NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — In his keynote address at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary gala, Tucker Carlson made an observation that might be discomfiting to a think tank and its supporters.
“It might be time to reassess the terms we use to describe what we’re watching,” Carlson said. “When I started at Heritage, the presumption was, and this is a very Anglo-American assumption, that the debates we’re having are kind of rational debates about the way to get to mutually agreed upon outcomes. ... So we write our papers, and they write their papers and may the best papers win.”
“I don’t think that’s what we’re watching now at all,” he continued. “I [don’t] think we’re watching a debate over how to get to the best outcome. I think that’s completely wrong.”
While conservatives spent decades following the Cold War crowing about winning the war of ideas, it’s possible the Left was winning the war of feelings.
But that’s not just going on between the Left and the Right. It may also be a good way to understand the looming battle for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination between former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).
DeSantis is trying to take what was, to a large degree, a visceral and emotional phenomenon — Trump and Trumpism — and make it into an intellectual one, a specific and more or less coherent political program.
That’s not to say there wasn’t an ideas component to Trump, such as the belief that political elites were not serving the economic needs of working-class Americans and were outright hostile to their cultural values; that China was a bigger national security priority than decadeslong wars in the Middle East; that borders and sovereignty still matter, perhaps especially, in a global economy.
Nor is that to deny that DeSantis has had some success in connecting emotionally with the Republican base in his own right, especially in Florida, where his margin of victory more closely resembled the 1984 Ronald Reagan landslide than Trump’s 2016 razor-thin wins in a handful of battleground states.
But Trump is making an argument based on loyalty, authenticity, grievance, identity, and, when not totally consumed by ego, being part of a larger movement friends and foes alike call “MAGA.”
DeSantis is making an argument based on policies and results, a MAGA platform that he has been able to implement in Florida and hopes to be able to replicate in Washington, D.C.
“Florida is the state where our shared values … actually become reality,” DeSantis told the Heritage Leadership Summit hours before Carlson spoke. He also said, “We’ve been able to operate an administration that does not get consumed in petty conflict or drama or palace intrigue.” That doesn’t sound like the Trump White House.
That’s a powerful argument, and it could be a winning one. Yet the night before, Trump, not DeSantis, posed for a picture at Mar-a-Lago with nearly a dozen Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation. Every single one of them has endorsed Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign despite seeing firsthand the results in DeSantis’s Florida, where Trump himself mostly lives.
Personal connections powered Trump’s endorsement edge. And it appears to be playing a role in his commanding poll lead since his indictment in New York. Republicans are rallying to the defense of their former president against what they see as the Left’s weaponization of government.
The downside is that Trump’s campaign seems actively hostile to the ideas. He is trashing DeSantis’s record in Florida, undercutting what any future Republican administration — even a second Trump term — would actually want to do in office. And while his positioning on Social Security and Medicare is not new, borrowing the Democratic playbook against former House Speaker Paul Ryan, to beat up DeSantis undermines what a future Republican administration may have to do to keep the major entitlement programs viable and the federal tax burden sustainable in the future.
Nevertheless, there is a risk that the competence over personality argument won’t work better for DeSantis than competence over ideology did for Michael Dukakis in 1988.
It is, of course, far too early to say what will happen in the Republican primaries. DeSantis isn’t even a declared candidate yet. It is entirely possible that his railing against the GOP’s “culture of losing” after setbacks in 2018, 2020, and 2022 will resonate both emotionally and intellectually with Republicans who want to win in 2024.
But Trump understands that the Republican nomination fight and the subsequent general election will not be a contest of white papers. Anyone who hopes to beat him will need to realize the same.