Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t even won a second term yet, let alone announced for president, and he’s already emerging as the most dangerous Republican in America.
That takes some doing given the continued intense focus on Donald Trump and the five-alarm-fire that he represents for the American system of government, according to his critics.
Yet there’s now a cottage industry arguing that Trump is child’s play compared to the dire and growing threat from Tallahassee.
Joining the chorus, Max Boot just wrote a column for the Washington Post warning, “DeSantis is smarter than Trump. That may make him more of a threat.”
A report from the website Insider ran under the ungainly headline, “DeSantis is a ‘very dangerous individual’ because he has ‘already absorbed all the lessons of Trump’ but doesn’t have any of the baggage, an expert on fascism argues.”
In a dark, monitory profile of DeSantis a few months ago, Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine wrote, “Just imagine what a Trumpified party no longer led by an erratic, deeply unpopular cable-news binge-watcher would be capable of.”
Yes, we’ll all look back on the good old days when a major political party was led by a figure obsessed with the presidential election he lost and tried to overturn rather than by (should the passing of the torch actually happen) a competent, popular Sunbelt governor who has never schemed to reverse the outcome of an election, and presumably never will.
The DeSantis-hating opponents of Trump are effectively saying, “Sure, Donald Trump led an insurrection and represents an ongoing threat to American democracy, but hey, that other guy refused to let schools impose mask mandates on kids — he’s much worse.”
Progressives have to decide two things. One is if they really want Trump gone, or if they want him as a foil for the duration.
If it is the former, they should welcome DeSantis as a potential vehicle for ending what they believe is the ongoing state of political emergency represented by Trump. If it is the latter, DeSantis could spoil everything.
The second is whether they consider Trump-led efforts to undermine the 2020 election the chief threat to our system, or whether they consider populist-inflected conservatism itself the threat.
Again, if it is the former, DeSantis is the way out of the purported crisis. If it is the latter, DeSantis is indeed a bigger threat than Trump, since he’d have a better chance of winning a 2024 race and a much better chance of governing effectively.
By any reasonable standard, DeSantis’ supposed sins are peccadilloes compared to those of Trump.
Trump tried to bully his vice president into changing or blocking the counting of the electoral votes and then sat contentedly as a braying mob targeted him; DeSantis ended Florida’s Covid strictures earlier than most other states.
Trump may or may not have lunged at the steering wheel of his SUV as it took him back to the White House on Jan. 6 instead of to the U.S. Capitol; DeSantis signed a bill to prevent kids from being taught about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools in grades K-3.
Trump has continued to promote conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and endorse candidates who believe or pretend to believe in them; DeSantis criticized Anthony Fauci.
There is no doubt that DeSantis reflects a new more Trumpian Republican Party, in his combativeness with the press, in his emphasis on cultural issues, in his willingness to use government power in the culture war, and in his ability to appeal to Trump voters.
Still, there is nothing aberrant about DeSantis. His state-of-the-state address this year, with freedom as its central theme, could have been delivered by a conservative Republican governor any time over the last 30 years.
To oversimplify, the governor’s most controversial initiatives can be thrown in a couple of different buckets. One has to do with his calling card, his response to Covid. Here he insisted that a balance must be struck between public-health measures and other goods, including economic activity and in-person schooling. Almost everything he did attempted to vindicate individual choice, whether to keep a business open, wear a mask, or get a vaccine.
It can be argued, as the governor’s detractors do, that he didn’t get the balance right and that he should have given school districts and businesses more latitude to decide whether and how to impose mandates. His program was hardly authoritarian or irrational, though. Its watchword was freedom, and it reflected a different interpretation of the facts and science than prevailed in the conventional wisdom in the Blue States.
Another area is pushback against “woke” instruction and training in public schools and universities. Some of this has been challenged on free-speech grounds, but broadly speaking, the government should be able to set the rules for government institutions and the intended target of the bills is progressive excesses hardly central to a sound education.
Then there are measures regarding voting and elections. DeSantis signed into law re-drawn congressional districts highly favorable to Florida’s Republicans. Gerrymandering is nothing new, of course, and isn’t unique to Florida. He also signed a bill making it harder for felons to vote — they have to pay outstanding fines and fees first — despite the passage of a voter initiative in 2018 restoring felon voting rights. Given that serious criminals haven’t been able to vote in Florida since it’s been a state, the bill, whatever its merits, isn’t a radical departure. Finally, he signed into law an election bill broadly similar in outline to a Texas election bill that has had no discernible effect on overall turnout in the Texas primaries.
Even if you take the dimmest possible view of all this, it makes DeSantis a sharp-elbowed partisan rather than a clear and present danger to American democracy, and none of it is remotely comparable to what Trump tried to do after the 2020 election.
The move to strip Disney of its special tax status after it criticized one of the education bills is more problematic, a clear instance of retaliation for unwelcome public advocacy. As a “woke” corporation enjoying a special favor from the government of Florida, though, Disney made for a uniquely enticing target for lawmakers hoping to send a signal that companies should stick to their knitting.
DeSantis may be Trumpy in notable respects, but, importantly, he doesn’t exhibit any of Trump’s character flaws.
He is tough on reporters, but he hasn’t engaged in any taunting or gratuitous insults.
He is a sharp political player, which isn’t unusual of powerful governors, but isn’t fundamentally driven by personal vendettas.
He hasn’t governed via tweet, with seat-of-the-pants edicts quickly reversed or forgotten when he’s talked out of them.
He is a voracious consumer of information and isn’t prone to ill-informed riffs.
He hasn’t shown a chronic inability to distinguish between his personal interest and the public interest.
He pays close attention to his voters, but is willing to pursue policies that aren’t driven by his base, such as higher teacher pay and robust environmental protection.
And, of course, he has never once lost an election to Joe Biden, and cast about for any reason to deny the result out of ego and pique.
In all the ways that should matter, in short, DeSantis is better than Trump, and compared to the former president, he is reassuringly normal. In a better world, this would win him some grudging praise from unexpected quarters. Instead, because he’s a conservative Republican with some chance to be his party’s presidential nominee, he is ipso facto considered a threat to the republic.