Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, is giving Donald Trump a run for his money as the most divisive politician in America.
“We want people that are going to fight the left, and that’s what we need to do in this country,” DeSantis declared in an interview with Fox News on Feb. 8. “That’s what we’re doing in Florida, standing up for people’s freedoms. We’re opposing wokeness. We’re opposing all these things.”
In a Nov. 5, 2021 article on the liberal Daily Beast website, “Desperate, Deranged DeSantis Devolves Into Dumb Troll,” Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote that DeSantis “is a terrible governor who is failing his leadership course with flying colors. Driven only by politics and naked ambition, he pursues reckless policies that divide Floridians and may even put them in danger.”
The governor routinely succumbs to right-wing pressure groups, Navarrette continued, “because he apparently has no core beliefs other than the unshakable conviction that he should sit in the Oval Office.”
On Jan. 17, 2022, The Guardian followed up from the left:
In a red-meat-for-the-base address at the opening of Florida’s legislature last week, themed around the concept of “freedom” but described by critics as a fanfare of authoritarianism, DeSantis gave a clear indication of the issues he believes are on voters’ minds. They include fighting the White House over Covid-19, ballot box fraud, critical race theory in schools and defunding law enforcement.
The view from the right is starkly different.
On March 14, Rich Lowry, editor in chief of National Review, heaped praise on DeSantis as “the voice of the new Republican Party,” a politician who “opens up a vista offering an important element of Trumpism without the baggage or selfishness of Trump.”
Lowry argues that DeSantis has strategically positioned himself on the cutting edge of a political movement with the potential to have “broad appeal to GOP voters of all stripes without the distracting obsessions of the former president.” This “could be one of the most persuasive arguments to Republican voters for Trump not running again — not that he needs to go away so the old party can be restored, but that he’s unnecessary because a new party has emerged.”
DeSantis’s political strength among conservative voters — and the reason for the unanimous hostility toward him on the left — lies in his capacity to stay relentlessly on message.
His dealings with the press result in headlines that are red meat to his conservative loyalists: “Ron DeSantis Berates Reporter Over Question About Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill,” “AP urges DeSantis to end bullying aimed at reporter,” and “DeSantis and the Media: (Not) a Love Story.”
“If the corporate press nationally isn’t attacking me, then I’m probably not doing my job. So, the fact that they are attacking me is a good indication that I’m tackling the big issues,” DeSantis tweeted on Jan. 7.
A Yale graduate with a law degree from Harvard, DeSantis served as an attorney in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps at Guantánamo Bay and in Iraq as a senior legal adviser to SEAL team One. He is smart and disciplined and runs his political career like a military campaign. Lacking Trump’s impulsiveness and preference for chaos, a President DeSantis, with his attention to detail and command of the legislative process, might well match or exceed Trump as liberals’ worst nightmare.
Susie Wiles, a Republican consultant who helped guide the last month of DeSantis’s 2018 campaign for governor, described the candidate as a “workhorse.”
“It’s like watching an actor who can film the whole scene in one take,” Wiles toldthe Miami Herald. “He can gobble up a whole issue in one briefing, and when I saw that on my second day, I thought, ‘This is a whole different kind of thing.’ ” Wiles added, “If he doesn’t have a photographic memory, it’s close.”
I asked a number of Democratic strategists which 2024 Republican nominee worried them most, Trump, DeSantis or Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
Paul Begala, a national Democratic strategist, argued by email that
DeSantis seems to be the furthest down the track on replicating Trump’s politics of grievance and bullying. For a great many Republicans, politics is no longer about allocating resources in the wisest, most equitable way. It is instead about “owning the libs.”
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, compares DeSantis to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and finds both men disturbing. “DeSantis and Cotton are dangerous because they are both true-believer ideologues who would be smarter and more disciplined than Trump about using the levers of power to push their right-wing agendas,” Garin wrote by email, before adding:
Each of them are lacking in personal charm and I don’t think voters would find either one to be particularly likable or relatable over the course of a long presidential campaign. DeSantis’s meanness in particular could come back to haunt him in a national campaign.
DeSantis relishes using the state to enforce his aggressive social agenda and has consistently plotted a hard right course on issues from critical race theory to transgender rights.
For example, DeSantis sponsored and pushed through the legislature the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act” — or the Stop Woke Act for short — which now awaits his signature.
The measure not only bans teaching what is known as critical race theory, but gives parents the right to sue public schools accused of teaching the theory and cuts off public funds to schools that hire critical race “consultants.”
Among the new state guidelines:
An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, does not bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex. An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.
A second bill, the Parental Rights in Education Act, is also on DeSantis’s desk for signature. The measure declares that
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3” and that “A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate.
At a March 4 news conference, DeSantis told reporters: “Clearly, right now, we see a lot of focus on transgenderism, telling kids that they may be able to pick genders and all that. I don’t think parents want that for these young kids,” before adding, “I think it’s inappropriate to be injecting those matters, like transgenderism, into a kindergarten classroom.”
On April 10, 2021, DeSantis signed the “Combating Public Disorder Act,” a conservative response to Black Lives Matter and other protests that turn violent or destructive. On Sept. 9, 2021, however, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker blocked enforcement of the law because a person of “ordinary intelligence” could not be sure if he or she broke the law while participating nonviolently in a protest that turned violent:
The vagueness of this definition forces would-be protesters to make a choice between declining to jointly express their views with others or risk being arrested and spending time behind bars, with the associated collateral risks to employment and financial well-being.
DeSantis has capitalized on Florida’s outdoor culture to become the nation’s leading opponent of mask mandates and lockdowns of schools and businesses, including a May 3, 2021 Executive Order declaring:
In order to protect the rights and liberties of individuals in this State and to accelerate the State’s recovery from the Covid-19 emergency, any emergency order issued by a political subdivision due to the Covid-19 emergency which restricts the rights or liberties of individuals or their businesses is invalidated.
For DeSantis, the pandemic offered the opportunity to distinguish himself from Trump. In January, Jonathan Chait described his strategy in New York Magazine:
Where Trump was tiptoeing around vaccine skepticism, DeSantis jumped in with both feet, banning private companies like cruise lines from requiring vaccination, appointing a vaccine skeptic to his state’s highest office, and refusing to say if he’s gotten his booster dose.
DeSantis “may or may not actually be more delusional on Covid than Donald Trump,” Chait wrote, “but it is a revealing commentary on the state of their party that he sees his best chance to supplant Trump as positioning himself as even crazier.”
Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic, has a similar take on the Trump-DeSantis Covid feud, writing on Jan. 18:
What’s suddenly intriguing is that DeSantis has decided to try to outflank Trump; to out-Trump Trump, in terms of his hard-trolling of the libs on the vaccine question. And it’s Trump —Donald Trump! — who is playing the role of civilizing, normalizing truth-teller.
Politically speaking, however, DeSantis’s stance on Covid policy, together with his culture war agenda, has been a success. His favorability ratings have soaredand in the third quarter of 2021, the most recent data available, Florida’s gross domestic product grew by 3.8 percent, third fastest in the nation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, behind Hawaii and Delaware.
DeSantis’s aggressive posture and threats to bring legal action have created anxiety about retribution in some quarters. In January, for example, Dr. Raul Pino, the administrator for the Florida Department of Health’s office in Orange County, wrote his staff to say that only 77 of 558 staff members had received a Covid-19 booster, 219 had two doses of the vaccine and 34 had only one dose, according to reporting by my colleague Patricia Mazzei in The Times. “I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated,” Dr. Pino added. He went on: “We have been at this for two years, we were the first to give vaccines to the masses, we have done more than 300,000 and we are not even at 50 percent. Pathetic.”
Shortly afterward, Pino was put on administrative leave for a month. Jeremy T. Redfern, the press secretary for the Department of Health, said when the leave of absence was announced that the department was “conducting an inquiry to determine if any laws were broken in this case.” Redfern said in a statement that the decision to get vaccinated “is a personal medical choice that should be made free from coercion and mandates from employers.”
This and other similar developments have certainly not hurt DeSantis’s poll numbers. The latest survey released Feb. 24 by Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida not only found that “of the elected officials on this survey, Governor Ron DeSantis had the highest job approval rating at 58 percent, with 37 percent disapproval,” but also that Florida Republicans preferred DeSantis over Trump 44-41 as their presidential nominee.
John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist who previously worked for the party’s House leaders, argues that DeSantis is
attuned to the libertarian impulses of an electorate that simply doesn’t trust the conventional wisdom coming out of Washington. DeSantis also seems willing to court cultural conservatives in ways that most Washington politicians don’t, like with the sex education bill that he signed. DeSantis also seems willing to take on big corporations for their wokeness, a potent issue among the G.O.P. base.
Feehery described DeSantis as “a wild-card,” noting “he was also right on Covid, which took an incredible amount of courage.”
As governor, DeSantis, is wary when he senses the potential for blowback, waiting days before commenting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When he finally did so, his comments were largely focused on domestic politics.
At a Feb. 28 news conference, DeSantis placed blame for the invasion on the “weakness” of the Biden administration while lavishing praise on Trump: “When Obama was president, Putin took Crimea. When Trump was president, they didn’t take anything. And now Biden’s president and they’re rolling into Ukraine,” DeSantis said, arguing that Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “total catastrophe” that emboldened Putin.
Along with supporters, DeSantis has many harsh critics.
Nancy Isenberg, a historian at L.S.U. and the author “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” wrote by email that: “DeSantis is yet another Ivy League graduate of Yale and Harvard, pretending to be one of the people,” adding that
DeSantis represents a tried-and-true feature of American politics: you pretend to care about the “common man,” speaking his language; and while his gaze is captivated by the dazzling show, as Lyndon Johnson remarked of poor white rage, “He won’t notice you’re picking his pockets.”
Anthony Brunello, a professor of political science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. wrote in an email that “Ron DeSantis is like Trump in that he is a creature of power.” Brunello posed the question “Who believes in their ideology more — Trump or DeSantis?” DeSantis, he answered:
His conservative values lean against responding to climate change, dealing with environmental problems, providing health care, establishing disaster insurance on a statewide basis, improving social services, rebuilding infrastructure, improving public education, improving the foster care system, protecting the ocean and coastline and fisheries, moving on prison reform, protecting the right to vote, and so on. DeSantis has no plans to do any of those things in a state that needs them all. Instead, he is deep into culture wars, battling against critical race theory — and backing anti-LGBTQ legislation — because it will win votes and hold that conservative core. He calculates Trump will fade in the months to come, and he will pick up the pieces.
DeSantis is running for re-election this year and is clearly favored to win a second term. He has raised more than $86 million, dwarfing the single-digit totals collected by the two leading Democratic contenders, former governor Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried, the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.
Campaign finance in Florida is a major deregulated industry in itself.
Large donors to DeSantis, according to the website Florida Politics, include:
$200,000 from a single source, West Palm Beach-based company Kane Financial. Two political committees also wrote six-figure checks. The Strong Communities of Southwest Florida PC and The Committee for Justice, Transportation and Business, both chaired by lobbyist David Ramba, each donated $150,000. Floridians for Positive Change and Focused on Florida’s Future PC, two other Ramba-headed political committees, also wrote $75,000 checks to Friends of Ron DeSantis this month.
DeSantis has dismissed speculation that he will run for president in 2024 as “nonsense,” but Trump does not believe him. How do we know this? Because Trump has issued a series of direct and indirect hostile comments targeting DeSantis, but often without naming him.
On Jan. 12, Trump criticized “politicians” who refuse to say whether they have been vaccinated: “The answer is ‘Yes,’ but they don’t want to say it, because they’re gutless.”
Axios reported on Jan. 16 that Trump was telling associates that DeSantis is “an ingrate with a ‘dull personality’ and no realistic chance of beating him in a potential 2024 showdown.”
Trump, whose own interest in running for president grew after Barack Obama baited him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner, should know better than to toss insults at a politician like DeSantis — a bulldog who does not back down from a fight.
As Rich Lowry, whose admiration for DeSantis I discussed earlier, wrote in Politico on Jan. 20, 2022:
The Trump-DeSantis story line is inherently alluring, considering the chances of a collision between two men who have been allies and the possibility of the subordinate in the relationship, DeSantis, eclipsing the figure who helped to elevate him into what he is today.
Some version of what DeSantis represents, Lowry continued, “has the greatest odds of coaxing the party away from Trump and forging a new political synthesis that bears the unmistakable stamp of Trump while jettisoning his flaws.”
Lowry even suggested a line of attack:
That Trump “elevated Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, early in the pandemic and listened to his advice for too long”; that “despite all his talk of building the border wall, Trump didn’t get it done and left a desperately flawed immigration system intact, even though he had two years of a Republican Congress”; that Trump “rattled China’s cage but didn’t make fundamental changes; and finally, that Trump “lost to Joe Biden, a desperately flawed candidate who only made it into the White House because Trump made himself so unpopular.”
For DeSantis, there is nothing to gain by declaring now what he will do in 2024. Instead, he continues to gain national stature as his builds a powerful fund-raising base, stressing themes that draw support from conservatives in Florida and from across the nation.
In one fund-raising solicitation, DeSantis warns of “Cultural Marxism,” according to the website Florida Politics, telling prospective donors: “We delivered on a promise to the people of Florida by Banning Critical Race Theory. This ‘curriculum’ of hate and divisiveness has no place in society, let alone our schools. Critical Race Theory indoctrinates our children and teaches them to judge each other as ‘oppressors,’ ‘inherent racists,’ and ‘victims,’ ”
A second DeSantis fund-raising letter reads: “Joe Biden might want Governor DeSantis to get out of the way so he can impose his radical agenda, but Governor DeSantis will not kowtow to authoritarian bullying from Joe Biden or anyone else.”
Not only do these themes stand ready for use in a presidential bid, but their very pugnacity suggests that Trump may want to reconsider his provocative bullying strategy when it comes to DeSantis.
DeSantis has a wide range of options. He has positioned himself as a leading 2024 presidential candidate, if Trump falters. If Trump does run and looks unbeatable in the race for the nomination, DeSantis can hold back and wait until 2028, when he will be 50 — the prime of life for a presidential candidate.“