For most of the last year, Ron DeSantis would not indulge the speculation. Yes, he made clear to donors, he might seek the presidency. But pressed with the obvious follow-up — would he still run in 2024 if Donald Trump does? — DeSantis, the governor of Florida, begged off. “He’ll be completely, completely open about whatever, but then the Trump stuff — he suddenly starts to act like he’s being recorded,” Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor and a DeSantis ally, told me in March.
By the summer, though, the governor seemed to be testing the beginnings of a pivot in private settings. He would praise Trump’s record — “You think Ukraine would have been invaded if Donald Trump were president?” — suggesting the former president would win a rematch with President Biden decisively on the policy merits. “But it’s not going to be just the record,” DeSantis has added, according to a person present, performatively ruing this fate. “And that’s a shame.”
Left unspoken is the figure DeSantis believes is best suited to carry the party’s banner without the former president’s baggage. Across the Republican factions unsure if they are approaching an eventual Trump-free future or still living in an interminable Trump present, DeSantis has been permitted to subsist as a kind of Schrödinger’s candidate, both Trump and Not Trump. He can present as an iron-fisted imitation, touring the country in August with a slate of Trump endorsees who lie about the 2020 election. He can cosplay as the post-Trump choice for those desperate for a post-Trump party — a Yale- and Harvard-educated man of letters just winking at the party’s extremes. He can pitch himself, especially, as the “Trump, but …” candidate — an Evolutionary Trump, the 2.0 — defined most vividly by what DeSantis has learned by watching: Here is Trump, but more strategic about his targets; Trump, but restrained enough to keep his Twitter accounts from suspension; Trump, but not under federal investigation. [Continue reading…]