"Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, likes to do stunts. It is a key part of how he’s built his reputation as a fighter for conservative causes — a reputation he hopes to ride to the White House.
We saw one of those stunts this week when, using a promise of assistance, he lured several dozen Venezuelan asylum seekers onto a pair of planes in Texas and sent them to Martha’s Vineyard. According to NPR, “The migrants said a woman they identified as ‘Perla’ approached them outside the shelter and lured them into boarding the plane, saying they would be flown to Boston where they could get expedited work papers.”
The conceit of this dehumanizing bit of political theater was that the liberal denizens of Martha’s Vineyard would reject the migrants out of hypocrisy, thus proving that Democrats aren’t actually interested in welcoming immigrants into their communities. To DeSantis and his amen corner, asylum seekers are disposable, and they believe that liberals will want to dispose of them too.
What happened, instead, was that residents of Martha’s Vineyard rallied to provide food, shelter, clothing and services. The asylum seekers are now on their way to Cape Cod, to receive further assistance. The stunt failed to make its intended point.
The same was true of a previous stunt, in which DeSantis touted the arrests of 20 former felons for election fraud. The intended message was that Florida, and presumably the entire country, needed to be on constant alert to block fraudulent voters. But in the days and weeks after the arrests, an investigation by The Tampa Bay Times found that the state had actually cleared those residents to vote. As far as they knew, they hadn’t broken the law. If anything, they had been entrapped as part of a scheme to make DeSantis a more attractive candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
With his command of conservative media and his obvious attempts to mimic the style and mannerisms of Donald Trump (right down to the big suits and frequent hand gestures), DeSantis has made himself into something of an heir apparent to the former president, should Trump decline to run in the next election.
But I think these failed stunts tell us something important about DeSantis’s ability to succeed on the national stage.
In short, he’s not quite ready.
Yes, when viewed from the perspective of partisan media, DeSantis looks almost unstoppable. But to a typical person — someone who may have heard about these stunts but doesn’t know much about DeSantis otherwise — he looks a lot like a bully, someone willing to play high-stakes games with people’s lives for the sake of his own ego and advancement.
Well, you might say, Donald Trump is a bully, too. Yes, he is. But Donald Trump is also a lifelong celebrity with a public persona that is as much about “The Apprentice” and even “Home Alone 2” as it is about his political career. What’s more, Trump has the skills of a celebrity. He’s funny, he has stage presence, and he has a kind of natural charisma. He can be a bully in part because he can temper his cruelty and egoism with the performance of a clown or a showman. He can persuade an audience that he’s just kidding — that he doesn’t actually mean it.
Ron DeSantis cannot. He may be a more competent Trump in terms of his ability to use the levers of state to amass power, but he’s also meaner and more rigid, without the soft edges and eccentricity of the actual Donald Trump. DeSantis might be able to mimic Trump, in parts, but he does not have the temperament or personality to be another Trump.
This doesn’t mean that DeSantis cannot win the Republican presidential nomination or even the presidency; of course he can. What I think it means, however, is that his Trump 2.0 act might fail to reach the marginal voters who liked Donald Trump for his persona and performance more than for his positions or policies. It means that on a national stage, DeSantis might flop like one of his stunts.
And looking back at the last decade or so of Republican presidential contests, it would not be the first time that a vaunted conservative fighter fell flat on his face when he finally took a swing at prime time."