From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column by Jack Shafer headlined “Stormy Daniels and Karl Rove Know How to Beat Trump”:
With the joyless low debauchery of a presidential campaign now descending on us, the coming duel of Ron DeSantis (unannounced, as yet) against Donald Trump (announced) has already prompted assignment editors to bum-rush their writers with a new demand: Devise a strategy that will allow the leading student of Trumpism to defeat the originator in a rhetorical rumble.
That’s particularly true as the conventional wisdom in Washington congeals around the notion — at least temporarily! — that DeSantis is fumbling amid Trump’s ceaseless blows.
Should DeSantis stage preemptive strikes? Play rope-a-dope? Keep above the fray? Fight him, punch for punch. Shower his one-time political mentor with the cascades of lies, interruptions, exaggerations and insults that have become Trump’s signature moves? Or is there a smarter, untried way to best Trump without being pummeled into oblivion? The answers lie in Trump’s history as a debater and in DeSantis’ ability to plan ahead for the Trump onslaught.
When playing offense, the first thing DeSantis must understand is that you cannot beat Trump by going after his many negatives, a rule the Florida governor has yet to grasp. Last week, when discussing the expected hush-money prosecution of Trump by the Manhattan district attorney, DeSantis tippled a little shade on Trump by saying, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some kind of alleged affair.” The remark gathered ooohs and ahhhs from pressies, but did it move the conversation? Nearly everybody, including Trump supporters, believes he had a fling with Stormy Daniels and paid her to shut up about it. And that realization is already baked into Trump’s political value. The same goes for Trump’s purloining of classified documents or his jigging with the Georgia election count. Taunting Trump with his bad behavior never seems to do him any harm.
The same goes for attacks on Trump’s vulgarity. His cruelty. His penchant for interruption (Slate’s Jeremy Stahl counted 128 interruptions of Joe Biden or moderator Chris Wallace at one of the 2020 presidential debates.) Or his vile treatment of the truth. Remember during a 2020 campaign rally when he baselessly alleged that Biden was on drugs: “Look, he’s been doing this for 47 years, and I got a debate coming up with this guy,” Trump said. “They gave him a big fat shot in the ass, and he comes out and for two hours he’s better than ever before.” It makes sense to fact-check a guy like this for the historical record, but not for political purposes. Challenging his lies won’t slow his advances because he’s got a bottomless supply of lies he can spend down.
Even the rumored indictments and prosecutions of Trump won’t give DeSantis much in the way of ammunition. Again, these allegations are already discounted in the Trump price. Trump in prison orange wouldn’t be much of an aid, either.
If you don’t agree that accentuating Trump’s negatives will cut him down to size, just look at the body count of Republican presidential candidates from 2016 who incorrectly thought they could beat Trump by calling out his racism, misogyny, sociopathy or ideological heterodoxy. Not even opponent Ted Cruz, a college debate champion and graduate of Harvard Law School, could land a punch on him in 2016. Should DeSantis take this well-trod route, he’d end up sputtering and defeated, just like all of his Republican countrymen who have gone before him. “You’re not going to win in an insult slugfest with Donald Trump,” an advisor to Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign told POLITICO’s Sally Goldenberg recently. “That’s his strength.”
Trump’s vulnerabilities reside in his positives, and that’s where DeSantis should probe for cracks and fissures. This is no independent discovery. GOP campaign strategist Karl Rove was famous for eroding an opponent’s strengths. For example, under the Rove lens during the 2004 presidential campaign, patriotic war veteran Sen. John Kerry was portrayed as something of a weakling as he challenged President George W. Bush (who, unlike Kerry, spent the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard). “Sometimes people’s strengths turn out to be really big weaknesses,” Rove told Fox News in 2007. “We tend to — you know, people tend to sometimes in campaigns accentuate things that they think are big and important, and they exaggerate them.”
What are Trump’s positives? In his campaign 2016 kickoff, he promised, “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall,” and continued to praise his wall throughout the 2020 campaign. The wall turned out to be a Potemkin affair, with PolitiFact finding in 2020, “What the administration has mostly done is replace old and outdated designs with newer and improved barriers.” DeSantis could easily out-wing and out-demagogue Trump on the border (remember his airlift of asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard?) by savaging Trump’s wall as an illusion.
DeSantis could squeeze Trump on his Covid response, and already has, moving to the right of the former president with vaccine skepticism. When Trump fired back, DeSantis taunted him by saying that voters approved of his policies and rejected Trump’s because he won reelection and Trump lost.
Trump’s North Korea policy, one of the biggest slices of cake on the Trump vanity menu, would also be a ripe target for DeSantis. He could ridicule Trump for having achieved nothing more in his romance with Kim Jong-un than the exchange of perfumed love letters. Trump has long claimed to represent working- and middle-class voters who have been discarded by political elites; DeSantis could puncture his populist appeal by depicting that crusade as a sham of hot air. He could compile a greatest hits compilation of the goofiest White House moments from the tell-alls and investigative books about the Trump administration to tarnish Trump’s alleged leadership skills. He could accuse Trump of going soft on Biden because in one recent week, Trump attacked Biden on Truth Social once for every time he attacked DeSantis.
To defeat Trump, DeSantis must play offense, and the best example of how to play offense against Trump can be found in a recent piece by scholar Jennifer Mercieca, whose 2020 book, Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, throws bright light on his dark rhetorical skills.
Mercieca judges that porn star Stormy Daniels has bested Trump over the course of her five-year public battle with him. Daniels refused to be intimidated by Trump’s threats (ad baculum) and shrugged off his lawyer’s attempts at coercion. She didn’t let Trump reduce her to an object (reification) of scorn or hatred. And when she retaliated against him, it was with the artillery of humor, insulting his manhood. “In addition to his…umm…shortcomings, he has demonstrated his incompetence, hatred of women, and lack of self-control on Twitter AGAIN! And perhaps a penchant for bestiality. Game on, Tiny,” Daniels tweeted.
Maybe Daniels should be running against Trump instead of DeSantis.
DeSantis should enter the contest with real optimism because, as 2020 showed, Trump can be beaten. Not only can he be beaten, but beaten by a wide margin by a wobbling Democrat who is barnacled to a half-century of liberal Democratic policies and is nobody’s idea of a demagogue-tamer. Trump threw everything he had at Joe and still came up a loser. Never mind the early national polls, which show Trump whipping DeSantis. The primaries are a long way away, Gov. DeSantis! It’s not too late for you to go into training with Stormy Daniels for your big bout!
Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.