Trump went on the offensive.
At an event in Iowa, he mocked a story Carson liked to tell about having tamed his temper through his faith. That story included a claim from Carson that he had tried to stab a friend, only to strike the friend’s belt buckle. During his speech, Trump wiggled his own belt to mock the alleged incident.
“He hit the belt buckle. Anybody have a knife? Want to try it on me? Believe me, it ain’t gonna work,” Trump said. “You’re going to be successful, but he took the knife and went like this and he plunged it into the belt and, amazing, the belt stayed totally flat and the knife broke.”
“How stupid are the people of Iowa?” he added, breaking somewhat from traditional efforts to woo voters. “How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?”
Carson soon faded, probably less because of Trump’s belt than the sudden salience of terrorism following a major terrorist attack in Paris. But Trump still lost Iowa, coming in second to Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.).
So, of course, Trump attacked Cruz. This was the moment the “Lyin’ Ted” nickname was born. Trump argued that Cruz had dishonestly tried to win votes or had committed outright fraud. He briefly demanded that Iowa hold new caucuses.
As you may be aware, this was not the last time that Trump made similar claims after losing an election.
The point, though, is simple: Nothing frustrates Trump more obviously and viscerally than coming in second. Which is not great news for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
For months, DeSantis has been the focus of speculation about the 2024 Republican nomination contest. He has been adept at navigating the politics of the coronavirus pandemic (including managing to overstate his success without much pushback) and at leveraging culture-war fights to maintain the media spotlight. He signed new restrictions on voting in the state during a segment on “Fox & Friends.”
But despite that, it was still consistently the case that Trump was outperforming him in (very early, very sketchy) 2024 primary straw polling. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, DeSantis was the top pick of attendees — only when Trump was excluded from the competition. Over the weekend, a straw poll conducted at the Western Conservative Summit gauging views of potential 2024 candidates again had DeSantis in the lead. This time, though, Trump was one of the trailing competitors.
Straw polls are only slightly more useful than wearing an anti-meteorite helmet, sure. But, again, Trump is not one to let even a random poll like this slide.
Consider what happened in April. After a political action committee affiliated with former Trump adviser John Bolton touted polling suggesting Trump’s grip on the party had weakened, Trump’s team pushed back hard. This broadly unimportant question in the moment — how much fealty did Trump engender — was something Trump simply couldn’t allow to stand without contest. He has also repeatedly trumpeted polling like that survey at CPAC, as surely as he once began his 2016 primary rallies by listing the recent polling showing him in the lead.
Trump has clearly been watching DeSantis in the rearview mirror for a while. On multiple occasions over the past few months, he has made passive-aggressive comments meant, in his unsubtle way, to diminish DeSantis’s standing. There was the time in April he suggested DeSantis would be a good running mate, a classic politician move aimed at showing dominance. In an interview with Fox Business earlier this month, he repeated that kindly offer.
During that same interview, he pointedly reminded America of who had once helped whom.
“I was at the beginning of Ron,” Trump said. “I was the first one to endorse him when he came out as a congressman that a lot of people didn’t know. My endorsement helped him tremendously. And I know him very well. He’s a great guy.”
There was no real way that Trump would have been able to maintain the same fervent level of support he enjoyed as president once he left office. That’s simply not how politics works. So, as long as Trump continues to harbor a desire to reclaim his position in three years, he runs the risk of comparing unfavorably with other potential candidates. That includes ones like DeSantis, who get to enjoy public attention by virtue of their positions.
Trump didn’t have a position to leverage in 2015, either. So he deployed what he had at his disposal to tear down his opponents: personal, emotional attacks. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before he tries to figure out how to similarly tear down the governor of Florida.