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Ron DeSantis Knows: The Path to Victory Runs Through Right-Wing Churches

When he promises to “put on the full armor of God,” right-wing Christians get the reference. And they may dump Trump and move to him.

Ron DeSantis
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When he ran for Senate in 1950, 37-year-old Richard Nixon referred to his political opponent, the California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, as “The Pink Lady.” The point was to cast her as unfit for public office by emphasizing her femininity and insinuate that she was a Communist sympathizer. Nixon was also a race-baiter; in the last days of the campaign, thousands of postcards were mailed to voters in California’s white suburbs that bore a message from a fabricated organization: “Vote for Helen for Senator, We are with you 100%. The Communist League of Negro Women.” Nixon won that election with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He also made clear just what kind of leader he was going to be: dirty, divisive, and despicable.

Ron DeSantis has told us in many ways what kind of leader he intends to be. He shows us who he is when he repeatedly denounces “the radical left,” “communism” and “Marxist-type ideology” on the campaign trail; when he had his press secretary label supporters of LGBT rights as “groomers”; and when, during the 2018 gubernatorial election, he warned voters against supporting his opponent, Andrew Gillum, who is Black, telling them, “Don’t monkey this up.” He showed us when he promised to create a grand jury to “investigate” vaccines and “oversee the medical establishment” and said, “We choose freedom over Fauci-ism.”

The big question in American politics today is whether the Republican Party will continue its march toward authoritarianism or whether it will moderate. If DeSantis is indeed the front-runner for the Republican nomination—as much of the conservative media breathlessly repeats—then the answer is clear. Former President Donald Trump certainly knows it. That’s why he came up with one of his few actually clever nicknames for his new rival: Ron DeSanctimonious.

As Trump made clear throughout his troubled presidency and his failed coup attempt, authoritarianism may come to America on three wheels: a style of politics that emphasizes grievance and performative cruelty, the support of a critical number of self-interested and hyperwealthy individuals, and an alliance with the Christian nationalist movement.

DeSantis’s commitment to the raging style of Trumpist politics—his mastery of the first wheel—hardly needs comment at this point. The manipulation of migrants at taxpayer expense, the public shaming of alleged perpetrators of “voter fraud,” and the slanderous attacks on LGBT Americans aren’t cruel ways to achieve policy objectives. The cruelty is the point. The same can be said of DeSantis’s efforts to censor books at public libraries and control speech on campus by commandeering Florida’s state universities. In the unlikely event that he succeeds in turning the New College into a state-funded fortress of right-wing ideology in the model of Hillsdale College, this would be icing on the cake. The point of the exercise is to convince conservative voters that something is being done about all the woke mobs that preoccupy the fever dreams of right-wing media.

DeSantis’s success with a subset of ultrawealthy political donors demonstrates that he has figured out the second wheel of Trumpist politics. Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, hedge funder and GOP megadonor Ken Griffin, packaging mogul and election denial–supporter Richard Uihlein, Peter Thiel, and histrionic billionaire Elon Musk are all signaling support or lining up their checkbooks behind the Florida governor.

It’s the third wheel of Trumpist politics—the alliance with the Christian nationalist movement—that gets the least attention. But it’s the one that matters most. This is why Trump is so enraged by the prospect of competing with DeSantis for the GOP nomination—and why he came up with the “DeSanctimonious” label.

It’s worth remembering that the turning point in Trump’s campaign wasn’t the descent on the escalator in Trump Tower; it was the moment in early 2016 when Jerry Falwell Jr. (then president of Liberty University, since disgraced) blessed Trump’s candidacy. Fellow Christian nationalist leaders promptly anointed the former reality-show star as “God’s man”—even if, as all present seemed to agree, he wasn’t exactly a godly man. You may not remember that moment, but chances are Ron DeSantis sure does.

An ad for the governor, released by his wife just before the midterm elections, makes his own bid for anointment official. “On the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said: ‘I need a protector,’” an off-screen voice intones as we take in DeSantis in heroic poses. “So God made a fighter.” As Trump and DeSantis understand equally well, the path to power in today’s Republican Party passes through an “endorsement” from the Almighty. Fortunately for DeSantis, blasphemy is not (yet) a crime in America.

The idea that God wants a “protector” and a “fighter” is very much on the money. The belief that the United States is engaged in “spiritual warfare” is arguably the defining doctrine of supporters of the Christian nationalist movement today. They want a leader who gets that America is engaged in an apocalyptic struggle with demonic forces (often articulated as liberals, secularists, or just plain Democrats). They want a man—a certain type of rough, bullish man—who won’t let rules and niceties get in the way of the fight to restore the nation to righteousness.

Indeed, one could argue that DeSantis knows better than Trump how to make use of the rhetoric of “spiritual warfare.” When DeSantis promised audiences, at a Road to Majority conference and a Christian college in Michigan, that he was prepared to “put on the full armor of God, take a stand against the left’s schemes,” it sounded much more credible than Trump’s mangled attempts to cite Scripture. The well-versed members of the audience knew this to be an allusion to Ephesians 6:11–18—which, in the New King James version reads, in part, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil”—a pivotal passage of text for those who have come to believe that American politics circa 2022 is a stage for a spiritual battle between the forces of pure good and absolute evil (which, to repeat, often has very specific names, like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi).

Trump and his operatives also realized that Christian nationalism is an effective play with certain segments of the Latino population, especially when coupled with anti-Communist rhetoric. DeSantis has taken that insight and run with it, making major inroads into Latino communities in Florida, particularly among Latino Pentecostals.

DeSantis also grasps, as Trump did, that the leadership of the Christian nationalist movement needs money to operate. Together with his appointees and allies on the Supreme Court, Trump worked to funnel money from the U.S. and state treasuries to religious organizations under the cover of “religious freedom,” “school choice,” and other pious frauds. In his own efforts to subsidize religious and ideologically right-wing charter schools and their suppliers with state money, DeSantis is reading from the same playbook.

Like Trump, DeSantis also gets that education matters—if and when it can be used to showcase conservative grievance and supposed hatred of secular elites. “We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” said the Yale University graduate and former private school teacher. Even when his bills fall short of their religious goals, he finds a way to bring religion back in. Sponsors in the state legislature of his bill to allow a minute of silence in schoolrooms scrubbed out the explicitly religious agenda from the record. When DeSantis signed the bill, however, he proclaimed, “The idea that you can just push God out of every institution and be successful, I’m sorry, our Founding Fathers did not believe that.”

Many Christian nationalist leaders are as enthusiastic about DeSantis as their reactionary billionaire friends. Florida pastor Tom Ascol, de facto leader of the most conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, showed up at a DeSantis rally to offer an invocation. The DeSantis campaign and thus the entire state of Florida, Ascol preached, must count as part of the domain of evangelical Christianity. Other Florida pastors have taken equally partisan positions; at the Nacion de Fe Church in Kissimmee, the pastor and congregants prayed over DeSantis in 2018; in 2022 he returned to the church to sign a bill into law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks. In May 2021, DeSantis was invited to speak in Naples at a gathering of the Council for National Policy, a key networking operation that brings together the leaders of some of the most powerful Christian nationalist and right-wing organizations with deep-pocketed funders. And last New Year’s Eve, DeSantis and his wife, Casey, rang in the New Year with pastor Sean Feucht, a frequent guest on Mike Flynn’s ReAwaken America tour, and whose anti-lockdown organization, Let Us Worship, awarded DeSantis a “Defender of Freedom” prize.

You can also glean something of DeSantis’s commitment to the three wheels of American-style authoritarianism by the company he keeps. The “brain trust,” if that is the right term, that DeSantis has assembled with the help of his funders comes mainly from the emerging movement that now travels under the name of “the New Right.” This includes people like Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who more or less invented the “critical race theory in the classrooms” hysteria and who has advised DeSantis on speech-suppression gems like his “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Rufo is on record with a refreshingly honest admission that he just wants to demolish America’s political institutions. “Why do I say that we need to lay siege to our institutions?” he wrote in a piece for Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College; the piece was adapted from a speech delivered at the college last April. “Because of what has happened to our institutions since the 1960s.”

Another indication of where DeSantis stands on the continuation of Trumpist politics is to look at what conservative media elites are saying. They know where his weakness lies when it comes to holding onto the centrist-conservative voters who continue to dutifully pull the lever for the Republican Party. They are now working overtime to promote the idea that DeSantis is moderate, a “normal-range Republican,” a regular “Trump with a brain.” They are so determined to find a solution to their Trump problem in DeSantis that they twist themselves into knots trying to obscure his record—buffing him up, for example, as a defender of “free speech.” (This would be the same DeSantis who pushed the offensively titled “Stop WOKE” act that led to public school book bans and passed a law muzzling university faculty that was so egregiously unconstitutional that even a Florida judge slapped it down.)

Since GOP leaders are naturally fearful of alienating former President Trump’s loyal base, some are working hard to thread the needle. “Most people I know believe it’d be good to have a 2nd Trump term followed by 2 DeSantis terms for 12 consecutive years of #AmericaFirst policy,” tweeted Nilsa Alvarez, a Florida GOP strategist who has worked with the Faith and Freedom Coalition on Latino outreach. “I hope they’re able to see that as well as most of us do.”

The lessons to be drawn from the rise of DeSantis in the wake of his reelection in Florida are stark. The descent of the Republican Party into a uniquely American form of authoritarianism has not stopped. The second coming of the “anointed one” will not be any better for America than a return of the first. We may be spared Melania and Roger Stone, but we won’t be spared the politics of division, demonization, and domination. DeSantis is simply promising to do demagoguery better. No wonder Trump has started calling him names.