Neither Trump Nor DeSantis?

An unconvincing column from an old pro.

WaPo columnist George Will assures us that, contrary to widespread assumption, “Neither Trump nor DeSantis will get the GOP nomination.” That’s comforting news, indeed!

What, you may ask, is the basis for this contrarian prediction?

Inevitably, there comes a rebellion against inevitability. Voters have been told that Donald Trump is the all-but-inevitable Republican nominee and that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, operating atop a mountain of cash, will inevitably be Trump’s only significant challenger.

Voters, however, become contrary when told that the game’s outcome is known in the top of the first inning. Hence what G.K. Chesterton called the game of “Cheat the Prophet”: People listen politely to explanations of what is inevitable, then make something else happen.


The 2024 Republican nomination question was supposed to be: Could anyone harpoon the Great Orange Whale? Who knew that he would harpoon himself, repeatedly? Or that DeSantis, playing Captain Ahab, would pay Trump the sincerest form of flattery by imitating his persona as an unhappy warrior? The nation is dispirited by the prospect of an all-too-familiar binary choice (between Joe Biden and Trump). Republicans might soon recoil from another: between Trump and DeSantis. Both candidacies are brittle.

Mmm hmm.

So, here’s the thing. From the perspective of erstwhile Republicans who disdained Trump from the moment he descended the escalator to announce his 2016 run, like Will and myself, it seems obvious that Trump is committing one own goal after another. But those people have mostly left the party. and, like it or not, Trump continues to lead the rest of the field by a country mile. He’s at 50% in the polls, DeSantis is at 21%, and no one else cracks double digits.

Trump, as stale as a month-old crust of sourdough, is running to win the 2020 election. His crybaby crusade might cause even his star-spangled supporters to wonder how to square their proclaimed love of the nation with their hero’s insistence that it is so saturated with corruption that his landslide win could be erased without a peep from courts. Including some with his — how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless judge — appointees.

Again, this attributes rationality to an electorate that has demonstrated none. That Trump cares only about himself is hardly new news.

And this nod to history doesn’t help make the case, either:

Trump’s self-harpooning includes expressing contempt for Iowa’s popular governor, Kim Reynolds, because she refuses to endorse him, even though he alone, he says, is responsible for her election. And he is too grand to appear with rival candidates at events, perhaps even the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee.

In the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan, who was not considered the inevitable GOP nominee, made only eight Iowa campaign appearances, spending a total of 49 hours in the state (according to Steven F. Hayward’s “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980”). And Reagan skipped the Des Moines Register’s Jan. 5 debate, which 58 percent of Iowa voters watched. Voters do not dislike inevitabilities more than they dislike politicians who seem to feel entitled to special dispensations. Reagan’s post-debate support plummeted from 50 percent in November to 26 percent a week before the caucuses, which he lost to George H.W. Bush.

Yes, Trump is about to repeat the pattern of Ronald Reagan who . . . [checks notes] . . . went on to win the 1980 Republican nomination and then the presidency in a landslide?

For those readers for whom a 43-year-old election is too recent, Will trots out this one:

DeSantis, after nearly two months of intensified exposure to non-Floridians, resembles a political Edsel. That was the new car model that debuted to much fanfare in 1957, backed by Ford’s marketing might. It expired in 1959, becoming a byword for disastrously misreading consumers. DeSantis is running hard to be president of Iowa, or of that minority of Iowans who will vote in the January caucuses and think Trump is ideologically squishy (e.g., regarding wokeness) and insufficiently abrasive (e.g., regarding gay rights).

While I was yet to be born (my parents were only 14) in 1957, I’ve heard tell of the Edsel. And the analogy with DeSantis—whose campaign thus far resembles a lead balloon (maybe we can work in a Hindenburg reference?) has some merit.

And, clearly, the key is to be neither too focused on Iowa nor unfocused. Perhaps there’s a Goldilocks candidate out there?

The Republican nomination contest is accelerating, as is Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the latter underscoring the stakes of the former.

Whoa! I did not see a reference straight out of today’s newspapers coming!

During Spain’s civil war, a rebel general boasted that he had four columns marching on Madrid and “a fifth column” in Madrid, meaning supporters of the army’s insurgency.

Ah, we’re back to the 1930s. That’s more like it!

Vladimir Putin’s fifth column is not in Kyiv but in the Trump-DeSantis faction of the Republican Party.

Putin has two hopes for a less than completely mortifying rescue from his Ukraine blunder. One is the election of Trump, whose frivolousness about national security complements his weakling’s admiration for a bully. Putin’s other hope is the election of DeSantis, who says (or said, before retreating when criticized) Russia’s attempt to erase a European nation is a “territorial dispute.” And whose pandering to Trumpkins prevents him from denouncing House Republicans who are as eager to abandon Ukraine as they would have been to abandon Czechoslovakia in 1938.

I must admit I’ve lost the bead of this interlocking series of analogies. But we actually abandoned Czechoslovakia in 1938, no? I seem to recall reading somewhere that we didn’t join the war effort until the Japanese (or was it the Germans?) bombed Pearl Harbor at the tail end of 1941.

A New Hampshire student, referring to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot that followed Trump’s incendiary harangue and disrupted the certifying of electoral votes, asked DeSantis last month whether Trump “violated the peaceful transfer of power.” DeSantis’s less-than-courageous answer: “I wasn’t anywhere near Washington that day. I have nothing to do with what happened that day.” Good grief. He wasn’t anywhere near Gettysburg in July 1863 and had nothing to do with the moon landing in July 1969, but that does not preclude him from having thoughts about these events.

Good point! We should have a quiz-off or something. Maybe we could ask him about abandoning Czechoslovakia.

Would I like a Republican nominee who forthrightly admitted that Trump lost the 2020 election fair and square and then fomented an insurrection to steal it? Yes, please. But I don’t see one of those out there. (In a post-column disclosure, Will confesses that his wife is working in some capacity for Tim Scott’s campaign. He has not exactly been a beacon of courage on this front.)

Will closes:

Political prophesy is optional folly, but: There are not enough Republicans, in Iowa or the nation, enamored of the snarling contest between Trump and DeSantis — their competition to see who can despise the most American defects — to nominate either of them. Which is grim news for President Biden.

I would very much like to see Will proven right here. The Iowa Republican Caucus is on January 15, exactly six months from today. Thus far, I haven’t seen a candidate who can plausibly beat Trump with Republican primary voters.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Barry says:

    In the end this is yet another journalist trying to gin up The Horserace.

    I will give him one point for openly stating that Putin’s best hope in Ukraine is the GOP. That point and ten others are removed for the idea that this would hurt either Trump or DeSantis with the GOP base.

  2. Chris says:

    The GOP hasn’t listened to Will for quite sometime. The best we can hope for is DeSantis challenging Trump to a winner take all golf match… the ratings would be huge! And, sadly, that about sums it up.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    I struggle to see TFG not winning the nomination, but if somehow that happened, I can see the beneficiary being someone other than DeSantis, who turns voters off where ever he goes.

    Now who may that mystery nominee be…¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  4. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    I have read that a noticeable number of people are looking at Tim Scott with interest.

  5. Moosebreath says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    “I struggle to see TFG not winning the nomination, but if somehow that happened, I can see the beneficiary being someone other than DeSantis, who turns voters off where ever he goes.”

    That’s where I am, as well. If Trump is alive, and not in jail this time next year (and maybe even if he is in jail), he will be the nominee. If not, I have trouble seeing DeSantis as the nominee, as he has negative charisma. I don’t know who would be the nominee then, but I think it is likely someone not currently running but who can get the enthusiastic support of the MAGAt’s.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @Moosebreath: If Trump doesn’t run, the race will be wide open, as I suspect a very significant number of his supporters wouldn’t participate in the primaries or general. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 20% drop. That might improve Desantis’ chances. And as awkward and malignant as he appears to me, the guy did win the governorship of a large and diverse state.

  7. Jen says:

    LOL. George Will is projecting…that he, and other old-timey Republicans who still harbor the delusion that the party they once knew is hidden in there somewhere…think that some knight on a white horse is going to ride in and save them from Trump, is somewhat fanciful.

    He’s correct that we don’t really know who the nominee will be. Heck, all sorts of things could happen. Trump could trip and knock his noggin and upend everything.

    DeSantis really should be paying attention to Florida, which seems to be in a slow-motion collapse right now. Two more large insurers have notified the state that they are exiting the market, and the state has the highest inflation rate right now, FAR higher than the nation. If they get hit by so much as one named hurricane this year, things are not going to be pretty.

  8. Kathy says:

    IMO, Will is running a variation of the Pauline Kael Misquote. Namely, “There’s no way in Hell I’d ever vote for either of these guys, therefore neither can win the nomination, much less the general election.”

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    Tim Scott exists solely as a prop for Republicans who want to be able to say, ‘See, I’m not a racist.”

    But they are racists. Poll a hundred MAGAts and ask them to name single distinguishing policy, or character trait that defines Tim Scott. Pause to listen to the sound of crickets.

  10. @James: You beat me to writing about this, which I read last night and even started a post.

    The bottom line is that he makes no actual argument for his position.

    The most significant line in the column may well be “Disclosure: The columnist’s wife, Mari Will, is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.).” And not because I think he is carrying water for Scott as much as a home environment in which his wife is working for another candidate almost certainly comes with some collateral irrational exuberance.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    No one writes bullshit more mellifluously than Will. Style, but over the years, less and less substance. And you are correct: if there was a supporting argument for his thesis, I missed it.

  12. charontwo says:

    Polling says roughly 50% of Americans believe the 2020 election was stolen. Also, roughly 50% believe Trump innocent of the crimes he is indicted for.

    People really don’t pay attention to politics, and they hear a lot of disinformation.

    My speculation is once the trials get going Trump support will get seriously dinged, enough to make him look like a sure loser. How does the RNC react to what looks like a sure loss?

  13. steve says:

    I wonder if he cant just admit what his party has become. He is concentrating on Trump and Desantis a bit, but the issue is his party. He is correct that for people not absorbed into a personality cult the stuff Trump has done would be harmful. Instead it just makes them more inclined to vote for him. He has played a role in creating that party so it makes it hard for him to accept.


  14. MarkedMan says:

    @charontwo: Agree with your general thrust but am not sure where you got the 50% number. A recent poll had it a 30%.

  15. gVOR10 says:

    James, sometimes, first thing in the morning, you write a post in response to some meaningless piece of twaddle. Maybe it’s a healthy release. Will isn’t worth the effort. The typical comment at WAPO was to the effect that the only thing anyone actually learned from this Will piece is that his wife works for Scott.

    Will is a hugely successful columnist. The way to succeed as a columnist is not to be deeply insightful and make accurate predictions. The way to succeed is to find an audience and tell them what they want to hear. George Will has made a lot of money as a columnist. Back in 2015 0r 16 Will made a marketing decision that his audience wanted anti-Trump, so he’s anti-Trump. In this column he’s made a verifiable prediction, generally not a good move for a columnist. But he’s certainly telling his audience what they want to hear. To go a little deeper, two audiences, his “establishment” or whatever you want to call them Republican core audience and the bulk of WAPO readers who hate read him. Both generate clicks for WAPO.

  16. gVOR10 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    No one writes bullshit more mellifluously than Will. Style, but over the years, less and less substance.

    Nah. I’ve read Will on and off since he and I were both young. He’s never had any substance.

  17. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    There’s this:

    Not that I think Scott has a chance. But he may appear more palatable than Trump or DeSantis.

  18. steve says:

    CSK- I think conservative like having that special black friend that proves they are not racist but Trump owns the libs. Much more important.


  19. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think he’s increasingly just phoning it in.

    @gVOR10: I mean, he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in his early days and has his PhD in political philosophy from Princeton. Surely, he wrote something substantive somewhere along the way.

    @steve: He ostensibly left the GOP in June 2016.

    @gVOR10: Sometimes, I just find these pieces too annoying to ignore. Will is 82 and past his prime but still a huge name in the field with a huge platform.

  20. dazedandconfused says:

    Somebody has to say something nice about Will because….well, I don’t know, just because.

    “Crybaby crusade”. I like it.

  21. @Michael Reynolds:

    No one writes bullshit more mellifluously than Will. Style, but over the years, less and less substance.

    This is my exact take and what I started to write about last night. His style is Sound Smart, Stuffy, and EducatedTM without actually saying much of anything. And it has gotten worse over time.

  22. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Steven L. Taylor:

    I think that’s wby I’ve never been able to read him.

  23. Scott says:

    Garry Trudeau used to mock Will a lot in Doonesbury with his “Quote Boy” schtick.


  24. Sleeping Dog says:


    I keep hearing Scott’s name, but mostly from Dem adjacent pundits that are scared sh!tless about the idea of Scott being the R nominee. I simply find it hard to believe that the R primary voters will pull the lever for a black man. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    Dems should be scared of a Scott nomination as he would take a significant chunk of the black vote with him. Those maybe the most conservative black voters, but still, and there would be a real risk that they stayed voting for some R’s.

  25. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Scott’s been attracting some very big donors. As for R primary voters–I think they would go for him, if it weren’t for Trump’s malignant presence.

  26. al Ameda says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    No one writes bullshit more mellifluously than Will. Style, but over the years, less and less substance. And you are correct: if there was a supporting argument for his thesis, I missed it.</blockquote>
    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This is my exact take and what I started to write about last night. His style is Sound Smart, Stuffy, and EducatedTM without actually saying much of anything. And it has gotten worse over time.

    George Will used to be a regular guest on many talky roundtable shows. I’ve always thought he got lot of mileage and ‘cred’ out of wearing a bowtie and being a baseball fan.

  27. Jax says:

    @One American: Cough cough….there are several different articles here, and elsewhere, discussing how much better the economy is faring, the low unemployment rate, inflation is falling, even illegal border apprehensions are falling.

    It’s not our fault you live to consume only the crap that’s supposedly on Hunter Biden’s laptop, and what Gateway Pundit chooses to spoonfeed you to keep you angry.