Perhaps the best title for a Donald Trump biography would be The Art of Getting Away With It.
Thousands of writers have penned millions of words on the Trump phenomenon, from its contours to its motivations and endurance. It’s a subject rooted in racism, cruelty, nostalgia, status anxiety, and base showmanship. Fox News and other conservative media play a key role, as do the social media algorithms that have empowered an array of grifters and carnival barkers hawking ethnic and religious nationalism from here to the Philippines, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, and beyond.
But the key element is that Trump has an ineffable “It”—charisma combined with shamelessness and a clownish mien that has led his opponents to underestimate him over and over again and allowed the real estate tycoon to evade the consequences of a lifetime of abuses and crimes. He mixes a gift for media manipulation with a mobster’s intimidation tactics, skirting and sometimes crossing the line of criminality. But so far, Trump has wriggled out of every predicament, although the charges of “staggering fraud” issued by the New York State attorney general would seem to pose an existential threat to Trump. Even when flouting the law, he does it with such braggadocio that it often leaves opponents disarmed.
When Trump behaves cruelly, it’s accompanied by such incompetence that it makes holding him accountable challenging. For instance, it’s much harder to accuse the commander in chief of knowingly allowing a pandemic to spread if he suggests injecting bleach to kill the virus. In part, Trump has conditioned his audience—all the world’s a stage—to have the lowest expectations of him. The members of his base, in turn, see themselves in him. Despite the golden toilets, he’s just another guy who watches Fox News and owns the libs.
This unique set of traits makes it difficult for his GOP rivals to imitate him.
Ron DeSantis is trying desperately to be the next Donald Trump, even going so far as to imitate the former president’s hand gestures and thuggish affect. But while the Yale and Harvard Law School graduate performs well at a podium, he is famously stiff and unengaging in smaller settings. He employs Trumpian performative cruelty, but lacks the charm to take the edge off. As Jamelle Bouie aptly noted in The New York Times, Trump
can be a bully in part because he can temper his cruelty and egoism with the performance of a clown or a showman. He can persuade an audience that he’s just kidding—that he doesn’t actually mean it. Ron DeSantis cannot. He may be a more competent Trump in terms of his ability to use the levers of state to amass power, but he’s also meaner and more rigid, without the soft edges and eccentricity of the actual Donald Trump.
So when the Florida governor shipped migrants under false pretenses to Martha’s Vineyard, it was an inhumane stunt designed to draw Fox News coverage and delight Trump’s base. It also backfired when the people of Massachusetts responded with compassion and care. This hasn’t stopped Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media empire from hewing to a narrative of liberal hypocrisy even as Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, leads the state’s handling of the migrants and endorses the criminal investigation into the stunt. But the lie may not play outside the far-right echo chamber. Not taking the hint, DeSantis is doubling down on shipping more migrants like so many parcels, opening himself up to ridicule from President Joe Biden.
Insecure and resentful, Trump has been whining that DeSantis stole his idea of sending migrants to blue states. But the twice-impeached, oft-investigated ex-president shouldn’t fret, because DeSantis’s actions lack Trumpian panache. The Floridian’s pale imitation comes across not as vaudevillian fascism but as mere thuggery.
And that’s why Trump continues to get away with it. As Greg Sargent wrote in The Washington Post, the Republican Party is desperately afraid of losing Trump’s base, which extends well beyond the typical GOP reach. In return, Trump expects a future GOP-controlled Congress to do everything in its power to shield him from the law by defunding and harassing the federal and congressional investigations into his alleged crimes. It’s a devil’s bargain Republicans can’t make with DeSantis or any Trumpist wannabe because, so far, no one but Trump has what it takes to pull it off.