The fallout from Ron DeSantis’ mischief on Martha’s Vineyard — in which his associates apparently deceived migrants into boarding planes to the island — should disabuse Republican elites of the notion that the Florida governor represents Donald Trump without the drama.
DeSantis has lately seduced donors with the idea that he can satisfy the MAGA base while avoiding the most outrageous and destabilizing elements of Trump’s style. But in both word and deed, he has proved his willingness to push to the very edge of the law and shake off the constraints imposed by fussy notions of human dignity.
The truth is that there is no MAGA populism without instability and outrage. Those are the critical ingredients in the sauce because they are the only way for a populist to show the base that he is taking the fight to the imagined enemy. That DeSantis operates more deliberately than Trump does not mean he will make the mistake of watering down the recipe.
So there will be no DeSantis solution for the dilemma facing the pro-democracy Republicans who have skulked in the shadows since 2016, hoping against hope for a return to post-Trump Republican normalcy. But between martyrdom and submission, there lies another alternative: strategy.
The next best opportunity for pro-democracy Republicans to do what they should have done long ago and explicitly break from the MAGA faction may come after the 2022 midterm elections. If the GOP blows what should have been an easily winnable election, much of the blame will rest on the shoulders of candidates such as Arizona’s Blake Masters, who flirts unsubtly with racists; Ohio’s J.D. Vance, who opposed Trump before crawling back to kiss the ring and launch his campaign of culture-war-as-class-conflict; and fellow Ohioan J.R. Majewski, a Jan. 6 demonstrator and QAnon sympathizer. At the state level, too, the Trump wing’s taste for extremism is turning out staggeringly bad candidates like Doug Mastriano, who seeks Pennsylvania’s governorship and cultivated close ties to the hate-speech network used by the man who shot up a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Then what? Republicans who have failed to stand up to Trumpism on principle can argue that it has failed in political practice — that MAGA populism cannot summon the voting coalitions the GOP needs to win, even with the Electoral College and Senate stacked in its favor.
When losing MAGA candidates refuse to accept the 2022 midterm election results, these Republicans can reject their lies and, in doing so, finally also break with the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
There would be risks, of course. Trump remains king of the GOP. But Trump no longer appears unassailable. His legal jeopardy grows by the day, and DeSantis’ claim to the crown portends an internal struggle in which the MAGA movement could tear itself apart. If that happens, and pro-democracy Republicans enter the stage with a clear brand that offers an alternative to nonstop chaos, they might even have a fighting chance at the plurality that could elevate a presidential candidate of their own in 2024 — one committed to the Constitution as a set of rules rather than a combat trophy.
For House Republicans, there is also the problem of bucking the Repulican leadership, which has cynically bet their political fortunes on the Big Lie. But they would have two years to cultivate an alternative donor network and build a distinct brand — establishing the kind of faction that could demand new leadership come 2024.
The brand, however, cannot consist only of heresy against the Dear Leader and fealty to plutocrats. Pro-democracy Republicans need to be pro-something else, and it cannot just be tax cuts for the rich. A good way to solve this problem would be by pivoting to the substance that underlies the grievances of Trump voters. Much of the grievance is imagined or cultural and therefore difficult to remedy, but it clearly has an economic dimension — and on this front, the MAGA faction has offered a lot of talk, but only limited action.
By contrast, pro-democracy Republicans could show voters they can deliver results without the bombast. Ideas like bringing back the child tax credit, delivering a real plan for paid family leave, and distributing federal offices and R&D to struggling regions could all send this signal. This might require some divergence from the strictly anti-government, relentlessly tax-cutting orthodoxy of the last few decades. But donors and ideologues should consider whether they prefer a world where a business that crosses the president faces fiscal retribution, as DeSantis’ adventures in DisneyWorld suggest.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Republicans will pull off a sweep in spite of themselves and that people like J.D. Vance, Blake Masters, Kari Lake, and Doug Mastriano will sail to victory. In that catastrophic event, a break would be much, much harder — but even more important. For now, Republicans who lacked the courage to follow their colleagues into the breach should prepare to seize what may be their last chance at both redemption and political survival.