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Trump vs. DeSantis: It’s about to get weird

It wasn’t just the botched Twitter launch; it was everything that followed, and what it portends in a party that has increasingly embraced provocation as policy.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last week at the Red Arrow Diner, a traditional campaign stop for presidential candidates visiting the Manchester, N.H., area. (John Tully for The Washington Post)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s glitchy Republican presidential campaign launch with Elon Musk on Wednesday night is getting all the attention. But don’t sleep on the utter weirdness that followed — and apparently will continue.

Shortly after the event, DeSantis’s campaign set about trying to make lemonade from its lemons. His rapid response team released a bizarre web video featuring DeSantis’s stilted, almost disembodied opening statement from the event, overlaid on seemingly random b-roll shots of not just DeSantis but also, extensively, Musk.

There was Musk with a flamethrower. There was Musk hyping his Teslas at an elaborate and visually attractive event that was essentially the polar opposite of DeSantis’s launch. There was youthful Musk just … sitting at a keyboard. There was DeSantis talking about the toll of fentanyl while the image showed him smiling and waving. It might have made sense as a video if DeSantis were announcing Musk as his running mate — sharp emphasis on “might.”

Then came Donald Trump’s retort. Seeking to capitalize on the botched rollout, he posted a vulgar AI video mocking the Twitter Spaces event. It featured a “Dick Cheney” coughing repeatedly over a hot mic. It featured the “FBI” (apparently, randomly, using Anderson Cooper’s voice) asking, “So how are we going to take out Trump, you guys?” “Adolph Hitler” and “The Devil” were arguing about gay people. “Trump” talked about how Cheney would be dead soon and how DeSantis could kiss his “big beautiful 2024 ass.”

Trump also posted to Truth Social during the event, “‘Rob,’ My Red Button is bigger, better, stronger, and is working (TRUTH!), yours does not! (per my conversation with Kim Jung Un, of North Korea, soon to become my friend!).”

By the end of the night, Musk summed it up nicely. Responding to a tweet about all the adjectives the media used to describe the bungled DeSantis-Twitter launch event, Musk countered, “I call it ‘massive attention.’ Top story on Earth today.”

All attention is good attention. The important thing is that the people who noticed and noted how utterly strange all this was were being owned, somehow. DeSantis’s team retweeted Musk’s sentiment.

Expect more of this.

Trump’s 2016 campaign established the precedent for bizarre. There was the suggestion that Ted Cruz’s dad killed John F. Kennedy. There was Trump quarreling with the Pope. There was the taco salad tweet. There was Trump giving out Lindsey O. Graham’s personal cellphone number.

But aside from Marco Rubio’s allusion to the size of a certain part of Trump’s anatomy, Trump was running against normie Republicans in a mostly pre-own-the-libs era who didn’t really engage in such trifles. (Rubio even apologized later.)

What the 2024 campaign portends is something quite different.

Not only has Trump become increasingly confrontational and extreme, as The Washington Post reported this week, but DeSantis has built his brand around provocation as well.

More so than Trump, he’s content to focus on actually doing things rather than just spouting off. But it’s evident that his campaign will go toe-to-toe with Trump when it comes to luring the very-online, hard-right crowd to try to stay a part of the conversation. He’s previously outsourced this to a particular pugnacious member of his staff and to appointees like his coronavirus vaccine-critic surgeon general, but a presidential campaign demands more than a couple staff members can provide. And there’s only so much trolling you can do through official actions, especially when the legislature is adjourned.

The decision to launch with the billionaire-troll Musk — and then to align with him so heavily afterward — also suggests where this is headed. DeSantis is clearly going to run as a version of Trump, and that requires hitting some of the same notes on the trolling front, particularly if Trump is going to continue dishing it out, as he always does.

In some ways, it’s the campaign that the modern Republican Party deserves. For years, Republican members of Congress have dismissed or ignored Trump’s social media provocations as if they were the rantings of a conspiratorial uncle. But that gradually allowed the market for this kind of thing to build.

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.