Politics Is Lowbrow
Ron DeSantis flamed out for the dumbest possible reasons and it underscores something uncomfortable
Charitably, we could say Ron DeSantis’s primary campaign flopped because he and other Republicans chose not to write Donald Trump out of the party after January 6, 2021, and so there was no niche for him to fill. If Trump’s response to losing the 2020 election isn’t disqualifying, maybe it means he was right to be mad; maybe it means he didn’t really lose. If that’s the case, then he’s a strong option for 2024, and there’s no need for a pretender. With Trump out of the way, the primary would’ve been a real dogfight between many more candidates; with him in the picture, nobody cut from the same cloth stood a chance.
More accurately, DeSantis lost because he has no charisma, and lacked the courage and integrity to level with ride-or-die Trumpers that Trump actually lost the 2020 election. He also has an annoying voice, and is short. His height is actually pretty average, but he’s shorter than most successful male politicians in the U.S., and (most importantly) he’s highly self-conscious about it. He carries himself in a way that makes people view him as short, more than he actually has difficulty reaching things on high shelves.
And so Trump and his supporters exploited it. They mocked him over these superficial weaknesses knowing that his character weakness (his lack of dignity and integrity) would inhibit him from responding in kind. You might say the meatball was in his court and he curled into the fetal position.
This is all quite stupid; it’s actually pretty demoralizing for people who got into politics for high-minded reasons. But it’s an irreducible fact about any calling that rewards popularity. And so people who take the elevated aspects of politics seriously, who want to protect their accomplishments and make progress on others—they have to make some degree of peace with the fact that low-brow means can advance high-brow ends. And if the high-road leads to hell, they shouldn’t take it.
A HALE MARY PLAY
Nikki Haley has a bunch of her own problems as a Republican candidate, many of which overlap with DeSantis’s. Perhaps they would’ve doomed her even if the GOP—including the South Carolina congressional delegation—hadn’t decided to close ranks around Trump and edge her out.
But in the run up to tonight’s primary in New Hampshire, she’s done something we’ve come to assume Republicans in good standing can’t do. At an event in Concord, NH, on Friday, Donald Trump started attacking Haley but became confused and transposed her in his mind with Nancy Pelosi. Politics nerds like me noticed right away; the Biden campaign’s rapid-response arm also noticed. I wrongly assumed Haley would pretend it hadn’t happened, because most Republicans are too scared to attack Trump in any way.
But she didn’t. She twisted the knife. Yes, she did it in a smarmy way, drawing a false parallel between Trump and Biden. And when Trump wins I imagine she will endorse him as the “less demented of two evils” candidate. But she did it. And because Biden made an issue of it, too, it’s something media figures have been more prone to cover than Trump’s typical derangement. There’s bipartisan recognition that Trump is becoming troublingly confused in public.
In theory, it’s the kind of narrative-shifting development that could dog Trump for the rest of his candidacy. That is, if Democrats are willing to go a little bit low and stay there.
TAKE THE LOWBROW ROAD
Politics was lowbrow before Trump, even if he’s pathologized it.
For a long time now, this unbecoming fact about politics has benefited Republicans. By their composition, they have a structural advantage in the realm of schoolyard taunts, shit talking, and setting people against each other. I noted earlier that wonks and idealists have a hard time with the lowbrow nature of politics, and you occasionally see that in the grimaces and facepalms of ideological conservatives like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But “earnest, high-minded political operative” is a calling that selects for tolerant, educated, empaths—or, to put it another way, Democrats.
Moreover, I think Trump has polarized Democrats toward greater disdain for the scuzzier side of politics. Because Trump’s vileness is his greatest liability, many Democrats have mind-tricked themselves into believing they can coast on comporting themselves with decency and rectitude. “When they go low, we go high,” etc. etc.
But up to a point at least I think this is wrong.