What Happened to Ron DeSantis? – Former President Donald Trump grabs our attention relentlessly. Yet again this week, he is in the news.
This time he has been indicted (again).
What would sink other political candidacies, Trump somehow manages to turn to his advantage.
The indictments feed the persecution complex of his voters, and Trump, astoundingly, fund-raises off of them too.
All of this attention – for good or bad – is draining the oxygen out of the Republican primary. Trump’s various opponents are unable to capture much media exposure when Trump constantly dominates the headlines.
And no one has suffered more from this than one-time Trump-killer Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida.
Ron DeSantis Should be What the GOP Wants
DeSantis is the ideal candidate for the Republican party in its current form.
He is conservative, which reflects the GOP’s swing to the right in the years since Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.
Ron DeSantis relishes the ‘culture war,’ much like Trump and Trump voters.
DeSantis has tangled with Hollywood, universities, teachers’ unions, and the LGBTQ community – all favored targets of right-wing culture politics.
He even signed a strict, six-week abortion ban against the majority opinion in his home state.
On policy, he fits the median GOP voter as well as Trump does.
He has vast other advantages – most obviously, that he is not a career criminal like Donald Trump. Trump now faces a staggering ninety-one indictments across four separate cases.
The likelihood he will be convicted of something is growing rapidly. Trump, unlike most politicians, does not hide his abuses. Indeed, he does not want to. He relishes proclaiming his transgressions and daring the government to hold him accountable.
This makes for great politics with his base; his voters thrill to his defiant, alpha-male displays. But it also means the evidence to convict Trump is easy to find.
Ron DeSantis carries none of this legal baggage. Nor does he have Trump’s bizarre personal peccadillos. DeSantis is also coherent, focused, and energetic on the job. He has pushed Florida politics to the right, achieved a fair amount of conservative goals, and cruised to re-election last fall. Trump, by contrast, lost the popular vote in 2016 and 2020. He is notoriously lazy and self-centered. Trump’s politics usually turn on whatever scandal has recently overtaken him. The border wall – arguably Trump’s biggest campaign promise in 2016 – went unfinished. Whatever policy promises Trump makes will likely go unfulfilled after 2024.
In short, DeSantis fits the trumpized GOP very well. He shares its goals and (scorched earth) tactics. He has a record of achievement, which lazy Trump does not. And he is clean enough to appeal to centrist and swing voters turned off by Trump’s endless drama and sleaze.
The Triumph of the Donald Trump Show
So why is DeSantis floundering so badly? He came out of the 2022 midterms with momentum. Donors liked him as less erratic and corrupt than Trump. Conservative intellectuals preferred him for the same reasons. Even the left came to pick DeSantis to Trump – out of sheer anxiety that Trump rejected democracy.
One obvious answer to DeSantis’ troubles is his stiff personality. A personal touch matters in US politics. Most voters care more about empathy than policy. They vote for someone with whom they would rather have a beer. DeSantis seems genuinely surprised that his list of conservative accomplishments – placed against Trump’s incoherent presidency – has not moved opinion more.
Another explanation is staff and organization. DeSantis, surprisingly, has not spent his money well, nor staffed his campaign properly for a national campaign. He has already ‘rebooted’ his campaign and fired his campaign manager.
The deeper explanation though is probably more about Trump than DeSantis. That is, no Republican – not DeSantis or anyone else – is likely going to beat Trump in the primary. The cult-like bond of Trump voters to Donald Trump has far exceeded what anyone thought possible in US politics. Even as Trump has spiraled into ever worse scandal and crisis, his voters have not abandoned him.
It’s a Cult
This is a unique occurrence in American politics. No candidate in American history has ever forged a cult of personality in US politics. Indeed, one reason why the US political system has struggled to accommodate Trump these past eight years is the fanatic, personalist bond he has with some 30-40% of the electorate. As Trump himself has noted again and again, his voters accept him with all his faults and vote for him anyway. DeSantis’ strategy is based on the implicit assumption that GOP voters want trumpist policy without the Trump Show – the endless scandals, transgressions, narcissism, and general inanity. We now know they do not.
That DeSantis is bland and awkward only worsens the ‘entertainment gap’ with Trump. It is easy to predict that Trump will run away with the primary.
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