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Ron DeSantis: Overrated

The pundits who are so bullish about his prospects of beating Trump are stubbornly refusing to learn the lessons of the past.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was in Iowa last week, ostensibly promoting his new book—The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revivalbut rather clearly putting himself on display for a new state’s set of old white people who might want to vote for him. The Florida Man’s push into the Hawkeye State came at a moment when pundits are also casting for a new protagonist in the next season of America’s Next President. DeSantis has drawn demonstrably more enthusiasm and attention from them than the mildly curious denizens of Davenport (“He didn’t go for any wild and crazy applause lines and just let his record speak for itself,” one book reading attendee told The New York Times).

If you are reading this, you probably already know that the conventional wisdom about DeSantis’s strength as a contender against Donald Trump for the GOP nomination has started to congeal: DeSantis has turned Florida into a laboratory experiment, fightingas he puts it“the woke mind virus.” His showy battles with reporters, teachers, and even the Disney corporation over Covid policies and educational standards provide him with a résumé of recent real-world victories in the culture war that an ousted Trump lacks.

Sure, the thinking goes, Trump’s presidency set the stage for a Republican nomination contest that looks to hinge on banning drag brunches and books, but Trump has been stuck in the wings squeezing out Truth Social posts for the past three years, while DeSantis’s stunts took Fox News’s center stage. Look at Ron go! He’s Trump “without the baggage.” He’s Trump “with a less crass delivery.” He’s “someone who gets them [Republicans] out of having to defend Trump.” He’s “Trump with brains” or, more modestly, “Trump with a brain.”

It’s a great argument if you think that today’s Republican voterwhich is to say, a Trump voterthinks that there’s anything wrong with Trump just how he is. You think they want a day off from defending Trump? Defending Trump is the entire GOP brand. Republicans sort both one another and their news (“news”) sources through a prism of Trumpiness. And as for DeSantis being the “smart Trump,” well, I’m not sure there’s anyone in the GOP base who actually asked for such a thing.

If you needed more proof that DeSantis is simply this cycle’s Scott Walker—or perhaps this cycle’s Tim Pawlenty—let’s reflect on some recent news: Jeb “Jeb!” Bush called him a model for “generational change” and said he hoped he’d run for president. Please clap?

DeSantis, Walker, Pawlenty, Jebthey all share the curse of an early constituency of would-be kingmakers on the one hand and negative stage presence on the other. DeSantis has the charisma of a pair of cargo shorts. Journalists sizing him up note that he is antisocial (in Congress, he reportedly left his earbuds in to avoid casual conversation) and sartorially challenged (ill-fitting suits; he wore what looked like white go-go boots to a hurricane aftermath visit)—but those are, obviously, traits he has in common with the former president.

What makes Trump uniquely appealing to the GOP base is that his personal awkwardness and ungainly physical presence come wrapped in a genuine, pathological disregard for norms on every level, as well as a supreme, entirely unearned confidence. DeSantis, by contrast, suffers from the average politician’s desire to conform to expectations—even if those expectations are “be like Trump.” He’s a try-hardand nothing, absolutely nothing, activates Trump’s predatory instincts like a thirsty rival.

Give DeSantis some credit: He managed to take Trump out of his nickname comfort zone. After several months of false starts, it looked like Trump was maybe losing his edge. (“Ron DeSanctimonous”? Please.) But in response to this most recent wave of favorable DeSantis coverage, Trump has produced two typically genius sobriquetsthe kind of two-word millstones that have sunk every Trump competitor so far: “Tiny D” (DeSantis is five-foot-nine) and, apparently in private conversation only, “Meatball Ron.” A+, no notes.

YouTube is littered with excitably titled videos of DeSantis “DESTROYING” all kinds of right-wing nemeses: “Watch: Ron DeSantis DESTROYS the Media,” “DESANTIS DESTROYS NEWSOM,” “Ron DeSantis DESTROYS Tampa Bay Rays After Woke Gun Control Virtue Signal,” “DeSantis DESTROYS Woke NHL,” “DeSantis DESTROYS CRAZY NANCY,” as well as “Ron DeSantis DESTROYS Disney World and ENJOYS It.”

Did he though? I watched that video—and the others—and I am underwhelmed by the toll of the destruction, and certainly DeSantis’s enjoyment of it, at least on a performative level. It’s all rehearsed and utterly familiar. His stiff combativeness with the media may play well with a general conservative audience, but what’s on display is the belligerence of a guy trying to score points and desperately needing his victories to be confirmed. Trump rarely bothers “DESTROYING” reporters, he walks into and out of every encounter with the press fully believing that he’s already won.

DeSantis and his evangelists have depicted the governor as a man with momentum, harping on how he widened his margin of victory between 2018 and 2022, from a hairsbreadth of a half percent against Andrew Gillum to almost 20 points against Charlie Crist. Leaving aside the fact that running against Crist is about as close as you can come to running unopposed with there still being another name on the ballot, let’s remember the other massive shift between the two cycles: Voter turnout went from 63 percent in 2018—including record-high midterm participation from minorities and young people—to 54 percent in 2022, with turnout for Democrats specifically dipping 20 points, according to the Florida Public Opinion Research Lab.

In fact, DeSantis may owe his success more to finger-on-the-scale electoral skullduggery than to any innate political instincts or personal charm. Florida’s more diverse 2018 electorate had approved a ballot measure that restored voting rights to previously incarcerated people. DeSantis and the legislature engineered a series of red tape hurdles for those people and then gleefully ordered a spree of arrests for voter fraud, often wrapping up people who had no idea they’d violated the law. This had the intended effect: As one Florida resident told the Palm Beach Daily News: “I’d be scared to go vote,” he said, “and I don’t know if I would or not. I don’t want to get into any trouble.”

Looking forward to a potential national run, you’ll see that DeSantis is already gaming the system. He oversaw the redistricting process that eliminated two majority-Black districts. Moreover, new mail-in ballot restrictions he signed into law (live on Fox News!) substantially increase the burden to receive and to return ballots. Oh, and the state now funds a million-dollar “Office of Election Crimes and Security.” I don’t want to say that Trump’s nomination is inevitable, I just don’t see how it is that DeSantis can stop it. What good at all is it to be “like Trump” when the real deal is right there for the having?

Don’t get me wrong, it is highly amusing to see the Republican donor/pundit class make the same error they did in 2016, projecting their chattering-class concerns onto an electorate as unconcerned with “crassness” as it is with “baggage” and, for that matter, potential criminal charges. If conservative voters were really looking for politicians that supported Trump policies but were just more covertly racist and less embarrassingly fascistic, then Liz Cheney would still be representing Wyoming in Congress today.*

* This article originally misidentified Liz Cheney.