As Ron DeSantis’s challenge to Donald Trump has seemed to wither on the vine, a piece of conventional wisdom has hardened: That DeSantis has been offering Republican voters Trumpism without the drama, but now we know Republicans love the drama, indeed they can’t live without the drama, and mere substance simply leaves them cold.
In one sense, that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from the way that Trump’s multiplying indictments seemed to solidify his front-runner’s position, the way that he’s sucked up media oxygen and built his primary lead on the basis of what would be, for any normal politician, terrible publicity.
But it elides the fact that DeSantis, like many of his rivals in the current battle for second place, hasn’t actually offered voters an equivalent of Trumpism, and certainly not the Trumpism that won the 2016 Republican primary fight and then upset Hillary Clinton.
He has offered part of that package, certainly: the promise to wage war on liberalism by all available means, the harsh words for self-appointed experts and elites, the hostility to the establishment press. But he hasn’t really tried to channel another crucial element of Trumpism — the marriage of rhetorical extremism with ideological flexibility, the ability to drop a vicious insult one moment and promise to make a big, beautiful bipartisan deal the next.
That was what Trump offered throughout 2016. While his rivals in the primaries impotently accused him of being unconservative, he cheerfully embraced various heterodoxies on health care and trade and taxes, selling himself as an economic moderate with the same gusto that he promised to build the wall and ban Muslim visitors from the United States.
These heterodoxies were often more a salesman’s patter than a sincere policy agenda, which helps explain why his presidency was more conventionally conservative than his campaign.
But now candidate Trump is back at the salesman’s game. In the last week, the man whose judicial appointees overturned Roe v. Wade and whose administration was reliably hostile to unions has condemned the six-week abortion ban signed by DeSantis, promised to magically bring the country together on abortion and indicated he’s going to counterprogram next week’s Republican presidential debate by showing up on the U.A.W. picket line.
You can see these forays as proof that Trump thinks he’s got the nomination in the bag, that the pro-life movement especially has no choice but to support him and that he can start presenting himself as a general-election candidate early.
But I suspect it’s a little more complicated than that, and that Trump’s willingness to show ideological flexibility — or, to be a bit harsher, to pander emptily to any audience he faces — has its uses in the primary campaign as well. Because what it showcases, even to primary voters who disagree with him, is an eagerness to win even at the expense of ideological consistency, an eagerness that much of American conservatism lacks.
And showcasing electability is arguably even more important for Trump in 2024 than in 2016, because he was at his weakest after the 2022 midterms, which seemed to expose his election fraud obsessions as a political disaster for the G.O.P. So by moving to the center early, while DeSantis and others try to run against him from the right, he’s counteracting that narrative, trying to prove that he’s committed to victory and not just vanity. (And on the evidence of national polls, in which he now does slightly better than DeSantis against Biden, it’s working.)
Does Trump actually have a labor-friendly solution to the U.A.W. strike or a coherent pro-worker agenda? The answers are no and not really. But if showing public sympathy for workers and promising a 10 percent tariff on foreign goods are respectively an empty gesture and a dubious gambit, they are still a better political message than, say, what we got from Tim Scott, the candidate of pre-Trump conservatism, who suggested that the U.A.W. workers should be fired the way Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. (This kind of nonsense position, invoking Reagan’s firing of federal employees in the completely different context of a private-sector fight where employers can’t fire strikers, is exactly what the term “zombie Reaganism” was invented to describe.)
Likewise, can Trump actually mediate a national compromise on abortion by stiff-arming the pro-life movement? I wouldn’t bet on it; for better or worse, I expect his transactional relationship with anti-abortion organizations to survive in a potential second term.
But his sudden pro-choice outreach is a cynical response to a real political problem for Republicans. If you aspire to restrict abortion beyond the reddest states in a politically sustainable way, you need at the very least a rhetorical modulation, a form of outreach to the wavering and conflicted. And better still would be some kind of alternative offer to Americans who are pro-choice but with reservations — with the obvious form being some new suite of family policies, some enhanced support for women who find themselves pregnant and in difficulty.
But most Republicans clearly don’t want to make that kind of offer, beyond a few pro forma gestures and very modest state-level initiatives. DeSantis was quick (well, by his standards) to attack Trump for selling out the pro-life cause, and any abortion opponent should want to see Trump punished politically for that attempted sellout. But nothing in the DeSantis response was directed at the outreach problem, the political problem, the general-election problem that Trump in his unprincipled way was clearly trying to address.
And so it has been throughout the primary season thus far. Trump makes big bold promises; his rivals check ideological boxes. Trump talks like a general-election candidate; his rivals bid against one another for narrower constituencies. Scott and Nikki Haley rerun the Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio campaigns; DeSantis aims to improve on Ted Cruz’s Iowa-first strategy … but the only candidate really promising the Trumpism of 2016 is, once again, Donald Trump himself.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTOpinion) and Instagram.