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Column: Who’s more dangerous — Trump or DeSantis?

Two men shaking hands at a campaign rally
So far, Ron DeSantis, left, and Donald Trump are the top prospects in the Republican presidential nominee sweepstakes. Which of them is the lesser of two evils?
(Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images)
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Who is more dangerous — Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis?

I ask because for more than seven years now, Democrats, myself included, have argued that Trump was especially and uniquely unsuited to serve as president. It wasn’t just that we opposed his positions on the issues, but that he was temperamentally unfit for the job. He was reckless, belligerent and dishonest. Unserious, unpredictable, norm-breaking — and willing to undermine American democracy and its institutions, if necessary, to remain in power.

I looked forward to the day when we could get back to fighting about the issues with a Republican with whom we merely disagreed. Sure, we’d have policy differences, but that’s part of the normal democratic process.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

But now that such a Republican has emerged, it’s raising a whole new set of worries.

DeSantis, who has been governor of Florida since 2019, is not out of control in the same way Trump is. He’s stolen from the Trump playbook, but he’s more disciplined, more subtle. As president, he wouldn’t be constantly going off-script or excoriating his enemies; he wouldn’t have to fend off impeachment votes. He might actually read the briefing papers, work the system and participate in the governing process. Unlike Trump, he’s apparently got a voracious work ethic.

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But here’s the question: Could those very qualities make him an even more dangerous president? Could he be worse than Trump, God forbid, because he’s more effective?

Though DeSantis hasn’t announced his candidacy for 2024, he already has a campaign pitch: He’s the enemy of wokeness, a pugilistic truth-teller standing up to the latest hysterical cancel culture outrages of the left. Don’t say gay! Ban critical race theory! Teach only the happy, uplifting parts of American history!

Florida’s conservative governor is on a coast-to-coast tour with stops in California and Texas, courting Republican leaders and donors as he eyes a presidential bid.

March 5, 2023

He swears by the usual right-wing verities: more guns, fewer immigrants, lower taxes. He wants to tighten restrictions on abortions and ease them on executions. He’s pandered to vaccine skeptics and claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci should be in jail for lying to Congress. He’s hinted that the Jan. 6, 2021, assault at the Capitol might have been an FBI false flag operation. He’s made it harder to vote in Florida.

So which of the two would I rather have emerge victorious in a race for the presidency if I had to choose? The crazy inept one or the competent ideologue who might actually get more bad stuff done?

Before I answer, a few caveats: First, they aren’t the only Republicans who will seek the 2024 nomination. In the months ahead, another candidate could blow past one or both of them. DeSantis is high in the polls now, but he’s little-known outside Florida; he might not survive scrutiny (especially with several major media profiles describing him as a dislikable and aloof oddball who can’t make eye contact with other humans). And Trump, of course, could self-destruct at any moment. Among other things, he might get indicted in any number of investigations.

But if I had to choose, I’d take DeSantis.

Grudgingly, of course. I certainly don’t want him to be our next president.

But in my view the danger he poses is not as great as another four tumultuous, aberrational years of Trump. The damage Trump did while he was in the White House was unparalleled in modern American history, and four more years could be much worse. He may not be a skilled or effective chief executive, but his reckless undermining of institutions, his self-serving rejection of legitimate election results, his attacks on the press, his assault on truth, facts and science, his detachment from reality — it’s impossible to imagine going through that again.

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Trump’s presence in the Republican presidential primary looms large and poses risks for a party seeking a unified front.

March 3, 2023

DeSantis would certainly put us on a lot of wrong roads. But another Trump presidency threatens American democracy itself.

Some observers agree with my take.

“In the end I’d take a cynic like DeSantis over a madman like Trump,” says longtime GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who has advised many moderate Republicans, including John McCain, Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “From a Democrat’s perspective, Trump might be easier to beat, but who wants to take the risk of rooting for him?”

Others, however, throw up their hands at even making such a choice.

“It’s like a debate about what’s better — syphilis or gonorrhea,” says Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime Trump critic. “Trump and DeSantis are different versions of the same danger.”

Ornstein says that in a second term, Trump would be all about retribution, punishing those who had crossed him in the past. It would be a godsend for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Former President Trump has been invited to testify before a New York grand jury investigating hush-money payments made on his behalf, his lawyer says.

March 10, 2023

But DeSantis would be a catastrophe in other ways. “I don’t think he has any deep-seated beliefs about much of anything,” Ornstein says. “He may not be the same level of narcissistic sociopath as Trump but he’s smarter and more subtle. And he has no moral core.”

It’s far too early for the polls to mean much, and in any case they’ve offered mixed messages about whether DeSantis or Trump is ahead. All we know for sure is that at the moment they’re the two top GOP prospects.

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As a Democrat, I get no say in which of them emerges victorious in the Republican primaries (if either of them does). I’m just an onlooker.

But I believe the danger posed by a Trump victory in November 2024 would be greater.

I reserve the right to change my mind as we get to know DeSantis better and see him in action. But if he turns out to be worse than Trump, then I truly fear for this country.

@Nick_Goldberg

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