Donald Trump, the former US president, is all washed up. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is poised to dethrone him. This is the view currently in vogue among many in Washington.
Not so fast, argues Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group that shot to prominence with go-for-the-jugular advertisements before becoming mired in scandals of its own.
“The greatest danger in American politics is not recognising that there are great dangers,” Wilson, who lives in Florida, says in a phone interview. “The same people in 2015 and 2016 were confidently asserting Donald Trump could never, ever under any circumstances win the Republican nomination, and there were never any circumstances where Donald Trump could beat Hillary Clinton, and then he could never have almost a million people die because of his mishandling of Covid and on and on and on and on.
“I know that the Republicans who right now are acting very bold and the donors who are acting very frisky – as Trump starts winning primaries, they will bend the knee, they will break, they will fall, they will all come back into line.”
When Trump scheduled his announcement of a third run for the White House this month, he had hoped to ride a “red wave” of midterm election successes and sweep aside potential rivals within the Republican party. But the red wave ebbed and his anticlimactic campaign launch had the opposite effect.
With Trump at arguably his weakest point since last year’s January 6 insurrection, senior Republicans are criticising his losing habit, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is ridiculing him and big money donors such as Ken Griffin and Stephen Schwarzman are deserting what they perceive as a sinking ship.
The new conventional wisdom – or wishful thinking – among numerous pundits is that, after surviving crisis after crisis, Trump has finally met his Waterloo. A slew of federal, state and congressional investigations and opinion polls showing DeSantis ahead or level lend credence to this view.
Some have noted, however, that Trump maintains an iron grip on his base and, just as in 2016, that might be enough to win a Republican primary race in which the anti-Trump vote is split among several candidates.
Wilson, 59, author of the books Everything Trump Touches Dies and Running Against The Devil: A Plot To Save America from Trump and Democrats From Themselves, says: “He controls a quarter, at the minimum, of the Republican base. Even if it’s 15% and he goes into Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he wins primaries because he has 15% going in, that’s the ballgame. It’s over. It’s done. Everybody else, it’s all over bar the crying.”
He adds: “Right now they’re all talking so much shit: ‘I’m not going to get with Trump. I’m going to be with the hot new number, DeSantis.’ When DeSantis gets his ass handed to him, when he gets his clock cleaned in a debate or forum or just by Trump grinding away at him, eating him alive mentally for weeks on end, and suddenly Donald Trump’s numbers start posting up again, all the conservative thinkers who are right now like, ‘We will never vote for Trump again, we have integrity!’ will find themselves some excuse. ‘Well, you know, we don’t like Trump’s tweets, but otherwise it’s pure communism!’
“It’s all bullshit, it’s all a fucking game, and that game is going to play out in a way that does not result in the outcome that the donor class thinks they’re going to get.”
Wilson, who began his career on the 1988 presidential campaign of George HW Bush, worked as a consultant and political ad maker for numerous candidates and state parties. In December 2019 he and other Republican operatives founded the Lincoln Project, a political action committee that assailed Trump with a punch-in-the-mouth brio eschewed by “when they go low, we go high” Democrats.
Some of the co-founders have acknowledged their part in the Republican party’s descent into bloodsport, hypocrisy and extremism. Wilson told an audience at the group’s launch event: “We have, as the great political philosopher Liam Neeson once said, a particular set of skills. Skills that make us a nightmare for people like Donald Trump.”
He produced slick advertisements that got under the president’s skin and helped make the Lincoln Project the best known of the so-called Never Trump groups, raising tens of millions of dollars.
But its meteoric rise was followed by an equally spectacular fall. The group’s co-founder John Weaver was revealed to have sent sexually charged messages to multiple men, sometimes with offers of employment or advancement. There were allegations of opaque accounting and financial impropriety that Wilson and others adamantly deny. A glut of high-profile figures resigned.
But the Lincoln Project has survived in slimmed down form and continued to wage war on Trump and Trumpism in the midterms. Paradoxically, its continued relevance partly depends on Trump’s own; without him, it loses the principal reason for its creation. It has already launched attacks on DeSantis as a “new ultra-Maga megastar” who poses his own threat to American democracy.
Living in the Florida state capital, Tallahassee, Wilson is ideally placed to take stock of the governor, a former US navy lawyer and congressman whose own brand of conservative populism and “anti-wokeness” helped him win re-election by nearly 20 percentage points over the Democrat Charlie Crist.
He says: “Ron DeSantis won an election in Florida against a three-time loser, a campaign that was run by the best Republican party in the country, and I mean that because I’m a guy who helped over many years elect many people in the great state of Florida. The quality of our operation here made it look easy.
“Has Ron DeSantis been to the rodeo? Has he been out there in the fight? Has he actually faced up against a full campaign of the brutality and the cruelty that Donald Trump will level against him? He has not. It’s like he’s walked on to the field on to third base and thought he hit a grand slam home run. It’s easy for Republicans to win in Florida. It’s how it’s supposed to be: we built it that way. In a Republican primary against Trump, even Trump in a weakened state still has an innate feral sense of cruelty and cunning that Ron DeSantis does not have. How does Trump know that? He watched the debate.”
Wilson is referring to a gubernatorial debate in which Crist asked his opponent to commit to another full four-year term in the governor’s mansion; like a rabbit caught in headlights, DeSantis, 44, struggled to answer directly.
“It was nine seconds of the gears moving in his head and you could see the agony on his face, like ‘I don’t know what to say.’ Trump never has a doubt. He may be an asshole but he never has a doubt. Ron is over-intellectualising it and I’m telling you: this guy has a glass jaw.”
This, Wilson predicts, will become apparent on the debate stage, a setting where Florida Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio struggled against Trump in 2016. “All of a sudden, all that donor money is going to go, ‘Oh, fuck,’ and then they’re going to call Ron’s people and go, ‘Hey, listen, we love Ron but we’re worried. We’re gonna have to sit this one out for a little while. Let’s see what it looks like in a month.’
“And then a month will pass and all of a sudden Donald Trump is the nominee. That’s how it’s going to go and I don’t say this out of any joy; I say this because I’ve just been to this fucking party too many times now.”
Wilson also suggests that DeSantis may lack the personal touch and knack for retail politics that is crucial in a Republican primary. A recent New Yorker magazine profile noted several people describing “his lack of curiosity about others, his indifferent table manners, his aversion to the political rituals of dispensing handshakes and questions about the kids”.
Wilson opines: “You’re telling me you’re going to send Ron DeSantis to New Hampshire where he has to go and sit in a diner with the Merrimack county GOP chairman and that 79-year-old codger is going to want to talk to Ron DeSantis about the gold standard or whatever and Ron DeSantis is going to sit there and get bored and restless and leave or be angry? I’m sorry. Sell me another fantasy of Ron DeSantis the perfect candidate.”