Ron DeSantis Can’t Out-Trump Trump

7 minute read
Charen is a syndicated columnist, Policy Editor at The Bulwark, and host of the Beg to Differ podcast.

Ron DeSantis has an aggression problem. Not that he lacks it by any means. Nor is he wrong to believe that a portion of the Republican base thrills to those strains. He has delighted them with attacks on “wokeness” and special police units to prosecute (illusory) Democratic voter fraud. But he has hit a snag in his plan to be the next SOB to win Republican hearts.

More even than Hollywood screenwriters, politicians are copycats. If a pitch has been successful, it will have imitators. For several election cycles after Ronald Reagan’s 49-state sweep in 1984, the conventional wisdom gelled that the secret to his success was sunny optimism. True or not (and divining the motives of 100 million voters is a dicey affair), Republicans clung to optimism as the secret sauce. Republican debates became optimism fests. When he won the Delaware primary in 1996, Malcolm Forbes declared that “We see an America that is self-confident, dynamic . . . not fearful of the future.” The 2000 GOP platform affirmed that “Americans have good reason for optimism.” In 2012, during a debate with President Obama, Mitt Romney stressed that “I’m optimistic about the future.. . . America’s going to come back.”

Donald Trump’s secret sauce, judging by his imitators, is perceived to be his transgressive savagery—the cruder the better. Republicans now compete in the cruelty sweepstakes. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas toys with pardoning a man convicted of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester. Kyle Rittenhouse, the then 17-year-old who brought a gun to a protest looking for trouble and finding it, is a favorite at GOP fundraisers. Mehmet Oz, a doctor previously known for his affable demeanor, mocked his opponent’s serious health setback, sneering that he had only his own poor dietary choices to blame for a stroke. Nikki Haley seeks credibility with the MAGA-fied base by offering that “You should know this about me—I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you are wearing heels.” Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, upon hearing that Paul Pelosi had been bludgeoned with a hammer, led her audience in heartless jokes.

Read More: The DeSantis Project to Remake America

But arguably the aspirant to the post-Trump mantle who has done the most to burnish his cruelty credibility is Ron DeSantis. Not content to oppose the policies recommended by Anthony Fauci, he has made the medical advisor a demon figure. “Fauci for prison” declared a DeSantis fundraising email in 2021. He sold merchandise with the slogan “Don’t Fauci My Florida.” At a “Keep Florida Free” rally in 2022, after Fauci had announced his retirement, DeSantis told the crowd, “I’m just sick of seeing him. I know he says he’s going to retire. Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”

Trump taught that good faith arguments over policy are for cucks, and DeSantis has learned this lesson well. When critics objected to his Parental Rights in Education Act (dubbed by opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) because its vagueness could be interpreted to mean, among other things, that gay teachers couldn’t display pictures of their spouses on their desks, DeSantis’s spokeswoman Christina Pushaw took to Twitter to call the measure the “Anti-Grooming” bill. (Grooming is a notorious, false accusation against homosexuals.) “If you’re against the anti-Grooming bill,” she wrote, “you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children.”

DeSantis has been mocked for imitating Trump’s gestures (the accordion hands and the O-shaped thumb/index finger sign) but he’s been just as assiduous in adopting Trump’s moral indecency. In January 2022, just a few weeks after Trump hosted Kanye West and Nick Fuentes at Mar-A-Lago, a group of neo-Nazis attacked a Jewish student in Orlando. Several public figures, including Republican Senator Rick Scott, condemned it. DeSantis did not, permitting his press secretary to float the rumor that this was a false flag operation perpetrated to make the governor look bad.

Among his most egregious acts was one that doubtless bought him dividends with the Trump base. Mimicking Abbott, who had been busing would-be immigrants to Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., DeSantis sent his agents to Texas to pick up Venezuelan asylum seekers. Some 48 migrants were lured with $10 McDonalds gift cards and promises of work, shelter, and food at a new location. The group was then flown to Martha’s Vineyard. Fox News, but not the governor of Massachusetts, was tipped off in advance.

DeSantis’s cruelty cred is accordingly well-established. In addition, he has staked out policy positions that bear little resemblance to traditional Republicanism but hew closely to the new culture warrior ethos the base craves. With his so-called “Stop Woke Act,” he has pushed through legislation that even conservative-leaning observers believe violates the free speech rights of professors and teachers. He has used government power to punish private companies, by, for example, forbidding them to make their own decisions on vaccines and masks. He has sought to micromanage the way tech companies moderate social media, and most notably, he has launched a war on his state’s largest private employer, Disney, merely for criticizing his legislation.

Without question, DeSantis has established that he is an authoritarian aspirant utterly untethered to concepts like limited government and civil debate. He cheerfully campaigned for Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano when other Republicans shied away, and recently he has floated the idea of pardoning many January 6 defendants. If Trump had succumbed to a coronary in 2022, the DeSantis strategy would very likely have succeeded. But what DeSantis never seems to have taken account of is how the persona he’s created (and for all we know it may be more genuine than his hand gestures) gets around Trump himself. In the new MAGA GOP that DeSantis has helped to midwife, there are no standards or values beyond “toughness.” And so the DeSantis campaign bus is tooling happily along the highway until it runs smack into a freight train called Trump.

All of DeSantis’s nastiness toward progressives and Fauci and Disney and immigrants cannot help him now. He has embraced the sinister idea that leadership is bullying and cruelty, only to be faced with the master of those arts. Trump has already begun to train his guns on De Santis, belittling him with nicknames and mockery. If DeSantis responds in kind, he is the junior varsity player. If he fails to respond, he seems weak and emasculated in a party that has elevated “strength” as the highest virtue. It’s poetic justice.

DeSantis is not the man to win a dominance contest with Trump. Too many of his recent moves signal a beta mindset. While tough on Mickey Mouse, he has rushed to say he wouldn’t extradite Trump to New York to face criminal charges. He declines to say that Trump lost the 2020 election, preferring an oblique jibe about “a culture of losing.” Perhaps fearing the wrath of Tucker Carlson, he described Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute.” And he elected to share the spotlight at his own coming out party as a presidential candidate with Elon Musk and Musk’s sidekick, David Sacks. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” DeSantis has offered his consent time and again.

This is not to say that Trump’s nomination is unstoppable. But the candidate who could defeat him will not compete on cruelty. He or she will reject the dominance contest entirely and seek the votes not of Trump’s cult, but of the other 60 percent of the party that is open to an alternative. DeSantis has left that lane open.

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