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You can’t be more conservative than Trump when he defines conservatism

Over the July Fourth holiday, Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) gave an interview to a right-wing podcaster.

Given that “the Biden crime syndicate” had worked with “a lot of countries that don’t like America,” the host posited, “it seems as though they were like strip-mining this nation and selling us off for parts to some of our biggest enemies.”

“Do you think,” he continued, “that this rises to the level of treason?”

“I 100 percent believe it rises to the level of treason,” Steube replied. “And I hope that if a Republican, God willing, wins the presidency in 2024, after he is out, whether it is through impeachment or getting beat at the ballot box in 2024, that they’ll move forward with charges like that. And having control of the DOJ and the FBI from the presidential side, a new administration, a Republican administration, is going to get rid of all of these jokers … and put people in there who care about our country.”

Never mind the dearth of evidence that President Biden was involved in business deals that members of his family made or that “treason” is a very specific offense that wouldn’t apply here even if Biden had been implicated. What’s noteworthy, instead, is that this is the conversation that’s driving much of the fringe right: how endlessly corrupt Joe Biden is — but particularly in the context of the investigations into former president Donald Trump that spurred Steube’s attack on the FBI and the Justice Department.

It remains Donald Trump’s world, and that, more than anything else, is why Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t gaining traction in the 2024 Republican primary race.

In the month-plus since he announced his presidential bid, DeSantis appears to be deploying the strategy outlined by Jeff Roe, who leads a political action committee supporting the governor’s bid. Over the past three years, DeSantis has escalated his embrace of what are generally termed “culture war” issues, attacking the left in broad strokes and signing legislation into law that is aimed at neutralizing efforts to recognize diversity. This matches Roe’s advice: There’s space to Trump’s right where DeSantis can improve his standing.

But … is there?

Fox News has polled on the primary field for each of the past five months. Over that period, the former president’s lead over DeSantis has widened from 15 to 34 points. Among those who identify themselves as “very conservative,” it has grown slightly from 27 to 32 points, though the margins of error within that group (indicated with shading below) are much larger.

These polls do show a big jump among the “very conservative” for DeSantis between May and June, but, again, the margin of error may be doing some of the work. Regardless, his position with that group is about where it was in February — with Trump beating him by a 2-to-1 margin.

DeSantis argues that people aren’t yet paying much attention to the primary, which is fair. But presidential campaign launches, like DeSantis’s in late May, are points at which the direction of the race can shift. Trump announced in June 2015 and, by mid-July, had risen to lead the field. At no point in that campaign did Trump ever lead by as much as he does in the current polling average compiled by FiveThirtyEight.

What’s particularly interesting about that average, though, is that it reveals the other challenge DeSantis faces. His early institutional support derived from his position as the only Trump challenger to fare reasonably well in the polls. Perhaps, then, this was the long-theorized candidate who could consolidate the anti-Trump vote!

But instead of being an anti-Trump, DeSantis has been stuck as another Trump. Polling consistently shows that Trump and DeSantis vacuum up about three-quarters of support, with the other quarter reserved for a varying collection of other named candidates or for those polled who are yet to make up their minds.

The implication is that Trump and DeSantis share a voter pool, that a gain for DeSantis means a loss for Trump and vice versa. But it also suggests that DeSantis isn’t serving as an effective anti-Trump candidate.

So we come back to the run-to-the-right strategy. In theory, this makes sense; DeSantis can point to laws that marginalize LGBTQ Floridians and eradicate programs meant to assure inclusivity in state organizations. This presentation of “the right” reflects the heightened importance of culture war issues in conservatism as it exists today. It also fails to recognize how much of “the right” is defined in the context of Trump.

As DeSantis talks endlessly about “wokeness” and so on, here’s what Trump was posting on social media on Independence Day:

“As my Poll numbers go higher & higher, the Communists, Marxists, & Fascists get more & more CRAZY with their ridiculous Indictments & Election Interference plans & plots, all controlled by an out of control, & very corrupt, DOJ/FBI. They have WEAPONIZED Law Enforcement in America at a level not seen before. Deranged Jack Smith, who is a sick puppet for A.G. Garland & Crooked Joe Biden, should be DEFUNDED & put out to rest. Republicans must get tough or the Dems will steal another Election. MAGA!”

It’s a pastiche of nonsense and falsehoods, which isn’t itself surprising. But this is the frame through which the fringe right is looking at the election: The country is under attack from institutions that are terrified of a Trump presidency. His spokeswoman Liz Harrington offered in a tweet on Monday that the 2024 race would be “the final battle.” And at the center of that battle is Trump, who has framed his indictments as a marker of his willingness to battle the left, and not as, you know, a reflection of his having possibly violated the law.

Steube buys into that framing, as do many other prominent Republicans who would love to share Trump’s spotlight. This helps bolster the idea that loyalty to Trump and his apocalyptic vision of American politics is fundamental to what it means to be “on the right.” DeSantis can’t effectively maneuver around that, since it’s defined by Trump.

This play from Trump has been so successful that the presentation that Biden should face charges of treason stems from business deals Biden’s family made with foreign actors, including from “Middle Eastern countries that hate us,” as the podcast host framed it. If family members making big business deals with Middle Eastern countries is treasonous, we have some bad news for the former president. Not that it actually matters to his supporters, of course.

DeSantis was seen as the alternative to Trump by those who didn’t like Trump. It seems increasingly apparent that he’s now seen as the alternative to Trump by those who do like Trump. As long as Trump is in the race, and as long as the race centers on Trump’s worldview, DeSantis won’t be able to pass him.

Nor, it seems, will anyone else.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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