Same, Same, But [Not] Different

By Mark Jacob

There’s a basic business concept called “product differentiation.” Chipotle, for example, tries to differentiate itself from Taco Bell and other fast-food outlets by touting its “real” and “fresh” ingredients. Chipotle wants you to think if you order their burrito you’ll “become a part of nature again.”

Politicians have long tried that approach too, creating a positive image for themselves and suggesting that their opponent lacks that quality. Which is why it’s so strange that most of Donald Trump’s Republican rivals aren’t doing that. They’re afraid to differentiate. It’s as if their slogan is: “We’re Not Trump, So Vote for Us, But Don’t Get Us Wrong – We Like Trump.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in that same camp until recently. He endured months of vilification from Trump but resisted retaliating, obviously aware of how easily Trump dispatched 2016 rivals like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio when they came after him. 

Eventually, though, Trump’s pounding of DeSantis forced the Florida governor into action, and he has ramped up criticism of Trump in recent weeks. Mainstream media wants an entertaining dogfight, so the severity of DeSantis’ attacks has been overplayed. But they are actual attacks, belatedly.

The important thing to understand, however, is that DeSantis usually isn’t differentiating himself from Trump on goals, just on results. The Florida governor’s supporters call him “Trump but competent,” saying he’ll be more effective at implementing the radical-right policies that Trump pushes.  

But that’s a difficult sales job. When DeSantis promises to finish building a wall across the southern border and faults Trump for not doing so, it reminds people that the wall was a showcase policy promoted by Trump when DeSantis was still a backbencher in Congress. When DeSantis says he’ll be more effective at banning abortion than Trump, it runs into the indisputable fact that Roe vs. Wade was overturned because of Trump’s Supreme Court picks. 

And you can be sure that the “Trump but competent” claim will be picked apart by the Trump campaign on issues like Florida’s COVID-19 response, where DeSantis is vulnerable. The image of DeSantis as a get-it-done politician was not helped by his poorly thought out and disastrously executed campaign announcement on Twitter last week. Rather than screaming “competence,” it whispered, “What? Huh?” Also, the campaign lacks savvy with its off-putting “Make America Florida” pitch. Most people in this country don’t want America to be Florida or Illinois or Utah or Alaska. They want it to be America. 

If effective campaigns are about defining the issues, DeSantis has to create much more separation from Trump than he has so far. His wariness about straying from Trumpism is evidenced by his agreement with the ex-president’s outrageous view that many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists may deserve pardons. DeSantis even said he might pardon Trump. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s other rivals are in an even more submissive position, seemingly in the race in case further indictments of Trump create an opening that doesn’t exist now. They haven’t effectively differentiated themselves from Trump, and he obviously isn’t scared of any of them. When Sen. Tim Scott announced his campaign for president last week, Trump posted “good luck” on social media and added that “Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who was targeted for lynching by a Trump-incited mob, mostly relies on milquetoast quotes to avoid direct attacks on Trump. It took Pence more than two years to say something as strong as “His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day.” Then he added: “I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable.” History? What about the courts and 2024 Republican primary voters?

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has two obvious ways of differentiating herself from Trump: She’s a woman, and she’s decades younger than Trump (51 vs. 76). But those don’t seem like compelling qualities to Republican voters. When Carly Fiorina ran for the 2016 GOP nomination against an otherwise all-male field, Trump said of her: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Sexism is not disqualifying behavior in today’s GOP. Instead, it’s a given. And Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care about his age either. Just as beer goggles make someone appear more attractive at closing time, cult-like adoration makes the faithful see Trump as an ageless superhero.

Haley has ridiculed DeSantis for “copying Trump, even adopting his mannerisms. “If he’s just going to be an echo of Trump, people will just vote for Trump,” she said. But Haley has a similar problem. If you’re just a younger Trump in a dress, people will just vote for Trump.

Then there’s former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who casts himself as a genteel alternative to Trump. But being genteel apparently means criticizing Trump oh so gently, and it’s hard to see a candidate winning simply on the basis of Trump exhaustion. 

The rivals to Trump have a basic problem when they run against him on biographical qualities or personal style. Fact is, MAGA voters have accepted Trump’s record as a shady businessman, and they love his rude, dishonest style. They want more of it. Newt Gingrich said last week that Trump commands loyalty because “he talks at a level where third-, fourth- and fifth-grade educations can say, ‘Oh yeah, I get that. I understand it.’” So how are Trump’s opponents going to differentiate from that? Will they go upscale and use four-syllable words or go low and talk like second-graders?

And just as MAGA voters like Trump’s style, they like his policies: the overturning of Roe, the cruelty toward immigrants, the racism. Trump’s challengers like those policies too. Or at least they’re afraid to say otherwise.

We’ll have to see whether former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will change the timid tone and find some differentiating issues. Christie, who is expected to announce a presidential bid next week, mocks Trump’s GOP presidential rivals for treating Trump like Harry Potter villain Voldemort, afraid to say his name. But Christie has a credibility problem of his own. He criticizes Trump now, but he supported him through all the awfulness of his time in the White House, even helping lead Trump’s debate prep in 2020. 

Republican voters can be forgiven for asking:

If the GOP field is made up of longtime Trump supporters, why shouldn’t I keep voting for Trump? Why change burritos in mid-meal?

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.