The overture is ending. It will be followed, like Wagner’s Lohengrin, by an epic struggle.
There is no libretto for the operatic struggle between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis that gets underway next week when the Florida governor formally joins the 2024 presidential race. Modern former presidents have not tried to reclaim the White House. Governors have not spurned their patrons, declared their contempt and mounted a challenge for a presidential nomination. This is something new under the sun.
The fight for the right to oppose Joe Biden next year will be no bel canto; these two pugilists are not capable of a lyrical performance of great mastery and pleasant harmony. Neither is an accomplished practitioner of the soft touch. Neither does nuance with any great skill. Neither is a master of restraint. Neither sees or seeks comfort in conventional political behaviour.
“We are entering a new phase of this campaign,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “Once DeSantis is in the race, people will begin to make decisions, the poll numbers will begin to change and then they will harden. The question now is who has the secret sauce that takes a vote away from Trump and gives it to someone else, DeSantis or another candidate.”
One other candidate could be off-stage but ready for his star turn in American politics: Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate, who is expected to join the race formally on Monday.
What looms in the months ahead – heck, the first elements will likely come moments after Mr. DeSantis declares his candidacy, with the inevitable Trump knock-down post on his Truth Social platform – is a psychodrama unlike any in modern American history. The closest analogue may be the 1980 challenge that Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts mounted against President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter, accustomed to the whispery wisdom of the church pulpit, nonetheless proclaimed, “I’ll whip his ass!” Then he did precisely that.
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Mr. Trump will say much the same thing, perhaps even more colourfully. Whether he prevails the way Mr. Carter did is the great unknown.
This titanic confrontation gives new meaning to the term “grudge match” and is far more consequential than the confrontation between Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in the 2013 film comedy of that name. In the unfolding version a decade later, Mr. Trump is portraying himself as the dishonoured mentor, with Mr. DeSantis struggling to create his own identity, separate from his onetime patron.
How this plays out is almost precisely preordained. Mr. Trump will remind the country that Mr. DeSantis once begged for his support in a tough Florida gubernatorial primary. Mr. DeSantis will then think something along the lines of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 definition of a patron (“a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid in flattery”) and will call Mr. Trump a wretch without repaying him with flattery.
The two already have sparred over abortion. In this part of the Republican horse race, Mr. DeSantis took the post position when he signed legislation banning abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy. Mr. Trump responded at the clubhouse turn by asserting, “Many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh.”
There are some hints about the future trajectory of the race in how the two men have spent the last few weeks.
Mr. Trump was indicted by a New York City grand jury and then was found liable in a sexual-assault case. He denied guilt in both instances, soared in the polls while Mr. DeSantis sank, and concentrated on setting out a fusillade of endorsements, many of them from Florida political figures, a clear effort to mortify his rival.
Mr. DeSantis rolled out endorsements of his own, many of them from prominent political figures in Iowa, the site of the first caucuses of the political season, and he signed a passel of conservative legislative measures ranging from bans on making pupils feel guilty about their race and on gender-transition medical intervention for young people to defunding diversity-and-equity programs in public educational institutions and prohibiting children from attending drag shows.
One of the fulcrums of the fight is over which of the two is best positioned to prevail against Mr. Biden.
Mr. Trump argues, against all evidence and despite rulings in more than five dozen court cases, that he already has beaten Mr. Biden and remains the most formidable opponent against him. Mr. DeSantis has spoken widely of the GOP’s “culture of losing,” a riposte with real power following the party’s disappointing performances in the 2018 and 2022 midterm congressional elections and Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020. But when state Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who had the endorsement of the former president, prevailed in a gubernatorial primary in Kentucky Tuesday against a DeSantis-endorsed rival, he said that “the Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky!”
The word “loser” is anathema to the 45th president. Mr. DeSantis knows that, and all but applies the word to his rival, needling him while pressing for advantage. “The time for excuses is over,” he said in Iowa last week, “We’ve got to demonstrate the courage to lead and the strength to win.”
Beginning this month, Mr. DeSantis’s challenge is proving to Republicans that he has both that courage and that strength.