Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Ron DeSantis, A Strongman Who Isn’t Dumb

For all its errors, DeSantis’s plan to out-Trump Trump can still work.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

A little over a year ago, I wrote a long feature story on Ron DeSantis. Even at that early date, it was easy to discern his blueprint for wresting the Republican nomination from Donald Trump’s hands. DeSantis was pitching himself to the party’s base as a more competent and ruthless vehicle for their agenda. He had courted and won over far-right activists who had thrilled to Trump: J-6ers, anti-vaxxers, Putin fans. His message would combine complete refusal to disavow any extremist within his coalition — when a small pack of white supremacists harassed Jewish people in Orlando, DeSantis’s spokesman called it a false flag — with a total refusal to acknowledge the mainstream media. He was already amassing overwhelming support from the party’s donor class and media barons, and could count on overt support from the Murdoch media empire.

Everything I laid out in the piece about DeSantis’s plan has turned out to be correct, except one: I thought it would work.

It still might work, of course. But the de facto rollout of DeSantis’s campaign, in advance of the de jure announcement, has undeniably failed. DeSantis’s polling numbers, after rising smartly, went the wrong way. Crucially, the phalanx of party-elite support he was amassing has begun to crumble. Trump has won several endorsements from Republicans in Congress, and numerous presidential candidates have jumped into the race. DeSantis’s early weakness has produced responses that have made him even weaker.

There’s no easy diagnosis for the stumbling rollout. As my story observed, DeSantis cuts an uninspiring figure on the stump, with his irritating nasal speaking voice and aversion to human contact. But mediocre orators (Harry Truman) and introverts (Richard Nixon) have won presidential elections before. And just last November, these drawbacks did not stop DeSantis from crushing an opponent who was neither unqualified nor ideologically extreme.

The main obstacle he’s facing lies outside his control: Republicans simply love Trump. There may be a theoretical potential majority coalition composed of Republicans who either dislike Trump or realize he actually lost or believe he is fixated on the past.

But assembling that coalition was always going to be difficult. The Republican Establishment spent four years defending Trump at every turn. And it spent decades training Republican voters to reflexively dismiss any news source not controlled by the party itself. The party-controlled news has turned around and tried to interest those same voters in nominating DeSantis, but Fox News can’t immediately counteract four years of hagiographic Trump coverage by simply flipping a switch to DeSantis, the way Soviet propaganda organs might simply erase a deposed leader and introduce a new one. Even for state media, changing hearts takes time.

Yet another theory posits that DeSantis is trapped by his inability to directly challenge Trump. Specifically, DeSantis refuses to say Trump actually lost the 2020 election, undercutting his implicit case that Trump is a loser. And more generally, he has avoided direct confrontation even as Trump gleefully carves him up.

I think DeSantis can solve this, too. It seems tactically correct for him to hold back on attacking Trump for a period of time, simply to establish in the minds of persuadable Republican voters that Trump began the fight with DeSantis and DeSantis is merely fighting back.

As for the 2020 election, DeSantis has already floated what I suspect will become a more fleshed-out response. He has said that the 2020 election was run fairly in Florida, a state Trump won, while casting doubt on the voting procedures used in other states. The next step is to make explicit what he is getting at: DeSantis stopped the steal, and Trump failed.

A more serious obstacle is that DeSantis himself appears to have grown increasingly obsessed with elite political discourse. He is fixated on concepts and communicates in acronyms and other jargon favored by ideologues working professionally in the conservative movement. His decision to announce his candidacy on Twitter, an unpopular social media accessed by a small percentage of the public, confirms the impression.

But this is best understood less as a tactical error by DeSantis than as evidence of the depth of his commitment. One fallacy I identified in my story last year is the assumption by moderates and liberals that, because DeSantis is undeniably intelligent, he can’t actually believe what he says.

What I believed a year ago, and believe even more strongly now, is that DeSantis genuinely subscribes to right-wing theories casting a skeptical eye on American democracy. His 2011 book is an extended argument that, by enabling elected majorities to redistribute resources from the rich to the poor and middle class through taxes and spending, democracy poses a threat to liberty and the “real” Constitution.

His Javert-like obsession with punishing Disney, which has distressed even some of his admirers, is evidence of the same thing. DeSantis truly believes he can and must use state power to intimidate corporations from criticizing him publicly. This is not a poorly handled messaging ploy. It is an act of conviction that he has placed at the heart of his governing vision.

This has had the important benefit of endearing DeSantis to the movement’s most committed advocates of Trumpism. Despite Trump’s efforts to cast him as another Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney, DeSantis has not been maneuvered into an Establishmentarian identity. DeSantis has appointed insurrectionists to state-government positions. He campaigned energetically with candidates like Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano, who energetically endorsed Trump’s stolen-election fantasies. DeSantis’s no-enemies-to-the-right strategy has spared him from criticism from the Trumpiest corners of the conservative movement.

This has not come at a high cost at the other end of his theoretical coalition. A handful of pro-democracy Republicans, like New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, have openly criticized DeSantis’s anti-democratic tendencies. But for the most part, the party Establishment remains receptive to him as a Trump alternative.

All of this effort, I think, has at least left the door open for DeSantis to take Trump’s coalition from him. He may no longer be on track to overtake Trump, as he seemed to be last winter. He needs to improve his performance, and perhaps find some luck.

But the fundamental bet DeSantis has made is that the breadth of his party, from its McConnell wing to its space-laser wing, is receptive to the idea of a strongman who isn’t so dumb. No one else has stepped forward to supply that candidacy.

Ron DeSantis, A Strongman Who Isn’t Dumb