Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
the national interest

Ron DeSantis Would Kill Democracy Slowly and Methodically

Whether he’s as bad as Trump isn’t the question.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

During the Donald Trump era, democracy itself has become the preeminent question of American politics. Yet Trump himself has played a paradoxical role in this development. While his overtly authoritarian personality brought the democracy question to the fore, the sheer grossness of his behavior also served to blot out the deeper ideological causes of the rift. As Trump eventually fades from the scene — perhaps overtaken by Ron DeSantis — the democracy question, far from disappearing, might instead sharpen.

A glimpse into this future came recently when I proposed on Twitter that DeSantis is “a deeply authoritarian figure.” The incredulity and rage of the conservative response this summoned was captured by a Fox News story headlined “NY Mag writer wrecked for calling DeSantis ‘a more competent authoritarian’ than Trump: ‘Hysterical’.”

What’s revealing about this episode is how it has put on display the belief on the right that to call DeSantis a threat to democracy is not only wrong but self-evidently absurd. Conservatives are defining out of existence the idea that the party itself, rather than one man, could be a threat to democracy.

Half a dozen years ago, I wrote a cover story for this magazine arguing that the authoritarian danger posed by Donald Trump was not limited to his personal fascination with dictatorships and power but also grew more broadly out of the soil of American reactionary politics. Here was the argument. Unlike the Eisenhower-era Republican Party, and unlike the conservative parties in every other democratic country, the conservative movement never accepted the democratic legitimacy of the welfare state. Conservatives considered the ability of majorities to vote for economic redistribution a threat to liberty and placed the preservation of liberty (as they defined it) above democracy. And so, while Trump’s almost feral contempt for democracy and the rule of law represented a unique threat, the longer-term danger to the Republic was the institutional power of a movement that had never truly made its peace with democratic principles.

DeSantis is a flawless sample of this belief system. The conservative argument that democracy is dangerous lies so close to his heart that he wrote an entire book dedicated to the precept that “when the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” After the election, DeSantis floated a plan for legislatures to appoint pro-Trump electors, negating the election results. (The Supreme Court is ruling on the legality of this method, which may well be the cutting-edge conservative tool to negate elections.) In office, he has engineered a series of disturbingly illiberal schemes to entrench his own power, from instituting a poll tax to disenfranchise some million mostly non-white Floridians to punishing firms that dare to oppose his agenda, among many other steps.

While conservatives frequently blurt out their belief that democracy is bad because “we’re a republic, not a democracy,” they blanch at the authoritarian label. To the extent many of them grudgingly accept that Trump poses some danger to the Republic, they attribute that danger entirely to his idiosyncratic style. As National Review’s Dan McLaughlin puts it, “My quarrel all along with Trump was his longstanding & notorious personal & public character. DeSantis just doesn’t have those issues.”

It follows from this premise that any attempt to associate non-Trump elements of the Republican Party with authoritarianism is transparently disingenuous. In my DeSantis profile, I wrote that his candidacy reflects the calculation that “any former Republican voter who opposed Trump on moral rather than aesthetic grounds is gone and not worth trying to bring back.”

Christopher Rufo, who has essentially the same relation to the DeSantis campaign that Don Jr. has to the Trump campaign, essentially confirms this. “The test for ‘NeverTrump’ intellecuals [sic] is where they stand on DeSantis,” he writes, “He should be their guy: elite education, military background, leadership experience, impeccable character. If they can’t get behind him, the takeaway is clear: it’s not about principles; they serve the Left.”

If you believe the only legitimate objection to Trump is his personal character, then objecting to a politician without those character traits must be a bad-faith ploy, revealing that the complaints about Trump were never serious to begin with.

National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry acknowledges a handful of DeSantis’s illiberal abuses of power only to dismiss them as trifling. In a column defending DeSantis, the subject of boosterish coverage in his and every major conservative publication, Lowry largely reduces the liberal critique to a straw man. “By any reasonable standard, DeSantis’ supposed sins are peccadilloes compared to those of Trump,” he writes, “Trump has continued to promote conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and endorse candidates who believe or pretend to believe in them; DeSantis criticized Anthony Fauci.”

What this seemingly clever comparison omits is that DeSantis also promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. He has never conceded that Joe Biden won the election legitimately. Instead, he created an election-crimes task force and claimed the public needed to restore confidence in the sanctity of the ballot.

The Republican mainstream has dismissed Trump’s efforts to undermine the election as off-message whining that distracts attention from more potent messages like inflation. “Trump is acting on an entirely personal and selfish priority,” complains Lowry. “There’s no principle at stake in embracing the Jan. 6 mob or advancing 2020 conspiracy theories.”

This dismissal of Trump’s project catastrophically misses its profound significance. He has recruited activists and candidates into the party inspired by his belief that Democratic election victories are inherently illegitimate. There is no longer any serious Republican effort to stop election truthers. Trump is winning the war for the heart of the party in a rout. Over the last year, the percentage of Republicans who describe the events of January 6 as a “riot” has declined from 62 percent to 45 percent, while the share who describe it as a “legitimate protest” has risen from 47 percent to 61 percent.

What’s just as important as DeSantis’s longstanding suspicion of democracy and string of thuggish Orbanist maneuvers is his calculation that he can co-opt these same radical forces. The path to reconstituting the GOP as a party that we can entrust with the Republic involves shoving out at least some of its extremists while bringing the Never Trump wing back into the fold. DeSantis’s strategy is just the opposite. He has ignored the slice of Republicans who disdain Trump’s authoritarianism and courted anti-vaxxers, QAnon believers, and insurrectionists. And he has demonstrated repeatedly a “no enemies to the right” strategy that inevitably binds him to the party’s most fanatical elements.

Whether a President DeSantis would be more or less dangerous than Trump is not a question I can answer with any confidence. Trump poses a greater danger of triggering an immediate constitutional crisis, while DeSantis is more likely to methodically strangle democracy through a series of illiberal Orbanist steps like he has modeled in Florida. I suppose the threat of a quick death is more dire than the threat of a slow one, but I have little confidence in projecting out these comparative dangers. The only meaningful conclusion I can make about the choice of Trump versus DeSantis is “neither.”

Ron DeSantis Would Kill Democracy Slowly and Methodically