In an episode of HBO’s Real Time in March 2023, comedian Bill Maher hit the nail on the head when describing the current debate over Donald Trump v Ron DeSantis for the Republican presidential nomination.
Conventional wisdom is that lots of voters want Trump’s policies without Trump – so Florida governor DeSantis, wrapped up in “more electable” packaging, might appeal to the Republican base.
However, Maher asked: “Why would [Republicans] want a tribute band when the actual band is still playing?” It’s a valid question – and one that deserves an answer.
Different on policy?
Policy-wise, there’s not much separating Trump and DeSantis. Domestically, both embrace tax cuts, conservative judges, and hardline immigration stances. On foreign policy, both are sceptical of US aid to Ukraine and want to give China a punch in the gut.
Trump leans more into his populist, anti-globalisation crusade, while DeSantis’s hallmark is his “anti-woke” stance. But in the end, both are right-leaning culture warriors who portray themselves as outside-the-Beltway antidotes to Washington’s “swamp culture”.
Still, Trump and DeSantis aren’t clones. Here’s what most distinguishes the tribute band from the original.
Trump’s personal flair
Love or hate Trump, he’s got flair. Charisma may be too strong a word, but the reality is that he can fill a room – or a stadium – and knows just how to flatter his base. There’s a reason his cultish fans once rolled out a golden statue of him at a flagship conservative conference.
DeSantis is a chest-thumper, but in a lower-key way than Trump. His speeches tend to be briefer, more pointed, and less rambling. DeSantis sticks to the script, is less inclined to hurl insults, and is arguably more stilted on the stump.
A clear separator between Trump and DeSantis is the capacity for shock value. DeSantis can play dirty, but he hasn’t (yet) shown Trump’s penchant for pathological lying and overtly racist and misogynistic remarks. Even if he traffics in dog whistles, he’s less likely to “say the quiet parts out loud”.
Trump and DeSantis share similar policy platforms, but there’s no mind meld. Trump is a former Democrat. He’s less ideological, more pragmatic, and seemingly more comfortable “owning the libs” than discussing the intricacies of economic or healthcare policy.
DeSantis, by contrast, is a “true believer”. In line with his Ivy League pedigree, he’s a wonk who can go 15 rounds talking policy minutiae if needed. Whether it’s ranting about the inner workings of critical race theory or drafting a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, DeSantis can get down into the weeds.
Despite – or maybe because of – his notoriously loyal base, Trump isn’t afraid to break from the right-wing straightjacket. On COVID-19, for example, Trump endured boos after praising the vaccine. DeSantis, meanwhile, towed the party line (as per usual) and earned plaudits for insisting that his home state of Florida was “open for business”.
Respect (or lack thereof) for democracy
Trump won’t back down from the “big lie”, maintaining that he won the 2020 election. Which brings us to a big delusion: that DeSantis poses just as much a threat to American democracy as Trump.
DeSantis may be “Trump lite”. But he’s done nothing to suggest that if he lost an election, he’d spend months denying it, call on a secretary of state to “find votes”, then whip up a crowd of bloodthirsty rioters to storm the US Capitol.
On foreign policy, DeSantis also seems less likely to cozy up to dictators. Whereas Trump regularly extolled autocrats like Vladimir Putin, DeSantis lacks the same wannabe authoritarian impulse. Still, DeSantis’s recent euphemism – calling Russia’s war in Ukraine a mere “territorial dispute” – didn’t exactly inspire confidence that he’d aggressively promote democracy abroad.
The biggest divider between Trump and DeSantis is also the most obvious: Trump was president before. He’s tested on a national stage, a known quantity, and voters realise what they’re getting when they pull the Trump lever.
At the same time, he is also a proven loser. Trump has never won the popular vote, lost in 2020, and some of his endorsed candidates fared poorly in the 2022 midterms.
DeSantis is now a household name, but it’s unclear how he’ll respond under the bright lights. Plenty of Republican favourites in the past – including fellow Floridian Jeb Bush – have wilted under the pressure. DeSantis doesn’t look like a flash in the pan, but he still needs to prove himself in prime time.
Battle of the bands
Even though DeSantis is likely not to officially declare as a candidate until May, and other candidates have already announced a run, “Don v Ron” dominates Republican chatter right now, and for good reason. Trump’s stranglehold over the GOP and DeSantis’s rising stardom make for a captivating battle. Yet, for now at least, it’s important to remember the race isn’t a one-on-one matchup. And it’s a long way to the first primary in February 2024.
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Trump’s level of support all but guarantees him 30-40% of the party’s vote. If other Republican hopefuls split the never-Trump ballot, that gives Trump a huge edge, especially in early, winner-takes-all primary states.
This doesn’t mean 2024 is settled, far from it. The final nomination has to be decided by July that year, so there’s plenty of time for things to change. DeSantis is the new darling of Fox News, and his “soft launch” campaign has already earned plenty of major donations. But if he wants a clean shot at Trump, Republicans will need to consolidate around him, and early.
Whether the tribute band can upstage the original is still to be determined. But if Trump strums his greatest hits – from Deep State Conspiracy Blues to Waitin’ on a Witch Hunt – don’t be surprised if he’s the one belting out the encore.
Thomas Gift is an Associate Professor and Director of the Centre on US Politics, UCL. This first appeared in the Conversation here.