Grievance politics is taking over the Republican Party. The race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is likely to become a contest between the two most accomplished grievance politicians in the U.S. — former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Conventional politics is supposed to be about problem-solving, as scholars define it, “a deep belief in the positive capacity of collective action to address societal problems and protect individuals from shared risks.”
President Biden provided an example of conventional politics when he acted to protect depositors from catastrophic bank failures. “Americans can rest assured that our banking system is safe — your deposits are safe,” Biden said. “Let me also assure you we will not stop at this,” the president added. “We’ll do whatever is needed.”
Grievance politics is based on resentment: “the fueling, funneling and flaming of negative emotions such as fear or anger.” Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this month, Trump declared, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
DeSantis targets resentment at what he calls “woke” — meaning liberal — ideology. “In Florida, we will never surrender to the woke mob,” he said in California. “Our state is where woke goes to die.”
The difference between the two Republicans is that Trump’s grievances are highly personal. He promises retribution on his enemies, mostly Democrats but also some Republicans — like, for instance, DeSantis. Speaking in Iowa, Trump criticized DeSantis for opposing ethanol subsidies and for supporting changes to social security and Medicare. Trump even called DeSantis’s battle with the Disney Corporation a “hoax.” Trump wrote on his website that the only reason DeSantis went after Disney was to show that he was “a tough guy.” Trump claimed that Disney and DeSantis “probably worked together to make him look like a fighter.” Trump is not going to stand for a rival Republican “fighter.”
DeSantis rarely mentions Trump, who is still very popular with Republican voters, except to praise him. In his new book, DeSantis claims that Trump brought a “unique star power” to the 2016 presidential race.
Tom Edwards, a self-described “moderate” school board member in Sarasota, Fla., who has been targeted for defeat by Gov. DeSantis, has said of the governor’s style of politics, “Frankly, it’s nothing more than bullying. It’s bullying he did to Disney … It’s bullying he did to our LGBTQ+ students. And now he’s doing it to me.”
Both DeSantis and Trump embrace a populist ideology, which, for foreign policy, means isolationist. Both are critical of U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war. DeSantis dismisses the Russian invasion as a “territorial dispute” – a local conflict that poses no threat to the U.S. The Florida governor warned, “We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland.”
Their views on the Ukraine war set them up in opposition to more establishment-oriented Senate Republicans. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the downing of a U.S. drone by a Russian fighter jet should serve as a wake-up call to isolationists “that it is in our national interest to treat [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as the threat he truly is.”
DeSantis’s campaign style is more scripted, less spontaneous, than Trump’s. A CNN poll of Republican voters taken this month shows DeSantis with a clear lead over Trump among Republicans with a college degree (41 to 23 percent).
DeSantis stands ready to get everything he wants from the Florida state legislature, including stricter curbs on abortion, a ban on diversity and equity programs in Florida schools, and a law allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons. “We’re going to get his agenda across the finish line,” the Republican state senate president has promised.
Biden presents himself as a problem-solver, but most Americans don’t believe he has solved many problems. Polled just before the State of the Union speech last month by the Washington Post and ABC News, 62 percent of Americans said Biden has achieved “not very much” or “little or nothing” as president. If there is a serious recession or if Russia wins the Ukraine war, Biden’s re-election prospects will probably be sunk.
When problem-solving fails, grievance politics triumphs.
There will be many twists and turns between now and November 2024. For one thing, Trump may be indicted on a criminal charge. Would that make him unelectable? Trump said at CPAC that he would not drop out of the race if he is indicted. He even said it would “probably … enhance my numbers.” He may be right. Another grievance!
Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).
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