The Future of Trumpism

The greatest threat to Donald Trump’s hold on the GOP comes from Ron DeSantis, who may be more MAGA than the MAGA king himself.

Photo-Illustration: Eddie Guy; Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Eddie Guy; Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Eddie Guy; Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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In late February, as daily deaths from COVID-19 tallied in the thousands across the country, Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced his latest effort to dismantle his state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Private businesses, he insisted, should stop requiring their employees to wear masks at work. Here was a perfectly selected message to build the brand he has established: Ron DeSantis, scourge of public-health bureaucrats, enemy of woke corporations, and friend of the little guy.

Both the form and content of the message reflected careful planning. As DeSantis spoke, he looked like a man who had been mimicking Donald Trump’s speeches in front of the mirror. He performed a series of hand thrusts, in which he drew his thumbs together until they were almost touching, then jerked them apart in quick horizontal motions, as if he were playing an invisible accordion. After five such accordion pulls, he swung his right hand, thumb pointing up, in a semi-circular motion back inward to the center. DeSantis tweeted out the clip, and any MAGA fan watching, even without the sound on, would have grasped the gist just through the eerie physical impersonation.

Republicans have collectively recognized that however much Trump may exasperate them, their president-in-exile will not be purged, nor will the changes he brought to their party be rolled back. He might, however, be co-opted. And if this is to happen, they have settled with remarkable unanimity on DeSantis as the person to do it.

People who do not ingest large amounts of conservative media may have difficulty comprehending the extent of the adulation both the Trumpist and the Trump-skeptical wings of the party have lavished on DeSantis. On a daily basis, the right-wing press churns out stories with headlines like “The Promise of Ron DeSantis,” “Could Gov. Ron DeSantis Be the Favorite GOP Frontrunner for 2024?,” “A Ron DeSantis Master Class in Rope-a-Dope,” “Media Keep Trying — and Failing — to Take Down Florida’s Ron DeSantis,” “Karol Markowicz on What Gov. Ron DeSantis Is Really Like: ‘So Real and Down to Earth,’ ” and on and on.

The Florida governor has reportedly provoked Trump by refusing to preemptively endorse his likely candidacy for a second term, and DeSantis is putting himself in a position to challenge the former president for the 2024 nomination. An annoyed Trump has privately told associates that he’s not worried about DeSantis because he “has no personal charisma and has a dull personality,” according to Axios. But Trump has cause for concern: DeSantis has blitzed the national Republican donor circuit and turned most of the conservative media into his personal messaging apparatus. “You should be my governor,” cooed Sean Hannity in one interview. “We see him as the future of the party,” a Fox News producer wrote to DeSantis’s office in an email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. This work has already yielded fruit: DeSantis’s polling has crept up steadily, while every other Republican who had once been whispered about as a potential nominee — Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Josh Hawley — has barely registered.

There are other, more troubling signs for Trump that his stranglehold over the party may be loosening. In December, during an interview in Dallas with disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump was booed by members of the crowd when he confirmed that he had received a COVID booster shot. Since he left office, the Republican Party has by and large turned against the measures designed to ameliorate the impact of the pandemic, giving upstarts like DeSantis a chance to outflank him on what has become the central battleground of the culture wars. “What we’ve done is historic,” a confused Trump told his skeptical supporters in Dallas, claiming credit for the production of lifesaving vaccines. “Don’t let them take it away. Don’t take it away from ourselves.”

Trump is right that DeSantis can’t compete as a performer with him or even with past Republicans who have built national brands. DeSantis has the anti-tax zealotry of Paul Ryan without the winsome affect and sculpted torso. He has the social conservatism of George W. Bush with none of the folksiness. He has the partisan fire of Newt Gingrich without the mesmerizing hair. He speaks in a nasal tone nobody has described as pleasant on the ears and has yet to utter an eloquent or memorable turn of phrase. Reporters have noted his puzzling lack of interest in human relationships outside his family, which has resulted in heavy staff churn. “You will be in the car with Ron DeSantis and he’ll say nothing to you for an hour,” one associate told Politico. “He would prefer it that way.” But in some respects, DeSantis’s distant middle-management energy is the point, especially when compared to Trump’s garish star power.

It is crucial to understand that the critique of Trump that prevails among Republican officials is far narrower than the one proffered by Democrats or Never Trumpers. They don’t object to Trump’s racism, corruption, lying, or contempt for democratic norms, except to the extent that these qualities hurt the party’s brand. What irritates, instead, is Trump’s constant disregard for basic political self-preservation. DeSantis offers them the prospect of a party leader who can harness all the right-wing populist energy generated by Trump without the latter’s childlike inability to focus on what his advisers tell him. One DeSantis ally, confiding to the New York Times, summed up his appeal as “competent Trumpism.”

His proto-candidacy reflects a handful of working assumptions. First, that any former Republican voter who opposed Trump on moral rather than aesthetic grounds is gone and not worth trying to bring back. Second, that the right-wing groups Trump brought into the Republican fold or whose creation he inspired are either political assets or simply too important to be culled. And third, that Trump’s attempt to secure an unelected second term was a failure of tactics, not a disqualifying ambition that merited rebuke and ostracism. The DeSantis pitch is to wrest the MAGA movement from the grifters who built it and place it in the hands of a trusted professional politician.

This project raises two questions: Can it succeed in prying the nomination from Trump’s grip? And what would it mean if it did? Just imagine what a Trumpified party no longer led by an erratic, deeply unpopular cable-news binge-watcher would be capable of.

One of the reasons political analysts dismissed the possibility Trump could win the Republican nomination when he first ran is that such an outcome violated what was taken as virtually a scientific truth. A 2008 book written by a quartet of political scientists, The Party Decides, argued that presidential nominations only appeared to be controlled by the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and so on but were actually determined by party insiders. The elites, coordinating with one another, made their preferences known through the media, and the primary voters would absorb those messages and act accordingly.

This thesis perfectly described the next contested primary that happened. The 2012 Republican nominating contest featured a succession of flamboyant right-wing populists — Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Gingrich — who would enthrall the base and shoot up in the polls only to collapse as if pulled down by some gravitational force detectable solely by political science. But Trump’s 2016 nomination, in the face of near-total opposition from the Republican elite, obviously shows the party does not always decide. The voters might pick a nominee their party’s elites oppose if that candidate offers them something unique.

Many Republicans have tried to discern the source of Trump’s appeal and replicate it. As early as 2016, Ted Cruz was tacking to Trump’s right on abortion and guns, and Marco Rubio briefly tried to match Trump’s schoolyard insults, at one point making fun of the size of his hands. But Trump’s secret sauce with the base turned out to be his unwavering pugilism. Having spent more time than perhaps any other Republican candidate consuming conservative media, Trump had absorbed its message that conservative America is under assault by sinister liberal elites. He built a political style designed for the world depicted on Fox News, in which the Republican Party is always losing because its leaders are too weak to fight back.

Conservatives sum up his appeal with the phrase “But he fights.” As the “but” implies, they often acknowledge Trump’s flaws before praising his overriding instinct to attack their enemies. Even his errors can turn to his benefit. The more Trump draws howls of outrage from liberals and the media, the more he proves his tribal bona fides.

DeSantis has undertaken an almost clinical effort to manufacture and bottle this aspect of Trump’s style. He has repeated the Trumpian narrative that the party’s leaders have failed to take the fight to the enemy. “We cannot, we will not, go back to the days of the failed Republican Establishment of yesteryear,” he promised in 2021. DeSantis’s brand is, like Trump’s, a Republican who never compromises, never apologizes, and always fights — whether the issue is education, the pandemic, or even Trump’s misconduct. At the CPAC conference in his home state in February, he claimed that Democrats “want us to be second-class citizens” and assailed the “corrupt and dishonest legacy media.”

Photo: David A. Grogan/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images (top left); Joe Raedle/Getty Images (top right); Federic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images (middle left); Joe Raedle/Getty Images (middle right); CNN/Youtube (bottom left); Storms Media for Delray Beach Market/MediaPunch/Shutterstock (bottom right).

The Republican elites rallying to DeSantis are calculating that his synthetic version of Trumpism will serve as an adequate substitute. The party is trying to regain its control of the process by offering the voters a more attractive product than, say, Jeb Bush. If you loved Trump, you will like DeSantis. And if you liked Trump, or maybe just tolerated him through gritted teeth, you will love DeSantis.

One irony of DeSantis’s attempt to become the new Trump is that his trajectory was almost precisely the opposite of the latter’s. Trump grew up wealthy but was an indifferent student who allegedly cheated his way into college and retained a working-class affect when he inherited his father’s real-estate empire. DeSantis grew up middle class in Dunedin, Florida (his mother was a nurse and his father installed Nielsen boxes on televisions), before attending Yale and then Harvard Law School. At Harvard, he joined the Navy as a JAG officer, later putting his legal skills to use during stints in Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay.

After active duty in the Navy, DeSantis ran for a House seat in 2012 in the Sixth Congressional District in the middle of a two-decade stretch when the state was trending from purple to red. DeSantis prevailed in a crowded primary in part by winning endorsements from national tea-party groups. The way Republicans established their right-wing credentials at the time was by adopting radical libertarian stances on fiscal policy, and DeSantis duly proposed to abolish the graduated income tax and phase in cuts to “entitlement programs” — i.e., Medicare and Social Security. In Congress, he helped found the Freedom Caucus, a right-wing faction, though he didn’t participate in the destructive displays of rebelliousness, such as forcing government shutdowns to stage impossible demands, that made other caucus members intolerable to the party leadership.

After Trump’s election, DeSantis could see that the energy on the right was flowing through different channels. When he ran for governor in 2018, he overcame a better-known Republican rival by positioning himself as Trump’s staunchest defender. In Congress, he proposed to defund the Mueller investigation. He attacked his primary opponent for having failed to attend a Trump rally in 2016 and cut a cheeky ad showing himself reading Trump’s The Art of the Deal to his young son and instructing his daughter to “build the wall” with her toy blocks. He made frequent appearances on Fox News, where he caught Trump’s attention and won his blessing. “Ron is strong on Borders, tough on Crime & big on Cutting Taxes — Loves our Military & our Vets,” Trump tweeted. “He will be a Great Governor & has my full Endorsement!”

A common assumption of mainstream-media analysis of DeSantis is that he is merely pandering to Trump and his supporters and, as a graduate of Yale and Harvard, is too smart to actually believe what he is saying. This is a failure of imagination. DeSantis developed reactionary suspicions of democracy before Trump ever came along, which positioned him perfectly to straddle the elite-base divide within his party. In fact, DeSantis once wrote a book warning of the dangers of a megalomaniacal president who threatened to destroy the foundations of the republic. That president’s name was Barack Obama.

DeSantis published Dreams From Our Founding Fathers in 2011, when he was running for Congress. It is out of print and has received barely any attention in the media. DeSantis joked recently that the book “was read by about a dozen people.” But it provides deep insight into the worldview that has propelled him to this point.

Published at the height of the tea-party movement, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers made the case that Obama and his agenda were inimical to the Constitution and this country’s founding ideals. It is sprinkled with passages DeSantis would never have written after Trump took office. He notes accurately that the Founders “worried about the emergence of popular leaders who utilized demagoguery to obtain public support in service of their personal ambitions.” He flays Obama for alienating traditional allies, meeting with foreign dictators, and impugning American innocence with statements like “We sometimes make mistakes,” a far more measured assessment than Trump’s “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?” He devotes an entire chapter to the importance of the president being personally humble, depicting Obama’s alleged excessive self-confidence as a disqualifying trait.

DeSantis’s obsession with media bias, which has since become a motif of his political style, clearly developed before he ran for office. He laces the book with bitter complaints that the media failed to vet Obama or expose his allegedly radical influences, while extensively citing criticisms of Obama that appeared in the mainstream press, oblivious to the contradiction. DeSantis is an exceedingly unreliable narrator, wrenching heavily abridged quotations out of context to distort their meaning. For example, he plucks the phrase “At a certain point you’ve made enough money” to characterize Obama as a radical socialist who wants to confiscate all income above some level, neglecting to note that Obama’s follow-up was: “But, you know, part of the American way is that you can just keep on making it if you’re providing a good product or you’re providing a good service.”

Still, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers is much more interesting than a typical partisan screed. Its author, who majored in history and spent a year teaching the subject at a tony boarding school, has clearly given a great deal of thought to the book’s thesis: that Obama’s agenda of raising taxes on the rich and spending more money on the non-rich is an attack on the Constitution.

“As legend has it, Benjamin Franklin once said that ‘when the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic,’ ” he writes. While acknowledging that the quote is apocryphal — it was probably concocted by reactionaries many decades later and attributed to various Founding-era statesmen — he proceeds to try to prove this was the real view of the Founders and the Constitution.

The Constitution, he argues, was designed to “prevent the redistribution of wealth through the political process.” The danger is that, as his fake Franklin quote suggests, people will support programs funded by taxing the rich that benefit themselves. “Popular pressure to redistribute wealth or otherwise undermine the rights of property,” he laments, “will ever be present.” The Constitution’s role, as DeSantis sees it, is to prevent popular majorities from enacting the economic policies they want.

DeSantis does not believe the Constitution merely establishes a set of ground rules for how policy should be written. He thinks the Constitution requires that conservative Republican policy prevail forever. This is not an original belief. It was the dominant right-wing position from the late-19th century through the middle of the New Deal, and conservative courts routinely struck down all sorts of progressive legislation on the grounds that the Constitution prohibits active government intervention in the economy.

DeSantis treats any further expansion of government as a mortal threat to the Constitution. Sentences like “Obamanomics represents a dramatic departure from the nation’s founding principles” and “Obama’s quest to ‘fundamentally transform the United States of America’ represents the type of political program that the Constitution was designed to prevent” are found in nearly every chapter. The word redistribution and its variants appear more than 150 times.

DeSantis’s core conviction is that an outcome in which Democrats win majorities through free and fair elections and vote to expand social spending by taxing the rich is fundamentally illegitimate. He is far from the only Republican to hold this view. The American right has never fully accepted the legitimacy of democratically elected majorities setting economic policy.

This principle helps explain why even most Republicans who get queasy over Trump’s authoritarianism ultimately support him anyway. The prospect of Democrats winning elections poses a graver threat to the Constitution than Republicans stealing them. For those Republicans who always considered Trump no worse than the lesser evil, who feared more that he was squandering his power than that he was abusing it, DeSantis is not just an acceptable vehicle. He is one of them.

What has brought DeSantis near the pinnacle of Republican politics barely a decade into his career is not only his deep commitment to the principles of the conservative movement but also a keen understanding of the power centers within the party. As those centers have changed throughout his career, DeSantis has adjusted nimbly from tea-partyer to Trumpista. The identity he recognized in the spring of 2020, and embraced with deepening militancy, is founded on opposition to social-distancing policies during the coronavirus pandemic.

DeSantis’s skepticism of public-health authorities paid economic and political dividends, at least for a while. During the 2020–21 academic year, when most states stuck with remote learning, Florida opened its schools, a position even Democrats belatedly recognized as correct. He has used COVID as a stage to pick successful fights with the media, which has sometimes overreached in its criticism of his pandemic policy. Last year, a 60 Minutes segment accused him of corruption for steering vaccine distribution to the Publix chain of pharmacies, which had donated to his PAC, though many acknowledged the popular outlet was a logical partner for the program. DeSantis deftly used the episode to thrill conservatives with sharp counterpunches against the media. “The whole thing is a big lie,” he fumed, using a PowerPoint presentation to make his case.

But DeSantis’s aggressive COVID politics have also seen him take increasingly extreme positions. Over the past year, DeSantis’s defense of what he calls “freedom over Faucism” — which, in addition to keeping schools open, has involved blocking towns from mandating masks and businesses from requiring vaccines and at one point scolding high-school students for wearing masks at a photo op — has drawn him into the arms of the anti-vaccine movement. He has appeared at a press conference with an anti-vaxxer, suspended a state health official for encouraging his staff to increase their vaccine uptake, and appointed vaccine skeptic Joseph Ladapo to serve as the state’s top health official. (People are “being forced to put something in their bodies that we don’t know all there is to know about yet,” Ladapo claimed. “No matter what people on TV tell you, it’s not true. We’re going to learn more about the safety of these vaccines.”) After confirming he received his first shot last year off-camera, DeSantis has refused to say whether he got a booster.

One result of DeSantis’s support for the anti-vaccine movement is that, as of February, his state ranked 46th nationally in its share of elderly citizens who have received a booster shot. During the COVID wave last winter, Florida’s death rate significantly outstripped California’s. At his February 2021 CPAC speech, DeSantis boasted that his state had a (slightly) below-average COVID death rate. His COVID riff at this year’s CPAC made no mention of mortality statistics.

DeSantis’s oppositional approach to politics borrows heavily from Trump’s style but with noticeable adjustments. Compared with the original, DeSantis’s version of Trumpism is much more methodical, which robs it of its organic spontaneity yet also eliminates the frequent blowback. He has followed Trump’s practice of using Twitter to launch unhinged attacks on the media and liberals, with the important revision of outsourcing the job to his spokespeople, most notably press secretary Christina Pushaw. This allows DeSantis to get much of the benefit of Trump’s fire hose of abuse, exciting conservative activists and flustering reporters with wild accusations, all while his underlings absorb the reputational damage.

Trump’s genuine ignorance and limited vocabulary allowed him to effortlessly channel the Republican base’s contempt for the educated elite. DeSantis has to work at it. Last fall, he mockingly cited a Wall Street Journal article on the declining number of men attending college. “I guess there was a decline in the number of men, the percentage of men going to college or whatever,” he told his audience. “And they acted like this was a bad thing. And honestly, like, you know, to me, I think that is probably a good sign.” This is not, of course, advice that the double-Ivy DeSantis took himself.

DeSantis’s culture-war appeals usually steer clear of Trump’s overt racism. (The one exception was during the 2018 general election, when he warned voters not to “monkey this up” by electing his Black Democratic opponent, a phrase that might have been a deliberate racist appeal but could also have been an unfortunate slip of the tongue.) He often attempts to formulate positions that could drive a wedge between the left and the center. Most important, while Trump’s culture-war gestures often produced nothing but ephemeral content for conservative media, DeSantis has placed real state power behind the right-wing social agenda.

DeSantis on Monday signed a bill into law that would restrict classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, preventing teachers from explaining things like why some children have two fathers or two mothers. (Democrats offered an amendment to ensure the law would be limited to discussions of sex. Republicans voted it down.) The law’s deepest potential for harm lies in its details. It bans such discussions either before the fourth grade or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Not only is the standard of “appropriateness” inherently subjective, but its enforcement mechanism enables parents who don’t like the instruction their child gets on gender to sue.

You don’t need to be a social liberal to see the potential for havoc. The law will open “a lawsuit factory for culture war organizations to go after schools,” the libertarian magazine Reason notes, forcing schools “to shell out money to defend themselves” and giving “the most conservative parents the ability to veto school discussions that other parents are perfectly fine with.”

DeSantis has appeared undaunted, tearing into a reporter who quoted Democrats who called it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill before it was signed. This allowed him to highlight, once again, his martyrdom at the hands of the media without having to address the more serious objections to the bill. Pushaw went on Twitter to reframe the law as an “Anti-Grooming Bill,” writing, “If you’re against the anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children.” It was a perfectly orchestrated DeSantis culture-war set piece.

DeSantis is also preparing to sign what he calls the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” a measure preventing uncomfortable racial discussions at any public school or college in the state that is so broad it would ban teachers or professors from defending affirmative action. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech group that has frequently denounced left-wing indoctrination and censorship on campus, describes the bill as “flatly unconstitutional.”

This spring, DeSantis staked out a position to the right of his own party by promising to veto a congressional map designed by Republicans. DeSantis insisted instead on a more aggressive map that would eliminate two of the state’s five Black-held seats. DeSantis believes this maneuver can both increase his party’s strength in Congress and provoke a legal fight that would lead to the Supreme Court’s striking down the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act that protect minority representation in legislative redistricting. “In meetings, he would just demand, ‘Pass my maps! My maps! My maps!’ He’s just bizarrely obsessed with this,” a Republican told NBC.

A measure that received less attention than either, but has enormous significance, is one DeSantis signed with little fanfare. In 2018, nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved a ballot initiative to allow former felons to vote. Felon disenfranchisement is a relic of the post-Reconstruction era, when white southern states used it, in combination with laws heavily targeting Black men, as a tool to limit voting. The referendum granted eligibility to more than a million Floridians.

DeSantis, who was elected governor at the same time the initiative passed, acted quickly to nullify it once in office. Republicans pushed through a law requiring former felons to pay off any outstanding fines or court debt before they could vote. At least three-quarters of eligible voters owe court debt, and of those, the vast majority can’t pay it back.

The point of the bill was not to compel payments. Indeed, because the state has no central database listing all fines, many voters who had the money, and an intense enough desire to vote, to pay for the privilege could not do so. The bill’s purpose was to disenfranchise those voters. Republicans have been implementing voting-rights restrictions across the country since about 2011, but no state has enacted a measure as sweeping and draconian as Florida’s. DeSantis is the only governor since the Jim Crow era to institute a literal poll tax.

After signing the law, DeSantis proclaimed on his official Twitter account, “Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly.” He conveyed his beliefs with chilling accuracy: Voting is a privilege, not, as many Americans believe, a right.

Trump and DeSantis have been circling each other since the 2020 election, and their budding rivalry has so far been shaped by the GOP’s two great preoccupations of the immediate post-Trump era: the pandemic and Trump’s attempts to steal the election.

The incipient contest broke into public view in December. It began when DeSantis appeared on Fox News with Maria Bartiromo, who asked if he had gotten a booster shot. DeSantis evaded the question and changed the subject to his fight against vaccine requirements. A couple of weeks later, Pushaw announced that DeSantis was refusing to disclose his status as a matter of “medical privacy.”

The next week, Trump appeared on One America News and, without naming him, ridiculed DeSantis for being afraid to come clean. “I watched a couple of politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was ‘Did you get the booster?’ ” Trump said. “Because they had the vaccine, and they’re answering like — in other words, the answer is ‘Yes,’ but they don’t want to say it because they’re gutless. You gotta say it, whether you had it or not. Say it.”

Quickly afterward, DeSantis hit back. The lobbyist Josh Holmes, an ally of Mitch McConnell’s, asked DeSantis on his podcast if he had any regrets about his term in office. DeSantis replied that he wished he had spoken out more forcefully against Trump’s early, intermittent endorsements of social distancing when the coronavirus pandemic began, which he described as “locking down the country.” In other words, DeSantis considers his biggest mistake in office failing to push back against something Donald Trump did.

The most revealing aspect of the episode was how the conservative media covered it. If you listened to the Trump-critical outlets on the right — the ones aligned with the GOP Establishment’s belief that Trump’s personality is a liability for the party — the first shots had been fired in DeSantis’s uprising. National Review, which has become the premier intellectual organ of the anti-anti-Trump right while pining for his replacement, ran columns with headlines like “Could DeSantis Beat Trump?” and “The DeSantis-Trump Tensions Will Lead to a Test of Strength.”

Meanwhile, the most loyal Trumpist corners of the conservative media denied the entire premise that DeSantis and Trump were in conflict. American Greatness, an online magazine invented in response to the Trump campaign and premised on turning his slogans into a political program, insisted that “the New York Times story on the Trump-DeSantis feud is kayfabe” (a staged conflict). In a column headlined “Why the Media’s Attempt to Split DeSantis and Trump Isn’t Working,” the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway argued that the “corporate media” is trying to pit Trump and DeSantis “against each other” because “they’re a threat to the Establishment.”

If you’re a Republican who wants Trump gone, DeSantis is the man with the guts to take him on. If you’re a Republican who adores Trump, DeSantis remains his loyal ally. Both wings of the party are jostling for DeSantis’s approval and broadcasting DeSantis-friendly messages to their audiences.

The same dynamic can be seen in DeSantis’s courtship of the anti-vaccine movement. Pro-vaccine conservatives maintain the pretense that DeSantis only opposes vaccine mandates, calling him “a vocal proponent of the COVID vaccines” and insisting that the claim he is encouraging doubt about the safety or efficacy of the vaccines is a “lie.” Meanwhile, anti-vaccine activists have hailed DeSantis as their champion. Vaccine skeptic Robert Malone, appearing on Steve Bannon’s podcast, gushed, “Ron DeSantis and surgeon general Joe Ladapo  … are giving hope to the rest of the world. They are listening to the key messages we are putting forth.”

If you completely dismiss the possibility that DeSantis could pry the Republican base away from a president to whom it has formed a cultlike attachment, you may not be considering the potential effect of two more years of DeSantis being given the sort of coverage in the right-wing media that Pravda devoted to Joseph Stalin.

What a DeSantis-led Republican Party would look like is perhaps best captured in his response to the claims that the 2020 election was stolen. DeSantis began by playing the familiar role of Trump defender, complaining the day after the election about Fox News’ decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden. (The network, he speculated, had “some type of motive, whether it was ratings, whether it was something else.”) He went on Hannity’s show to warn of “vote dumps,” a Republican term designed to cast suspicion on the results coming out of Democratic counties: “I tell you, what I’m seeing in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania is troubling, Sean.”

Later that day, DeSantis went on Fox News again and floated the possibility that Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states won by Biden could override the election results and appoint Trump electors.

On the day of the insurrection, DeSantis issued a perfunctory rebuke (“Violence or rioting of any kind is unacceptable”) before pivoting back to his comfortable posture of offense. In the past year, he has assailed Liz Cheney for cooperating with the investigation of the attack (“We want people that are going to fight the left”), refused to say whether Biden legitimately won the election, and similarly declined to clarify whether Pence was correct to certify the Electoral College results.

By the time the anniversary of the insurrection arrived, DeSantis was floating the right-wing rumor that the violence on January 6 had actually been ginned up by undercover FBI agents. But mostly he resented the media for covering the issue at all. “This is their Christmas: January 6,” he complained. “They are going to take this and milk this for anything they could to be able to smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump.”

DeSantis also marked the anniversary by wooing right-wing social-media personalities with an invitation to his office, dinner at the governor’s mansion, and rooftop drinks. One of the less visible aspects of DeSantis’s political operation has been its appeals to conservative activists who have gained clout and influence during the Trump era and who have legitimized vaccine skepticism, support for Vladimir Putin, and dismissing or even participating in the January 6 insurrection. Pushaw attended an event to promote the anti-gay education bill held by Brandon Straka, who was recorded at the Capitol on January 6 urging the crowd to seize a police officer’s shield and yelling “Go, go, go!” Esther Byrd, whom DeSantis appointed to the state’s board of education, has reportedly defended the January 6 rioters, QAnon, and the Proud Boys.

DeSantis’s unembarrassed courtship of right-wing extremists has broadened his array of media advocates. Perhaps most important, his no-enemies-to-the-right strategy has sent a message about his brand: Unlike the weak Republican Establishment, DeSantis will stand with conservatives.

In January, a small band of white supremacists converged in Orlando, where they chanted “White power!” and roughed up a Jewish student. Pushaw suggested on Twitter that the white supremacists were actually Democrats pretending to be Nazis to make DeSantis look bad, a charge that was quickly debunked.

When DeSantis was asked about the episode at a press conference, he could have confined himself to a rote denunciation of the racist hoodlums, as several of his fellow Florida Republicans did. Instead, he launched an extended diatribe against “Democrats who are trying to use this as some type of political issue to try to smear me.” He then wound his way through such talking points as Ilhan Omar, the BDS movement, Louis Farrakhan, inflation, illegal immigration, crime, and the supposed failures of the Biden administration — which the press was allegedly trying to obscure by bringing up the Orlando attack. Rubio, standing behind DeSantis, shuffled his feet uncomfortably as DeSantis’s rant went on. “We’re not playing their game,” he insisted, falling back on his occasional habit of narrating his own political strategy. Their game, in this case, meant accepting the terms of debate as defined by what he has called the “corrupt” media.

In a high-profile editorial denouncing Trump six years ago — a cover story with the glittering tagline “Against Trump” — National Review asked, “If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives?” More recently, National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, made the case for DeSantis on the grounds that he is the closest possible thing to Trump. “The challenge to Trump,” he reasoned, “will have to come from the Trump wing — at this point, more like the Trump fuselage, wing and landing gear — of the party.”

The paradigmatic DeSantis constituent within the Republican elite would be William Barr. The former attorney general, who released a memoir in March describing his clashes with Trump over the 2020 election, has called Trump delusional and says he wants to nominate “young candidates who will fight for principle but don’t have the sort of obnoxious personal characteristics that alienate a lot of voters.” But Barr eagerly supported many of Trump’s efforts to weaponize the Justice Department and has conceded that he will vote for Trump again should he be nominated. It’s worth noting that the one major difference between Barr and DeSantis is that the former drew the line at Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the last election. With DeSantis, there’s no telling where that line might be.

Is Ron DeSantis the Future of Trumpism?