Ron DeSantis has earned praise from Florida Democrats and credulity from pundits for governing to the left of where his 2018 gubernatorial campaign suggested that he would. I fear that this might encourage other people to rethink DeSantis’s allegiances and priorities, as well. That would be overthinking things. Don’t overthink Ron DeSantis.
The genesis of how Florida’s Republican governor came to “surprise” some skeptics with his amenability to big spending and preserving the Everglades starts with his emergence as the GOP nominee two years ago. It quickly became clear, at the time, that DeSantis had no policy platform to speak of, dodging reporters whenever they asked him about it and directing spokespersons to say he needed “time to flesh [it] out” before answering questions. What he had instead was a set of finely tuned emotional appeals. His main political benefactor was President Trump, whom the then-congressman convinced to endorse him during a flight to a rally in Pensacola; DeSantis’s most famous campaign ad made a gag of him prostrating himself before the president, reading his children bedtime stories about Trump’s exploits on The Apprentice and applauding their block-play as a miniaturization of his border wall. More to the point, DeSantis drew liberally from the president’s racist playbook. He entertained bigots and white supremacists at his rallies and initially refused to return money to a donor who called President Obama a “Muslim nigger.” The most directed of these were his attacks on Andrew Gillum, his black Democratic challenger — especially potent in a state where the knee-jerk response to mere black existence is often lethal vigilantism, as examples from George Zimmerman to Michael Dunn can attest. In public appearances, DeSantis vastly exaggerated crime rates in Tallahassee, where Gillum was mayor, to cast his opponent’s would-be governorship as a harbinger of black anarchy.
It was enough to deliver him a narrow win. But when he took office, DeSantis confounded some observers by reintroducing himself as a slightly less committed reactionary. As recent rundowns at Yahoo News and the Washington Post have detailed, the ex-congressman, who made his name ranting about Benghazi on Fox News, proved unusually receptive to the scientific consensus around climate change, at least for a Republican; he shocked some further by contradicting Trump’s claim that Democrats were inflating the death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to make him look bad. DeSantis burnished his rebrand by issuing a posthumous pardon for the Groveland Four, a quartet of black men and boys widely regarded as having been railroaded in the 1949 rape of a white woman. The move read as a rebuke to the accusations of racism he’d faced while campaigning, immortalized in Gillum’s October 2018 quip “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist; I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
These gestures were widely interpreted as conveying political savvy, and DeSantis’s popularity in Florida soared. He began to appear on lists of GOP contenders for the presidency in 2024, with Politico noting his “pragmatist credentials” and knack for balancing loyalty to the president with olive branches to liberals. The impression grew that DeSantis had pulled off a bait and switch; he’d deployed the typical racist appeals and pro-Trump sycophancy that could be expected of a Republican in the post-Obama age, but only to get elected and govern as a centrist bridge-builder. He undermined this notion regularly, whether by banning so-called “sanctuary cities” or imposing a de facto poll tax on Floridians with criminal convictions who’d been regranted the right to vote, a disproportionate share of whom were black. But the narrative had been established — DeSantis had the sheen of a rising GOP superstar.
Then the coronavirus came to Florida. Why DeSantis’s approval ratings for handling the pandemic have cratered where other governors find theirs ascendant, despite Florida not being hit nearly as hard as neighboring states or as some projections once intimated, is subject to debate. But it can’t have helped that, where other leaders acted swiftly to contain its spread while projecting dismay at how the federal government had abdicated responsibility, DeSantis colluded with Trump to blame New Yorkers for bringing the virus to Florida, while exuding an air of glib ineptitude. He declined to close Florida’s beaches during spring break and waited until April to issue a stay-at-home order. He showed up to a press conference wearing a single protective glove and struggled mightily to don a N95 mask at another. He’s presided over one of the country’s most underfunded and dysfunctional systems for distributing unemployment benefits — a direct inheritance from his predecessor, Rick Scott, but the logical result of his entire party’s style of governance, which is to gut government. He’s now decided — absent compelling evidence and despite still-climbing death rates in parts of the state and asymmetric devastation facing his black and Latino constituents — that Florida has defeated COVID-19 and businesses should start to reopen.
The big-picture takeaway is that DeSantis looked hapless and unprepared in 2018 before campaigning as a reactionary bigot, then proceeded to govern as a reactionary bigot some of the time while pursuing good policies and encouraging symbolic gestures at others. The pandemic has since revealed him, once again, to be hapless and unprepared, with the added twist of it being more costly now that he’s governor than when he was a mere candidate. Contrary to much analysis, this is not the path of a uniquely savvy conservative who campaigned to his own right so he could pivot to moderation. It’s how reactionaries have always done politics. They ride waves of bigoted disaffection to power, then govern in a style befitting the political and logistical constraints they face once elected. As with Trump, DeSantis followed up his racist campaign with racist policies at some points and appeased agendas that weren’t so avowedly right wing at others. Even sycophants butt heads with their sovereigns, as DeSantis has with the president. They can also reconcile and recommit to a shared agenda, as he and Trump have done as well. None of this is incompatible with understanding DeSantis as a Trump disciple who shares his benefactor’s knack for demagoguery and inept governance, including when people need him most. Signs of divergence are not fundamentally meaningful. Florida’s governor is who he said he was when he was a candidate. The path to this conclusion might seem winding and inscrutable. It is not. Trust him on this one.