Opinion The Trump-DeSantis feud just got worse. A hidden factor is driving it.


HR King
May 29, 2001
By Greg Sargent
Columnist |
November 7, 202

When Donald Trump starts belittling you with a sandbox nickname, you know you’re in real trouble — especially if you’re a Republican with ambitions for higher office.
The Florida governor’s allies were said to be shocked and upset when Trump described Ron DeSantis over the weekend as “Ron DeSanctimonious.”

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The slur is the latest in the worsening feud between the two Republicans, both potential 2024 presidential nominees. With the two men holding competing rallies in Florida over the weekend, the New York Times reports that Trump is irritated with DeSantis’s challenge to his dominance.

In a bizarre turn, the Times also reports that Trump’s “DeSanctimonious” barb was an angry reaction to a new ad from DeSantis, which presents the Florida governor as a divinely anointed figure.

“On the eighth day,” DeSantis’s ad intones, “God looked down on his planned paradise and said: ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.”


It’s amusing that this is what triggered Trump’s anger — only he can be the anointed one, of course — but this has more significance than it appears. It shows Trump grasps the religiously inspired nature of large swaths of his support, and why DeSantis might pose a real threat to him.

DeSantis seems to be speaking to the Christian nationalist or evangelical base’s craving for a divinely infused candidate who promises to use the power of the presidency to block the nation’s slide into demographic, moral, cultural and secular ruin.

For help understanding this dynamic, I reached out to Sarah Posner, a historian of the religious right and its impact on conservative politics. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Greg Sargent: It’s telling that Trump was rattled by DeSantis’s new video, which presents the Florida governor as a kind of savior candidate, a figure anointed by God to save our country. Should we see this Christian nationalist trope as a genuine message about the case DeSantis will make if he runs for president?

Sarah Posner:
Trump knows that his base believes God anointed him to lead America at a critical juncture, and that many of them believe him to be a messianic figure who alone can rescue America from what they call demonic forces (liberalism, civil rights, “deep state,” and more). None of Trump’s potential rivals have so blatantly tried to claim that divine blessing.

It’s a very dangerous sign that DeSantis is reading the base — which has been bombarded with ever more radical claims of anointings, prophecy and spiritual warfare against the left — as receptive to savior alternatives to Trump.
When you describe Trump’s “base” this way, you’re talking specifically about his Christian nationalist and evangelical base, correct? What exactly do we know about these particular constituencies?
I am talking about Trump’s core base of White evangelicals and other right-wing Christians — broadly described as Christian nationalists — who believe America was founded as a Christian nation and it is their duty to take it back from what they claim are anti-Christian forces who have undermined its Christian heritage.

Trump can be weirdly self aware: He knows that despite his immense personal failings, he’s seen by these constituencies as a flawed vessel who has been anointed by God to rescue the country and restore its Christian bearings.
Do you think this sense of Trump’s mission among many of his followers also helps explain their deep conviction that the 2020 election was stolen from him?

I don’t think they even see him as a flawed vessel. I think they see him as a mighty figure who, despite the supposed machinations of his political enemies, has heroically survived, withstanding multiple “witch hunts” and “deep state” plots.
It is because they see the political world in binary terms, of God’s Christian soldiers against demonic forces, that they continue to believe the lie that the election was stolen from Trump — that evil forces stole it from him.

You mentioned that DeSantis is appealing more directly to these voters than any other rival to Trump is. Where are you seeing this most explicitly?
The ad is a prime example. DeSantis has also used a revealing misquote from the Bible, calling on supporters to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the left’s schemes.”
The “armor of God” quote actually reads, “take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” He substitutes “the left” for “the devil,” demonstrating to his base that he, like them, will treat politics as a battleground for spiritual warfare to vanquish the left.
Governors always have a platform to run for president. But doesn’t DeSantis have an especially pronounced advantage here, in his use of his office to show zeal for using state power to fight the culture wars? That seems likely to appeal to the rising desire among GOP voters for an aggressive posture on this front.

The term “culture wars” is often used to describe the offensives DeSantis has prioritized, like banning (nonexistent) critical race theory in K-12 public schools, his “don’t say gay” law and his attack on “woke” corporations like Disney. These are called “culture wars” because it is thought that the voters he is trying to appeal to are primarily concerned with issues like “family values” or “parental rights,” not politics. But these issues, particularly targeted at public education, have long been at the heart of the Christian right’s political ideology.
Do you think DeSantis’s clear willingness to use maximal state power in these battles gives him a plausible shot at cutting into this base of voters in a GOP presidential primary, even if Trump runs?
DeSantis is definitely setting himself up to be Trump’s most viable rival by positioning himself as the next anointed leader who will take on the left by using state power to fight these battles. This could give him a real chance of cutting into Trump’s support.