Voices: The Trump-DeSantis Republican primary will be the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen

Left: Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in support of Doug Mastriano for Governor of Pennsylvania and Mehmet Oz for US Senate at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on 3 September 2022 – Right: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a tour campaign event at the Alico Arena ahead of the midterm elections on 6 November 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida (Left: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images – Right: GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Left: Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in support of Doug Mastriano for Governor of Pennsylvania and Mehmet Oz for US Senate at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on 3 September 2022 – Right: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a tour campaign event at the Alico Arena ahead of the midterm elections on 6 November 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida (Left: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images – Right: GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

The 2022 midterm results have made one thing clear: The real danger for the Republicans looms in 2024. It looks more likely than ever that we are on our way to a highly competitive GOP DeSantis/Trump primary that could tear the party apart.

Since 2020, former president Donald Trump has dominated polling for the 2024 Republican nomination. FiveThirtyEight, which aggregates and collects polls, lists a number of early-November, pre-midterm polls showing Trump ahead of Florida Governor DeSantis among Republican primary voters by 22 points (48-26), 28 points (56-27) and even a whopping 50 points (65/15.)

Those numbers make Trump’s position look unassailable. But the midterm results tell another story. Trump’s personally endorsed candidates performed embarrassingly. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz lost to John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. Trump-endorsed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano got crushed. So did governor hopeful Dan Cox in Maryland, Senate candidate Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, and House candidates J.R. Majewski in Ohio and Yesli Vega in Virginia.

Even victories showed Trump’s weakness. His endorsed Senate candidate JD Vance stumbled to a narrow victory in very red Ohio by 53.3 to 46.7%. Republican non-Trumpie governor Mike DeWine, meanwhile, crushed his opponent by 62.8 to 37.2%.

In Florida, it was a different story. DeSantis won reelection by a crushing 19 points, as Democrats across the ballot collapsed. DeSantis even cruised to victory in DeKalb, a majority Hispanic county that the GOP hasn’t won in twenty years.

Trump lost in 2020, and again in 2022. DeSantis won. If you want to win in 2024, who do you back?

And so, as they did in 2016, GOP party actors are trying to pull themselves together to oppose Trump. The New York Post, an organ of reactionary media oligarch Rupert Murdoch, ran a front-page image of a heroic DeSantis titled “DeFuture.” Fox News also pivoted to boosting DeSantis; Trump’s former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany appeared on the network and said DeSantis “should be the future message for the party.” Former Representative Peter King, a Long Island Republican and a former Trump ally, said Trump should step down as the head of the Republican party and that the GOP should not “become a personality cult.”

Meanwhile, Trump did what Trump does when he faces setbacks — which is to say he threw a tantrum and spewed accusations. According to reports, he privately rebuked his wife, Melania Trump, and Fox News host Sean Hannity, for encouraging him to endorse the hapless Oz. He then scurried to his social media network Truth Social to assert: “I am not at all angry, did a great job (I wasn’t the one running!), and am very busy looking into the future.”

In the short term, the question is whether and when Trump and DeSantis will announce their bids for 2024. Before the election, Trump promised to make a “big announcement” — presumably declaring for 2024 — on November 15. But now advisers like Jason Miller are urging Trump (publicly and privately) to hold off. They want him to wait until after the December run-off election in Georgia that could determine control of the Senate.

DeSantis, for his part, is planning to continue targeting LGBT people and abortion rights in legislation to garner national attention and show his conservative bona fides to Republican voters. He’ll also campaign outside the state to fundraise and increase recognition. In other words, he will pursue a fairly normal path towards the Republican nomination, doing footwork and pushing the kind of legislation GOP primary voters adore.

Trump, for his part, is going to have a big, showy blowout media announcement where he praises himself and sneers at his opposition. He won’t commit to any specific policies but will instead insist that he’s great and awesome and undefeatable. He’ll lie about the 2020 election again and again. He’ll probably use the sneering nickname “DeSanctimonious” at least once.

Many in the GOP would rather go with the more respectable-appearing approach to bigotry represented by DeSantis. But do they have a choice?

The reason Republican party actors don’t like Trump is the reason they also fear him. He has no commitment to the party, and no compunction about attacking or harming other party actors, or the GOP as a whole.

If DeSantis really starts to challenge Trump, Trump is very likely going to do much worse than call him by an ugly nickname. In the 2016 primary, Trump notably invented wild conspiracy theories about rival candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s father. He also insulted Cruz’s wife.

And of course the last time Trump was beaten in an election, he organized a rally that quickly devolved into a violent coup in which multiple people died. Nor was the violence directed solely at Democrats. Trump directly threatened his own vice-president, Republican (and potential 2024 primary challenger) Mike Pence that day.

A close GOP primary between DeSantis and Trump could quickly turn ugly, even violent. It is difficult to imagine Trump conceding an election under any circumstances. He will claim DeSantis cheated or rigged votes. He’ll try to pressure electors at the convention. If all else fails, it’s easy to imagine him running as a third party or write-in candidate.

Given how much support Trump retains in the GOP, any of these scenarios would be a nightmare for the party. The chaos could easily lose them the presidency. It could harm down-ballot races as well. Trump would target candidates who wouldn’t endorse him at worst. At best, and would siphon money and attention from key races.

Anything’s possible, of course. Trump could uncharacteristically bow out of the race early. Or he could bully the GOP into submission. But by elevating DeSantis and weakening Trump, the midterms made the worst-case scenario for Republicans a good bit more likely.