There are many ways to describe Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s flailing presidential campaign—his glitchy campaign announcement is arguably too perfect a metaphor; a three-second video of his awkward, honking laugh feels more poetic, if less precise. But one of the best summations of his general abjectness came in Monday’s disastrous New York Times/Siena poll: In a head-to-head race between DeSantis and Donald Trump, the former still trailed—by five points!—among the sliver of Republican voters who believed that the former president committed “serious federal crimes.” Many voters who acknowledge that Trump is a threat to national security, democracy, and the Constitution still prefer him to his nearest challenger.
The silver lining for DeSantis—and, for that matter, the several other Republicans who are doing considerably worse than him in the presidential primary polls—is that most Republicans don’t think Donald Trump committed serious crimes: Only 13 percent of GOP voters believed that he had, per the same Times/Siena poll. This is as clear and depressing an illustration of just how coddled Trump has been, both by conservative media and his fellow Republicans.
Even if you were to limit yourself just to the last two and a half years, there have been a plethora of examples of both Trump’s seemingly unquenchable criminality and his “proven loser” status. Here is someone who got indicted for hoarding—and brazenly sharing—military secrets; whose handpicked 2022 midterm candidates got walloped at the polls. Despite all of this, Republicans have treated him with kid gloves, if not gone to the mattresses for the man who is simultaneously their party’s most incandescent celebrity and its greatest liability. The third and latest indictment against him, however, is the best chance for the former president’s rivals to finally shift their approach and try to knock Trump from his pedestal. It may also be their last opportunity. They almost certainly won’t take it.
In fairness to this disconsolate lot, there are some signs that some of Trump’s competitors understand what’s been gift-wrapped and laid at their feet. Foremost among them is Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence—a man who also seems to have served a “Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas”–like role in Trump’s most recent indictment, handing over reams of contemporaneous notes to the prosecution. “Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” he wrote in a statement that also emphasized that his former boss was entitled to the presumption of innocence—a fair-minded move, sure, but also a somewhat strange one from someone who is basically a witness to his own attempted execution.
Still, most of Trump’s rivals for the nomination have largely ignored the indictment. What little has been said about the news that’s dominated headlines this week suggests they’re still running scared rather than poised to take advantage. Look no further than DeSantis.
This is the type of mealy-mouthed garbage that has defined most of DeSantis’s public statements. It’s far too convoluted an idea to put before voters. It may define some contrast between DeSantis and Trump, but it’s a confusing and goofy one. He’s essentially saying that the indictment is proof that Trump failed to drain the swamp, that the Deep State goons who derailed his presidency are still there, and that all of this is a sign that it’s time for new blood who will be better at clearing out the corruption, albeit in unspecified ways. But what’s most notable about the spin that DeSantis has put on this statement is the way it kowtows to Trump’s exact argument: The system is rigged against him and needs to be destroyed.
This is, to put it bluntly, a stupid way to run against a candidate who is battering you in the polls by more than 30 points. In the presidential election cycles of a bygone era, it would be hard to imagine a serious presidential candidate not making use of this kind of ammunition: damning evidence of Trump’s criminality and lingering scandal, handed over on a plate. But we’re in the Trump era now, and DeSantis can’t use it. The GOP is upside-down on its mortgage to Trumpism, and the risk of breaking with all of the sunk costs involved is just too great. Call Donald Trump a criminal, and you will face his wrath, as well as that of his supporters and his many still-formidable allies in right-wing media and Republican politics.
This is hardly a problem unique to DeSantis. Every candidate not named “Donald Trump” in the 2024 Republican presidential primary is caught in this particular trap. Trump has a huge, possibly insurmountable lead; the only way to win the nomination is to slash that lead. But attacking Trump directly—or even, as DeSantis has, simply emerging as a rival—invites a furious response from both the ex-president and his die-hards. This has been axiomatic ever since Trump’s 2016 rivals allowed him to break containment: Going after Trump more often leads to ritual humiliation, or worse, than any measurable success. Attacking Trump is and has always been a political suicide mission for Republicans. There is a good reason why few do it. It typically ends with exile.
There is, however, no evidence that not attacking Trump works any better. Republicans have been trying to either ignore him or draft off of him since his political emergence, and it never works. And yet every candidate still believes that some mystical outside force will emerge, plucking Trump from the political field and lifting him to the heavens like he was a character in 100 Years of Solitude. This simply is not going to happen. The only way to take Trump out is to do the dirty work.
There is no better time than now. There is a lot of evidence that Trump is a criminal, and the chance that he will be found guilty in at least two of the three cases he will likely face next year is not zero. These cases will almost certainly damage his electability outside of the dead-enders who’ve committed themselves to ride or die with the former president. They also may prove sufficient to keep those persuaded to flip to Biden last time out to stick with him in 2024. They also look bad from a Republican perspective. Setting aside the New York case, which is something of an outlier, the two federal cases Trump is facing are clearly damaging. The easiest for his rivals to exploit is the one relating to his willful retention of classified documents, many of which contained military secrets. The January 6 case is more complicated because so many Republicans believe that Trump was and is the one true president. Still, it too contains evidence of a number of flagrant constitutional violations.
There is a clear argument here, which is that Donald Trump is no longer suited to be president. His opponents could make it a tragic case: that the left has won its war against him and that he has too much baggage to run and win. They could also make the argument that he’s simply lost his touch—that he’s unfit to serve. It’s possible, of course, that this would fail to reverse the trend that’s keeping DeSantis down: that even if you convince more voters that Trump is a criminal, those voters would still prefer him to the rest of the Republican field.
What is notable is that no one of note on the Republican side is even trying to make this case. Trumpism has so saturated Republican politics that there are few contrasts remaining to be drawn between Donald Trump and his leading challengers. But there is one contrast that does stand out: Trump is a criminal, and they are not. This is a golden opportunity to do the standard shadow primary work of defining yourself and defining your opponent, creating some clear terms by which voters can easily assay the differences between your campaign and Trump’s. To do so would be a potentially fruitful maneuver, electorally speaking, probably the best and easiest option available. But no one dares try.