By George Martin Fell Brown, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the United States)
So far, working people have zero good options in the upcoming 2024 presidential election. Biden’s pathetic whimper of a re-election announcement is completely unsurprising considering his approach to the last four years. The Democrats don’t even plan to host primary debates, demonstrating how little they care about providing working people with a serious option.
On the Republican side, in the wake of Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election and the chaos surrounding the January 6 insurrection, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis began positioning himself as a successor to Trump going into the 2024 race. DeSantis presented himself as a less buffoonish politician who could regain the trust of the Republican Party establishment while simultaneously being the most zealous implementer of Trump’s reactionary agenda. But, going into 2024, DeSantis is facing another contender for the title of Donald Trump’s successor: Donald Trump.
So far, Trump and DeSantis are the two clear leads in the Republican Primary, with all other candidates polling in the single digits. Between Trump and DeSantis, Trump is ahead by a big margin. A whole swath of Florida Republicans close to DeSantis: including representatives Greg Steube, Anna Paulina Luna, Matt Gaetz, Cory Mills, and Byron Donalds, have come out in support of Trump.
Trump’s lead has been widening in recent weeks, with post-indictment polls showing Trump leading 57% to 31%. Trump’s resurgence has been boosted by the indictment against him, as well as his offensive against DeSantis. But this dynamic reflects deeper underlying issues in the DeSantis campaign and the Republican party.
For working people, the contest between Trump and DeSantis has no winners. Both of them have marked their political careers by consistently putting the interests of big corporations above the needs of working-class people. From Trump’s major tax cuts for the rich to DeSantis’ multi-million dollar tax refunds to big corporations. Understanding the dynamics in the Republican Party is important to challenge the rotten agenda common to both candidates.
While Ron DeSantis hasn’t yet declared his candidacy at the time of writing, he’s been in campaign mode since Trump’s loss in the last election. He built his governorship as an aggressive, no-nonsense authoritarian who could ram through the agenda that Trump failed to achieve in 2020.
He became known for a series of confrontational measures on various right-wing talking points. He signed an executive order banning mask mandates. He responded to the George Floyd uprising with an “anti-riot” law that viciously cracked down on the right to protest while allowing people to run over protesters with their cars. He put forward the “Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act” which would allow parents to sue schools for teaching critical race theory. This attack included a prominent purge of math textbooks. His “Don’t Say Gay” bill has served as a template for the right-wing assault on LGBTQ rights nationally.
High-profile publicity stunts like chartering planes to dump asylum seekers in Martha’s Vineyard, his takeover of the New College and his attempted takeover of Disney have kept him in the limelight as an anti-”woke” culture warrior.
Despite this, DeSantis has appealed to the Republican establishment by distancing himself from Trump’s more embarrassing moments. He condemned the January 6 insurrection while also criticizing the “D.C.-New York media” for “milk[ing] this for anything they could to try to be able to smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump.”
DeSantis has been playing a balancing act, trying to unite Trump’s base and the Republican establishment. When DeSantis won his 2022 re-election in a landslide while a number of Trump-aligned candidates lost their midterm battles, DeSantis seemed like the new face of the party. But Trump hasn’t gone away.
Trump Returns, DeSantis Falters
When it comes to explaining DeSantis faltering in the polls, corporate media puts emphasis on mistakes by DeSantis. New Republic staff writer Alex Shepard, argued that DeSantis “is making the same mistakes that doomed Trump’s rivals in the 2016 primary.” He specifically cites Trump’s attacks on DeSantis: which have run from tame nicknames like “Ron DeSanctimonious,” to accusations that DeSantis is a pedophile and a groomer, and complains that DeSantis “tried to take the high road.”
Others point to mistakes by the Democrats, specifically around the indictment of Trump for the Stormy Daniels scandal. The Economist argued that with the indictment, district attorney Alvin Bragg “has smoothed Mr. Trump’s path back to the Republican nomination and thus to the White House.”
It’s certainly true that DeSantis has made a number of errors. He’s untested as a national candidate. He hasn’t faced a real fight in a campaign previously, much less someone like Trump. But, just as the crisis of the Trump administration couldn’t be blamed entirely on Trump’s individual foibles, DeSantis stumbling isn’t simply a matter of personal mistakes.
Desantis’ main problem is the fundamental contradiction in his campaign. He’s simultaneously trying to appeal to Trump’s MAGA base — many of whom are drawn to Trump because he claims to stand with working people against big corporations — but also convince big donors and Republican leaders that he will be a reliable, safe option for the ruling class. DeSantis’ failures reflect a deeper crisis of capitalism, which has seen the ruling class losing control of its monsters.
For Trump’s MAGA base, DeSantis is increasingly seen as “controlled opposition.” Attempts to appeal to that base could have succeeded when Trump was reeling from the 2020 defeat, but are increasingly falling flat. Meanwhile, the big Republican donors are concerned about DeSantis being drawn into Trump’s more unreliable stuff. This is most stark in DeSantis’ flip-flopping on Ukraine: first calling the war a “territorial dispute” and then walking back his comments.
It’s still very early in the primary while DeSantis will undoubtedly make adjustments. However, this fundamental contradiction will be hard for him to overcome.
Trump’s Outsider Image
Unlike most Republican leaders, Trump attempts to pose as a defender of workers, including publicly rejecting cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This is a cynical ploy on Trump’s part, but it gives him an advantage when someone like DeSantis flip-flops on the issue.
Trump and DeSantis both pose a serious danger to working people. However, Trump’s right populism has given him a wider appeal to working-class Republicans looking for someone to stand up to the establishment. The business establishment, Democrat and Republican, is divided on DeSantis, but it definitely doesn’t want another Trump term in the White House.
DeSantis’ main appeals to the MAGA base are through his anti-“woke” culture war. While this of course gets an echo with the right-wing base, it’s not the same as claiming to stand for “the forgotten men and women” being crushed by the economic crisis, as Trump has cynically done. When DeSantis has gone on the offensive against Trump it has been around culture war issues of limited appeal like gun control. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ efforts to respond to Trump’s attacks often echo the attacks from the corporate media, reinforcing his status as an establishment-friendly candidate.
The establishment is, of course, perfectly fine with some of Trump’s more pro-business measures. They liked his corporate tax cuts, for example. But their opposition to Trump is not because they believe he represents the working class in any way but rather due to his unreliability.
Trump’s outsider image is only further reinforced by the indictment and the media attacks. For all of Trump’s crimes, the hush money offer to Stormy Daniels ranks very low. It’s an issue everybody already knows about, and Trump’s guilt won’t change people’s views of him. Meanwhile, it allows a big capitalist businessman like Trump to reinforce the narrative that the establishment is out to get him.
There Are No Winners
For all these differences, neither Trump nor DeSantis has anything to offer working people. We certainly support Trump being locked up, but for his real crimes against working people and the oppressed like his prioritization of big business over working people’s lives in the early stages of COVID and his brutal treatment of immigrants at the border. Virtually all US presidents in history could be charged on this basis.
An even bigger problem is that, while DeSantis or Trump don’t in any way represent working-class people, neither do Biden and the Democrats. Four years of betrayals by Biden — from continuing Trump’s detention of immigrants, to his recent crushing of the railroad workers strike — has made this increasingly clear.
Lining up behind Biden and the Democrats leaves space open for Trump and DeSantis to present their reactionary attacks as a fight against the establishment. Trump’s 2016 victory came in the same year that saw the rise of Bernie Sanders, who posed a very different and more genuine challenge to the establishment. But, when Sanders got behind Hillary Clinton, working people lost any viable alternative to corporate politics in the general election. Meanwhile, DeSantis was able to win his 2022 re-election because his only opponent was Charlie Crist, an anti-abortion former Republican who offered nothing to people horrified by DeSantis’ attacks.
The danger of a second Trump presidency or a first DeSantis presidency seems grim. But this grim situation is a consequence of forces like Bernie and the Squad working within the Democrats and lining up behind Biden. Had they operated outside of the Democratic Party, they could have laid the foundation for building a new party for working people. A new working-class party is precisely what we need. A viable independent left challenge in the 2024 election would be a step in the right direction. It could cut across the ability of Trump and DeSantis to appear anti-establishment, and provide the basis for a new party.