For a while, former President Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have been tip-toeing around each other, offering public praise while jockeying for GOP voters’ affection ahead of an eventual presidential primary. It made sense, as the two broadly share the MAGA mission and look to the same voters for support. But the niceties were always going to end the minute Ron and Don became political rivals in earnest. This past week appears to been the tipping point, as the two traded barbs, some more veiled than others.
Folks, the pre-pre-pre-presidential primary season is over and the pre-pre-presidential primary season is upon us.
Trump, Axios reports, has been mocking DeSantis in private conversations, telling people that the governor has a “dull personality” and is not a serious contender for the 2024 Republican nomination. Those “private” conversations have now, either strategically or as part of the general Trumpworld chaos, leaked to the press. Axios quotes a recent Trump confidant who reports that: “In the context of the 2024 election, he usually gives DeSantis a pop in the nose in the middle of that type of conversation.” (A pop in the nose! Goodness!)
DeSantis, meanwhile, is cautiously approaching criticism of Trump, though still largely indirectly. The governor last week went on Ruthless, a conservative podcast, to stake his claim as the politician who, even in Covid’s early days, took the most conservative line. In this case, that means doing little to disrupt the spread of a disease that has since become responsible for the deaths of more than 847,000 Americans, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers.
On Ruthless, DeSantis was asked what he’d do differently had he known everything about the virus that we do now. He said he regretted not speaking out more forcefully against lockdowns in the early months of the pandemic. “I never thought it would lead to locking down the country,” DeSantis said, referencing early discussions with health officials and Vice President Pence, head of Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force. “Knowing now what I know then, if that [a lockdown was] a threat earlier, I would have been much louder about trying to say, you know, this is not [inaudible]. But what happened was people like [Dr. Anthony] Fauci panicked.”
DeSantis notably isn’t attacking Trump head-on in this, and by naming Fauci, he’s keeping much of the focus on the right’s favorite pandemic boogeyman. But baked into a criticism of the lockdowns is a criticism of Trump, who called for limited lockdowns early in the pandemic before later reversing course — and it’s probably not an accident that DeSantis’ name-checked Pence as well.
The simmering tension goes back further than that, however. Earlier last week, Trump went on One America News to skewer politicians (such as DeSantis) who’ve declined to say whether they’ve taken a booster vaccine against Covid. “I’ve had the booster. Many politicians — I watched a couple of politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was, ‘Did you get the booster?’ because they had the vaccine, and they’re answering like — in other words, the answer is ‘yes’ but they don’t want to say it because they’re gutless,” Trump said.
Trump had been booed by an otherwise friendly crowd earlier that week for saying he got boosted, and he presumably saw a potential weakness among Republican voters who are wary of the vaccine.
It’s a new phase in a low-level conflict has been going on for a long, long time: As early as July of 2020, The New York Times reported that DeSantis was undermining Trump’s attempts to raise funds for a possible Republican National Convention in Jacksonville. By November of 2021, Trump was telling his Mar-a-Lago guests that he made DeSantis’ political career and deserved credit for his “success” in Florida.
It does not take a political genius to see the root cause of the Trump-DeSantis tension: the very real possibility they’ll run against each other for the 2024 GOP nomination. A host of potential contenders have said they won’t run if Trump does, but DeSantis has refused to bend the knee. And in a Republican Party where Trump brooks no rivals and tolerates no dissent, his alliance with DeSantis was never going to last.