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Who Likes Ron DeSantis Anyway?
Time for some reflection on what a GOP pivot toward DeSantis would mean politically
To the extent that there is a Republican rebellion against Trump, it’s about one thing and one thing only: winning. After all, Republicans stood in lockstep with Trump during the height of his boorish authoritarianism—their only misgivings arising from Trump’s clumsily ineffectual form of governing, not his, you know, words or actions or policies. Most tellingly, the prime candidate to replace Trump in Republican hearts is a candidate whose ideological core, governing style, culture war preoccupations, even his mannerisms, all resemble Donald Trump. Just, they hope, without the electoral toxicity that has been emanating from the former president for a few cycles now.
The case for DeSantis, as it is actually being made, is that he is the embodiment of what the right has been pining for these past few years when it has been making the case for Trump. In other words, he is the realization of Trumpism, possibly an ideal form of it—and not a deviation from it. Disagree? Take it up with the entirety of right-wing discourse: this is the way DeSantis is being conceived of on the right. He is Trump—minus the toddler-esque attension span. Think about it: If you’re a MAGA voter, what else, other than the scintillating thrill of believing you’ve found Trump 2.0, was ever going to sway you into ditching Trump? He represents the prospect of Trump + competence. Nothing else stood a chance of captivating today’s GOP electorate.
But rather than a turn toward decency or governing respectability, the rising DeSantis wave is an affirmation of Trumpism rather than a repudiation of it. Although DeSantis has not shown a willingness to go to the anti-democratic extremes that Trump has, it is hard not to see the current rally ‘round the Ron happening in the GOP as an attempt to find a new strongman rather than to reckon with much of anything the party has done over the last six years.
It’s possible that DeSantis won’t prove a suitable replacement. Most of the commentators and journalists who appear to have much knowledge of the man describe him as rigid, sensitive, and even anti-social. We hear little in the way of stories like those that constantly float around about Trump’s behind-closed-doors charm. And a viewing of his public appearances, from debates to photo ops, show someone who seems, frankly, a bit dyspeptic. In that sense, he hardly seems to possess the kind of ineffable charisma that Trump has—or, depending on your analysis, once had and has now perhaps lost. But he is the darling of the current moment, and we should reckon with where this puts the party by looking at just how some of the people clamoring for a Ron DeSantis 2024 bid are positioning their arguments.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a noted scholar on authoritarianism, wrote recently:
If DeSantis is becoming many Republicans’ answer to their ‘Trump problem,’ his rise is because of his authoritarian sympathies and attitudes, not in spite of them.
Many agitators on the right seem to agree. Christopher Rufo echoes this, in his own way, when he writes that DeSantis exemplifies “culture war as public policy.” Noted democracy skeptic and Blake Masters megadonor Peter Thiel has also stated that he believes DeSantis is offering a model for Republican politics by building a “positive agenda” for the kind of illiberal, reactionary, and anti-democratic ideas he and other hardliners value.
Some of the people cheering on DeSantis’s policies in Florida are doing so precisely because they think he resembles Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and they have not shied away from saying so explicitly. Rod Dreher, America’s leading cheerleader of Orbánism, has embraced DeSantis on exactly these grounds. Following Orbán’s re-election this spring, Dreher took time to praise the parallels between the Hungarian and Floridian leaders’ success attacking “groomers” and the LGBTQ community in general. When Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote an excellent analysis of DeSantis’s Orbánesque approach in Florida, Dreher seized upon it as a point of pride and praised the very things that rightly concerned Beauchamp, stating:
[T]o my eyes, it goes to show that the thing that I began saying last summer when I first went to Budapest—that American conservatives have a lot to learn from Orbán’s politics—may finally be starting to happen.
Even if others don’t explicitly cite Orbán in their praise of DeSantis, they are impressed with his capacity, and apparent full-throttle willingness, to wage relentless culture war. Greg Harris, at The Daily Wire, celebrated the news of Bob Chapek’s ouster as Disney CEO, citing it as part of the ongoing fallout from the company’s showdown with DeSantis over “woke culture.” This, too, evokes Orbán—specifically, his famous showdown with the Soros-founded Central European University. After enduring a prolonged assault on academic freedom and a virulently antisemitic media campaign against university founder, George Soros, CEU eventually decamped to Vienna. DeSantis’s own attack on academic freedom, the so-called Stop-W.O.K.E. Act, purports to curb discrimination and indoctrination by drastically restricting how schools and businesses teach and talk about gender, race, and religion. Recently, a federal judge in Florida issued a temporary injunction against the bill, calling it “positively dystopian.”
To my eye, DeSantis’s threat to liberal democracy resembles Orbán’s much more than Trump’s does. Trump is the first ever man to launch a presidential putsch. He attempted a coup from the Oval Office. His assault on our system has been visceral, violent, and often evocative of the early 20th-century comparisons once dismissed as silly snowflake hyperbole. But DeSantis’s style in Florida is much more like the slow, steady deterioration of liberal democracy being carried out in nation-states like Hungary and Poland. I agree with Jonathan Chait’s argument that the threat coming from DeSantis and the movement he represents is not diminished by the disappearance of Trump from the national stage.
DeSantis has attacked vulnerable groups both rhetorically and with the force of law. He took steps to curb classroom content and waged war on corporations who challenged him, both obvious signals of disdain for free speech. He modestly tightened abortion rights before the election only to now indicate he’ll use the GOP supermajority to restrict these rights much further.
In short, he’s engaged in a range of activities that, were we to hear of it happening in some unnamed democracy in Europe, we would think that that democracy was under attack.
The Lion and The Fox
But perhaps we’re better off thinking only about raw political skills. Here, Niccolo Machiavelli’s famous advice from The Prince, that it is better to be a fox—or at least to be seen as such—than a lion, is a classic piece of incisive realpolitik. One needs to be able to be a liar and spot the lies, not merely roar the loudest.
Of course, Machiavelli’s formulation is about truth (or truthfulness) and power. Yes, Trump is a liar. He is, after all, the author of our Big Lie. But his untruths are not built so much on deceit as brute force. He asserts a reality and dares others to challenge it. He is not so much aware of traps as he is able to spot prey. His cunning, such as it is, is the predator’s instinct for the kill. In Trumpworld, he is the golden maned king and everyone else is a sheep.
Most politicians, in turn, are foxes—or at least they imagine themselves as such. They think of themselves as clever deceivers and flexible thinkers. They think they see the traps. Republican politicians have time and again presumed that Trump’s brute stupidity is merely a thing they can wait out, seizing on a moment of weakness to bring him down. But nothing has come close to loosening his grip on the party.
Those preferring a DeSantis nomination hope this time is different. More than a few have noted the ways in which DeSantis emulated Trump in his political rise, adopting not only his political positions but also his mannerisms. DeSantis certainly saw the benefits in appearing as Trumpy as possible, while also tailoring his outreach to the dynamics of his reddening state. On the Big Lie and other toxic conspiracy theories emanating from MAGAland, DeSantis has often remained coy. But he’s never failed to forcefully attack the same foes these derangements target. He waged war on masks and school and business closures, and he campaigned for some of the most noxious election-denying candidates of this past cycle, including Lake, Vance, and Mastriano.
And there is perhaps something fox-like in the recent news that he and his newly expanded Republican legislature plan to go beyond the current, much milder, 15-week abortion ban in favor of a more draconian measure. In truth, this should be unsurprising. As noted, he’s waged a wide ranging culture war in Florida, tossing up one grievance after another. And in that state it’s proven quite effective. Nationally, however, voters delivered a rather lukewarm to cold assessment of these issues. Abortion restrictions, trans demonization, and classroom boogeymen did not deliver Republicans the wave results they’d hoped for. Neither did the more salient issues of inflation and economic anxiety. One may wonder how much Republicans will toggle their rhetoric heading into 2024, though this does not really have translate to a real change in their priorities—much like the extremist candidates who quietly downplayed or even erased their past statements on abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision.
The author of The Prince was, in my estimation, a republican at heart, not an advocate for tyranny. We already know that Donald Trump harbors no such convictions. And I am skeptical that Governor DeSantis is meaningfully less of a power-lover at heart than the man many are hoping he’ll displace—though Republicans will be hoping he can pull off a more convincing cover than Trump, who was never able to disguise his basest instincts.
Whether It’s Trump or DeSantis or Neither, We Still Have an Authoritarianism Problem
Ron DeSantis would not represent a significant turn away from authoritarianism for the GOP. Selecting DeSantis would, however, constitute at least a mild turn back toward democracy. A man who has attempted a coup to stay in power is empirically a more obvious threat to democracy than a man who hasn’t done that.
Again, DeSantis would still be a risk to civil liberties and the principles of liberal pluralism. But that puts him much closer to Orbán’s illiberal democracy, which he’s recently rebranded as “Christian democracy.” That religious edge is true of DeSantis as well. In stumping for Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, he called upon his party to put on “the armor of God.”
None of this offers a particularly sunny outlook for where the Republican Party is at or where it could be going, even if it manages to ditch Donald Trump. In fact, DeSantis might well offer a first run at what it would look like to apply the kinds of state-level deterioration in liberal democracy that’s been happening around America at the national level. Perhaps there isn’t an electorate for that, but he has just won re-election in one of America’s largest—and, until recently, swingiest—states. And he’s done so by an astounding margin.
It remains to be seen whether there genuinely exists an appetite for abandoning Trump among the GOP’s primary voters. But Ron DeSantis now clearly represents one of the hypothetical futures awaiting America in 2024 and beyond. I find it unlikely that others now testing those waters, from Mike Pence to Asa Hutchinson, are much more than fodder for a crowded primary that would surely increase Trump’s odds of winning the nomination. And there’s also little reason to think the elites and pundits now lining up to declare Trump toxic—because of his win-loss record, mind you, and not his character or misdeeds—will object to any 2024 nominee on democracy grounds, Trump included. Whatever 2024 holds, the central challenge of the illiberalization of the Republican Party remains with us.