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Ron DeSantis knows exactly what he’s doing. With his apparent decision to join the 2024 presidential race by way of a Twitter conversation with that platform’s firebrand billionaire owner, the Florida Governor is putting America on notice that he’s running a different kind of campaign. In fact, from the start, DeSantis is telling the country that he will do precisely the opposite of what is expected of a White House contender by aiming to overtake Donald Trump as the most unpredictable and incendiary force in politics.
DeSantis and Elon Musk are scheduled to chat on Twitter on Wednesday evening, a summit of two culture-war generals who are plenty keen to poke at norms, if not fling civility wholesale into the chipper. The lead-off intensity already is drawing attention and anxiety. After all, there are few people—in politics or beyond—who have such a polarizing effect on so many people, or represent just how mean-spirited politics can reap reward for the bold.
DeSantis has made bitter feuds a hallmark of his time leading Florida, a state once seen as a barometer of U.S. politics but in the post-pandemic environment is trending into a hard-right state. His contempt for vaccine– and mask-mandate policies made him a star in some circles. He coasted to re-election last year against a lackluster Democratic rival while positioning himself as a less-indicted version of Trump, his one-time patron. DeSantis’ standoff with Walt Disney World over so-called “wokeness,” his censorship of educators’ lessons on American racism, and his takeover of some schools have elevated him to hero status for a subset of Republican voters. Among his critics, his crusade against abortion rights verges on fanaticism, his rejection of transparency borders on autocracy. In his embrace of Musk, whose free-for-all approach to Twitter has made him an unlikely icon of the right, DeSantis is aiming to further endear himself to the mercurial billionaire’s legions of very-online keyboard-cased activists.
Most campaigns require some level of choke-it-down stagecraft to politics. It’s clear when candidates are showing up in certain places they would have previously spurned, saying things they don’t believe, promising programs they know will never come to pass. They do it because it is required to survive the moment. (See John McCain’s retracted 2000 comments on the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse.) The inauthenticity can be uncomfortable to perform and watch alike, but all candidates—even the most Bulworth of them—can weather a few fleeting betrayals of character in their effort at a bigger goal.
But for a candidate like DeSantis, launching his bid on Twitter alongside Musk represents a real gamble, as viewers may struggle to tell if it represents an approximation of performative politics, or a reflection of his true sensibilities. Americans simply don’t know him well enough to make that judgment.
Either way, there are evident limits, even at its inception, to this approach. The instant burst of contempt for coloring inside the lines will yield goodwill among the most conservative elements of the GOP, but will also test the stomach of the political center of the country. Strategists believe Trump’s constant antics and trolling are among his biggest weaknesses, and here is a candidate seen as a Trumpist without the baggage trying to replicate the performative elements of the ex-President.
The 2020 field of Republicans is still coming together, although this week seems to have brought something of a reset to the crowd. Sen. Tim Scott crossed the starting line on Monday, just barely getting ahead of DeSantis’ expected launch Wednesday evening. (That’s worth a caveat, of course: DeSantis has long shown signs of paranoia and spite; in recent weeks, his team has been testing supporters’ discretion by spreading false information to see who can be trusted—never a sign of a particularly healthy campaign. DeSantis’ whole launch-by-Twitter Spaces gambit could just be part of an elaborate opening meant to give him a chance to again attack the Fake News.)
All of this stick-it-in-your-eye pluck, however, may not be as beneficial should DeSantis succeed in becoming the nominee. The gimmicks that may help him at the moment among the far-right wing of the Republican Party isn’t likely to win him converts in states he’ll need beyond “The Free State of Florida.” In chasing those voters seeking a destructive force in politics, he may well spook twice as many who are open to an alternative to President Joe Biden sticking around the West Wing for another four years. For those voters, reverting to a policy-by-tweet era may prove worse than an incumbent who seems a step off his best days.
DeSantis, to this point, has been largely untested. As TIME’s Molly Ball reports from Tallahassee for the magazine’s latest cover, DeSantis’ legislature has proven compliant in building him a record ready to road-test in Des Moines, Concord, and Columbia. But as other Republican Governors have proven, a record at the statehouse doesn’t always translate in the church basements, VFW halls, and diners where early-nominating states pick their favorite. Just ask Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, or Jeb Bush how their records as Governors launched them to the nomination. For incumbents, it’s even worse if they have to go home in defeat. DeSantis could prove merely the latest state exec who melts on the national stage when the lights get brighter, the scrutiny gets sharper, and the donors turn out to be more fickle.
DeSantis is choosing as divisive an opening day as one can imagine, but it may be the perfect microcosm for the campaign to come. At least he’s being honest with America about his playbook from his campaign’s opening day and voters can make a decision accordingly. In that, DeSantis is at least respecting voters enough to tell them some version of this truth: he’s ready to fight anyone about anything, so long as it helps him look like a bigger troublemaker than Trump. If DeSantis is able to sustain this hardcore approach, it stands to be a very, very long 17 months—or longer if he proves more successful.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com