These “war games” have an evolving high-stakes dramatic plot with larger-than-life characters that could have sprung from the minds of Hollywood scriptwriters. We kick off “season one” with the protagonist’s backstory.
Donald J. Trump is a 75-year-old one-term, twice-impeached former U.S. president who lost the popular vote in 2016 and 2020. But his fragile (some say narcissistic) psyche prevents him from admitting his reelection loss to President Biden, whom Trump considers weak, inferior and mentally challenged.
“Loss” is a trigger word since losing is a nonexistent concept in the mindset of the former president. Thus, to compensate and rationalize Trump’s official reelection loss, he and his most loyal supporters repeatedly say the election was stolen, which became known as the “Big Lie.”
Then, on Jan. 6, 2021, the Big Lie came to life when Trump inspired a group of his followers to “stop the steal.” Currently, congressional leaders are trying to determine the exact role Trump played when some of his followers attacked the U.S. Capitol. As a result, Trump was quickly impeached for a second time by the House of Representatives on Jan. 13. But the Senate acquitted him on Feb. 13, and Trump was not barred from holding public office.
Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, Trump started flirting with avenging his stolen “victory” — continuing to raise mega-millions from GOP voters while maintaining his status as the unofficial leader of the Republican Party. Last month a Quinnipiac University survey found that 78 percent of Republicans polled thought Trump should run again, but 94 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents disagreed.
Trump also faces a myriad of legal challenges stemming from charges against his business empire, his conduct after the 2020 election and executive privilege fights with Congress regarding the events of Jan. 6.
“Season one” concludes with Trump’s recent interview on Fox News in which he said he’d made his decision about running again and, “I think a lot of people will be very happy … probably will announce that after the midterms.”
“Season two” picks up with Trump’s antagonist — Florida’s popular Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — who channels Trump’s “win at all costs” fighting spirit. He is an ambitious 43-year-old, Yale- and Harvard-educated, Bronze Star-awarded Naval Reserve officer who hears echoes of “Hail to the Chief.”
Although the governor is running for what could be a hard-fought 2022 reelection, DeSantis travels the nation raising millions of dollars, confirming his status as the rising GOP star most likely to end all the Trump-era drama.
But DeSantis owes his title to Trump. When initially gearing up for the August 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary, DeSantis was an unknown northeast Florida congressman. That changed after he caught Trump’s eye on Fox News and received his early surprise endorsement on Dec. 22, 2017. Reciprocating the Trump love, DeSantis and his family starred in a cringe-worthy TV spot.
Three years later, the commercial reflects what Trump said in June on Fox Business, “I was at the beginning of Ron. I was the first one to endorse him when he came out as a congressman that a lot of people didn’t know. My endorsement helped him tremendously.”
In the 2018 election, DeSantis squeaked out a 0.4 percent margin of victory but now basks in the national spotlight — a potential threat to Trump’s all-consuming desire to avenge his 2020 loss with a 2024 win. Of course, Trump-world is ready to pounce: “Given that Ron DeSantis owes both his nomination and election as governor to Donald Trump, I don’t think he should now use Florida as a steppingstone to a 2024 challenge to the former president,” warned Roger Stone in an email responding to my question about the DeSantis-Trump conflict.
Then on Nov. 12, Politico reported that Trump is “souring on DeSantis” because the governor “still hasn’t joined the other 2024 hopefuls in pronouncing that he won’t run for president if Trump runs.”
Surely DeSantis wants to avoid a higher ranking on Trump’s enemies list, but it’s doubtful that the governor will acquiesce. Yet, one assumes the governor will want to campaign with the former president in his adopted home state.
Conversely, Trump risks helping DeSantis win reelection by a wide margin, which would propel the governor into a primary fight for the 2024 GOP nomination that Trump wants handed to him.
So expect early battlelines to form between the GOP’s past and future in late February at CPAC in Orlando, Fla. For example, will CPAC event Chairman Matt Schlapp choose Trump or DeSantis as the keynote speaker? After all, DeSantis is the host state governor on the 2022 ballot.
I posed that question to Schlapp, who emailed, “Stay tuned on speaker announcements for CPAC in Florida. All the top speakers will be there.” Yes, but in what pecking order? (Schlapp wisely avoided answering.) But he added, “Gov DeSantis should stay focused on Florida, where he is showing America what a smart, respectful governor can do to combat socialism from Washington. Everyone should focus on 2022.”
But the media will focus on who wins the 2024 GOP presidential nomination straw poll. “Season three” of the Trump vs. DeSantis war games begins at CPAC 2022.