Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is an annoying loser with no charisma, but he’s also one of the most dangerous politicians in the US. Can he become president? And what would it mean if he did?
Florida governor Ron DeSantis has officially announced that he will announce his run for the US presidency. (Side note: why do politicians do this? Surely the announcement that you’re going to announce is the announcement?) In a dignified, thoroughly presidential move, he will be staking his bid in that most hallowed site of American democracy: a ‘Twitter Space’ hosted by Elon Musk.
A campaign video will launch alongside this discussion, due to happen later today, and DeSantis is expected to start visiting different states from next week onwards. An official website was launched yesterday, although so far it just shows a cartoon alligator. There’s also some unofficial merch flying around, most of which bears the slogan ‘Make America Florida’. As far as conservative aspirations go, this feels like a significant downgrade from ‘Make America Great Again’. It remains to be seen how heavily DeSantis will lean into the slogan during his campaign (he’s said it before many times), but it’s hard to imagine it will go down too well with the average American who lives in, like, Wisconsin. Already, conservatives nationwide are getting annoyed by the messaging, on the basis that their own states are every bit as right-wing. When he described Iowa as “the Florida of the Midwest”, many Iowans found it condescending.
Touch wood, but so far DeSantis’s presidential bid feels like a flop. I doubt that it will be enough to sink his campaign, but choosing to launch it on Twitter, with Elon Musk, feels like a fatal misstep. It’s too niche, too online – most Americans don’t use Twitter or care about what happens there. If he wants to become president, he’s going to have to appeal to some normie swing voters, rather than hitching his wagon to a small minority of hard-right obsessives whose most animating political concern is whether they’re being “shadow-banned” or the discrimination they face because they paid for a blue tick.
As it stands, Trump has an enormous lead among Republican voters and it’s unlikely that DeSantis will be able to turn that around. But it’s early days and, as his governorship of Florida has shown, DeSantis is capable of dangerous things. So let’s take a look at his chances, and what it might mean for him to succeed.
WHAT WOULD A DESANTIS PRESIDENCY LOOK LIKE?
As mentioned, DeSantis has gone hard on the notion that America should model itself after the “Florida blueprint”. Florida, as he’s fond of saying, is “where woke goes to die”. What this blueprint looks like in practice is a combination of low-tax, low-regulation economics and hard-right social conservatism. Earlier this week, the NAACP, America’s leading civil rights organisation, released a travel advisory which warned that Florida is now “openly hostile towards African Americans, people of colour and LGBTQ+ individuals”. This comes after an LGBTQ+ organisation, Equality Florida, issued a similar travel advisory in April.
Both groups had good reason to make these statements. Under DeSantis’s governorship, Florida has unleashed wave after wave of racist and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Both in schools and universities, DeSantis has taken steps to restrict materials which discuss race, African American history, sexuality and gender identity, as well as trying to ban Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programmes in universities. His ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, passed in March 2022, was so extreme that a Florida teacher is now facing a lawsuit for showing students Strange World, a Disney children’s film which features a gay character.
DeSantis’s attacks on the trans community have been especially harsh. Florida has passed laws that ban gender-affirming care for minors outright and make it extremely difficult to access for adults, that ban trans women and girls from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, and that make it a criminal offence for people to use a bathroom which doesn’t align with their assigned sex at birth. Relatedly, the state has cracked down on drag, making it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to attend a drag event. Already, a number of Pride events across Florida have been cancelled due to the “climate of fear” that DeSantis has created.
In line with standard Republican positions, he is also anti-abortion, anti-immigration, pro-police and opposed to gun control – he recently signed a bill that makes it possible to carry a firearm without a permit. But he has shown a particular ruthlessness in enacting his agenda and suppressing dissent – to the point of becoming embroiled in a feud with the Disney corporation, after it came out against ‘Don’t Say Gay.’ His attempts at authoritarianism have often been more laughable than chilling, such as the time he tried to take over Disney World and announced “there’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day”. But at heart, he is someone who uses his power to suppress and censor opponents, which is not a great – or democratic – quality for a politician to have.
WHO IS SUPPORTING HIM?
While it seems like everything he does is designed to appeal to Twitter-poisoned hard-right fanatics, DeSantis is also trying hard to present himself as the sane, sensible alternative to Trump. His electoral pitch has been described as “MAGA without the mess”: the same racist and reactionary politics, but without the court cases, public outbursts and compromising behaviour. In some ways, he’s also less rabble-rousing than Trump, whose anti-elitist rhetoric was more genuine. While it might have been a ridiculous stance for a multi-millionaire, Trump really did despise media, academic and political elites, including some conservatives. But as Sam Adler Bell wrote in the New York Times last month, “Mr DeSantis is not against elites, exactly; he aims merely to replace the current elite (in academia, corporations and government) with a more conservative one.” Likewise, Adler-Bell argues that DeSantis focuses more heavily on cultural grievances and less on economic ones. Even though Trump’s economic populism was always shallow and insubstantial, this contrast still makes DeSantis a safer bet for the upper echelons of the right-wing, including senior Republicans and conservative publications, donors and think tanks. Trump, meanwhile, has maintained his support among people without college degrees, blue-collar workers and those who live in rural areas.
DeSantis’ popularity among the elites obviously affords him some advantages, not least in terms of funding, but it also puts him in a vulnerable position. It allows Trump to portray him as an establishment lackey, and himself an outsider taking on powerful interests on behalf of the little guy. This is obviously wrong, but it worked in 2016. Even if the Republican elites succeed in freezing him out and DeSantis becomes the nominee, Trump could still run as an independent. This would likely split the right-wing vote and guarantee a Biden win, but it seems like the kind of thing he would do out of spite. This would be the best – and also the funniest – outcome, so fingers crossed.
https://t.co/VESs99CLonpic.twitter.com/M191se1H5h— bryan metzger (@metzgov) April 24, 2023
CAN DESANTIS BECOME PRESIDENT?
Biden is unpopular and lots of voters have concerns about his age, which means it’s not wildly implausible that DeSantis could win the presidential election. But there are some other issues in the mix. For example, overturning Roe v Wade (the judicial ruling which guaranteed abortion rights across the US) has become a ‘be careful what you wish for because you just might get it’ situation for the Republicans, leading to voters in key states turning sharply against them.
Personally, I think it’s unlikely that he’ll beat Trump in the primaries. In political terms, there’s not much between them – they’re roughly as bad as each other. But DeSantis has a problem with both political skill and personality: his voice is whiny, his facial expressions are soy, and there’s something off-puttingly prissy about his general demeanour. Consider the time he responded to an accusation that he ate pudding with his fingers by chuckling that he doesn’t eat pudding at all: “No way – it’s sugar, man!” This is the guy who’s going to stand up for the red-blooded American male against the sneering metropolitan elites?
It’s uncouth when people try to insult homophobic politicians by implying they’re secretly gay, and I would never suggest that of DeSantis. But let’s just say that he does not exude virile masculinity. He’s not giving alpha strong-man, let’s just put it like that. The fact he’s such a bitchy queen wouldn’t be a problem in itself, if he wasn’t so charmless with it. Trump also has his flamboyant moments – his penchant for dancing to the YMCA, for instance – but when he does it it’s campy and fun. There’s a sourness to DeSantis, something cold, joyless and mean-spirited. The more he campaigns, and the more people hear him speak, the less popular he will become.
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