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The GOP's 2024 race to the bottom has already begun

Trump and DeSantis are leading the way for Republicans on race, education, and gender identity. This can't end well.

Former President Donald Trump has been on a tear in the past two weeks, working to convince his supporters that he’s the only one who can save their children. He’s pledged to purge “the radical zealots and Marxists” from the Education Department, vowed to have federal agencies “stop” gender-affirming care for minors across the country, and called for parents to be allowed to elect their children’s school principals directly.

Trump’s current focus on children and education may diverge from his past campaigns, but he’s only following the road map that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has drawn. Though DeSantis hasn’t officially announced that he’ll challenge Trump for the GOP nomination, he has captured the heart of many Republicans who want a more polished version of Trump’s gleeful denigration of minorities. And it’s already clear that the cold war between the two ahead of the 2024 presidential primaries will be brutal, nasty, and anything but short.

Last weekend, in his first campaign stops since announcing his re-election bid, Trump tried out a slew of new material to supplement classics like “Mexico is sending rapists” and “Joe Biden loves his son too much.” His biggest applause lines were in response to promises to cut “federal funding for any school that pushes critical race theory or left-wing gender ideology.” The Trump campaign noticed, Semafor’s Shelby Talbott reported, “treating the reaction as a sort of live poll to see what messaging resonates with the base.”

The cold war between the two ahead of the 2024 presidential primaries will be brutal, nasty, and anything but short.

That approach to message-testing bodes poorly for the next two years. Trump’s events so far have been smaller than the giant rallies he once held, which means the attendees are more likely to be his most devoted followers. Giving them what they want, as in this week’s video on protecting children from “left-wing gender insanity,” will only encourage him to be even more extreme.

For his part, DeSantis hasn’t been particularly subtle in using the right-wing moral panic over critical race theory and transgender youth as his launching pad for the White House. The so-called Don’t Say Gay law and the Stop Woke Act, which limits teaching of race in public schools, has produced a chilling effect on his state’s teachers. In the last month alone, he’s forced the College Board to revise its AP African American history class and proposed mandating courses in Western civilization for all high school students.

The New York Times recently received plenty of justifiable side-eye for a piece that described DeSantis as merely “taking on the education establishment.” But that framing speaks to the efficacy of his deflections. In DeSantis’ version of events, the book bans that are rolling out across Florida aren’t evidence of his government’s authoritarianism. No, he is simply reflecting the will of parents across the Sunshine State. That the parents he’s supplicating to are almost universally white, Republican and frequently conservative activists masquerading as a grassroots uprising is beside the point.

DeSantis and Trump are also busy sparring over who loves vaccines more (pejorative). Trump has long wanted more credit for his administration's pouring funding into the research that produced the first vaccines. DeSantis, meanwhile, has tried to put himself at the forefront of the opposition to vaccine mandates.

Trump called DeSantis disingenuous for his stance: “He promoted the vaccine as much as anybody in this country promoted it,” he complained to reporters in between campaign stops. DeSantis slyly noted in response on Tuesday that no matter Trump’s grumblings on the matter, his constituents had re-elected him by a wide margin — a fact that the former president can only falsely claim.

It’s also worth noting that Trump’s attempt to outflank DeSantis among the base dovetails almost too perfectly with his pending return to Facebook. As NBC News reported last week, Trump’s fundraising has been languid compared with his previous runs. What luck that the more controversial his statements, the more engagement he’s likely to receive once he’s back on the platform, meaning more eyes for his appeals for his supporters to open up their wallets to him again.

The Republican primaries will be defined by two men who are deliberately trying to outbid each other for the support of the lowest common denominator.

Clearly a lot can — and will — change between now and when the first votes are cast in the GOP primaries. I’m not exactly thrilled myself to be writing about the race this early. But given the dangerous one-upmanship that we’re sure to see between now and then, it feels worth getting ahead of any misguided belief that the rhetoric already on display is either harmless posturing or the unavoidable evolution of American politics.

The escalation is already underway, with each new notch heightening the stakes for how much oppression the targets of their attacks will face. DeSantis moves to block transgender youth from receiving medical transition care? Trump sees and raises; he now calls it "child sexual mutilation" and wants the federal government to "cease all programs that promote the concept of sex and gender transition," including for adults. DeSantis warns of the dangers of "critical race theory" in schools; Trump suggests cutting federal funding for any school that dares recognize that transgender kids and racism are both real things that exist.

It's hard to picture a candidate whose platform would win over more GOP primary voters than the state-sanctioned bigotry currently on offer. While other Republicans who throw their hats into the ring — like Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence — will try to define their own niche and contrast themselves with Trump and DeSantis, for now there’s no question who will set the overall agenda for the party’s debates.

The Republican primaries will thus be defined by two men who are deliberately trying to outbid each other for the support of the lowest common denominator. And with them positioned as the candidates to beat, no matter how crowded the field may become, it’s guaranteed to be a race to the bottom.