I am not, to say the least, a fan of Ron DeSantis. I was one of the first writers to notice his emerging authoritarian ambitions and unnerving success in discovering illiberal uses of state power to intimidate his enemies. Since that time, he has only grown more authoritarian and dangerous.
The question everybody seems to want to ask about Desantis is “Do you think he’s worse than Donald Trump?” I don’t consider that a terribly relevant standard. I’m not planning to vote in the Republican primary and, given that both men pose existential dangers to the American political order, by far the most important answer to the choice of Trump versus DeSantis is “Neither.”
But for whatever reason, people seem interested in the question of who liberal (small-d) democrats should prefer: Trump or DeSantis. And I did briefly opine in 2016, before reversing myself a few weeks later, that they should root for a Trump nomination.
So, what the heck, I will give the people what they want: My current view, subject to change, is that liberals should prefer the Republican nomination go to DeSantis.
One weakness I’ve found in most arguments comparing the two candidates is that they examine only a partial aspect of the potential risks they pose. I want to attempt a full accounting of the three main questions: Which candidate would be likelier to win an election if nominated? Which candidate would be more dangerous if elected president? And which candidate would it be preferable for Democrats to defeat?
DeSantis would be easier to beat than Trump
A year ago, I considered DeSantis a more potent nominee than Trump. Now, I think the evidence points the other way.
Trump has well-known liabilities as a general-election nominee that hardly need recapitulating here. But DeSantis’s liabilities have grown significantly. He has gone on the record in the past supporting both privatization and benefit cuts for Social Security and Medicare, a position so deeply toxic that even most Republican voters recoil from it. More recently, he signed a ban on abortion after six weeks, a period so restrictive it virtually amounts to a complete ban.
What may be more revealing is DeSantis’s navigation of the issue. A more deft politician would have prevailed on his allies in the state legislature to quietly kill the ban, or at least soften it. Instead, he was essentially cornered into signing it. The vulnerabilities the issue presents to him were given away by the fact that he held a private signing ceremony at nearly 11:00 PM, and then declined to bring the subject up the next day when he spoke at Liberty University.
DeSantis is clearly trying to run to Trump’s right on social policy, but he is aware that he is creating problems for himself should he win the nomination. Yes, DeSantis would be able to regain some of the orthodox Republican voters repelled by Trump’s personal style. But he would forfeit not only some of the Trump cultists whose only connection to Republican politicians is a personal attachment to the 45th president, but also some of the working-class voters Trump attracted by discarding some of his party’s unpopular issue baggage.
Trump might — might — be more dangerous as president
Comparing a Trump presidency to a DeSantis presidency takes even more guesswork than comparing the two men as candidates. And here the available evidence strikes me as equivocal.
The most likely scenario, I believe, is that a DeSantis presidency would do more harm. Because DeSantis is smarter and enjoys more unified elite-Republican support than Trump, he would probably have more success advancing his agenda. This agenda includes traditional conservative policy goals — reducing taxes on the rich, cutting spending for the poor, restricting abortion, etc. — and using the state in Nixonian fashion. DeSantis is a National Conservative who is patterning himself after Viktor Orban, a right-wing leader who turned his governing majority into a machine for consolidating power.
When he was president, Trump’s efforts to abuse his authority frequently failed because of incompetence or the qualms of his henchmen. DeSantis’s illiberal measures are usually legal (with some exceptions) and meet very little intraparty opposition.
The median-case expectation for a DeSantis presidency is, to my mind, worse, than that for a Trump one. However, the tail risks of a Trump presidency loom large. The United States managed to avoid the worst possible outcomes under his administration — war, chaos, martial law — in part because government officials habitually disregarded Trump’s directives. As his presidency went on, however, Trump got better at sniffing out the secretly rational or public-minded officials in his midst and replacing them with genuine loyalists.
It is hardly a safe assumption that a second Trump presidency would avoid the most disastrous possible outcomes. And while DeSantis appears intent on driving the United States toward an Orban-like illiberal democracy in which the ruling party slowly strangles the opposition, the slowly part matters. As awful as it may be, democratic backsliding is at least potentially reversible. The worst conceivable outcomes of a second Trump presidency might not be.
It would be better to beat DeSantis than Trump
The previous category presumes the Republican presidential nominee has won. Now I want to imagine a scenario where the Republican has lost. Does it matter? I’d argue that it matters a lot, and the country would be much better off defeating DeSantis than Trump.
Defeating Donald Trump in the general election means first winning the vote (which, in both of the two elections in which he has run, required winning the national vote by 3 to 4 percent), then defeating his legal challenges and then probably putting down an insurrection. Even coming out of this process successfully leaves deep civic scars. It is not a good situation to be in.
DeSantis would absolutely engage in Bush v. Gore–style hardball, perhaps with a Brooks Brother riot or two in the case of a very close election. But he is at least likely to restrict his challenges to legal activities. DeSantis is a young man with a future at stake even if he loses, and he wouldn’t burn the country down out of anger (or fear of personal criminal exposure).
What’s more, the candidate you beat matters for the lessons the defeated party is apt to take away. The Republican party’s evolution toward authoritarianism is the greatest problem in American politics. Simply trying to keep Republicans out of power can only work for so long. What needs to happen at some point is for Republicans themselves to decide their own extremism and anti-democratic tendencies are an impediment to power rather than a shortcut to obtaining it.
As we’ve seen, beating Donald Trump again would only go so far in teaching the Republican party any lessons. The Trump base still wants to nominate Trump again. The Republican elite is hoping to nominate a more disciplined authoritarian who will hold together Trump’s coalition all the way out to the anti-vaxxers, J6ers, and white nationalists, whom DeSantis is keeping in the tent.
Defeating DeSantis would send a tougher message: The problem isn’t just one man but an entire style of politics. Republicans might see a DeSantis loss as a repudiation of the Trumpist style of totalistic partisan culture war, or even of the uncompromising right-wing social and economic agenda. I wouldn’t bet on this. It will probably take several defeats for the lesson to sink in. But a DeSantis loss would seem to offer a faster road back to sanity for the GOP.
Needless to say, my analysis of the choice at this early stage may change with the course of events. And I must emphasize again that nobody needs to vote in the Republican primary, and the best option for any liberal, moderate, or believer in democracy is to keep the Republicans away from power until they become sane again. In the meantime, the party has nothing to offer but different kinds of bad choices.