile to Trump.
Ron DeSantis may well end up as the Republican nominee in 2024. But only if Donald Trump gets out of the way.