Ron DeSantis is the future of the GOP — and that's bad news for Republicans
Pandering to extremists wins primaries, but is unpopular afterward.
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By David R. Lurie
In the wake of the 2022 midterm election debacle, a number Republican Party leaders have, belatedly, taken to declaring that it is time to “move on” from Donald Trump, and many of them are pointing to newly reelected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a potential 2024 GOP presidential nominee. A recent poll confirmed that many Republicans want just what DeSantis has to offer: “Trumpism without Trump.”
But the fact that DeSantis is the most likely Trump successor actually demonstrates how difficult it will be for the GOP to excise a rot that has reached the core of the party — even in the (still unlikely) event that Trump exits the scene.
Like Trump, DeSantis, who has plainly been eyeing a presidential run for the past three years, has spent those years exclusively, and single-mindedly, appealing to people who are motivated by paranoias, bigotries, and resentments that most Americans not only don’t share, but find dangerous.
There is an obvious political logic to DeSantis’s approach: The sliver of voters he appeals to — most of whom are avid consumers of right-wing media — are now the core of the Republican Party electorate and decide the outcome of primaries. But, as the November elections once again confirmed, they hold views that are rejected by most voters, including many who identify as Republicans.
DeSantis owes his current office to Trump, who supported him in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary because the then-Freedom Caucus House Member obsequiously pandered to the then president. DeSantis first came to national attention for a commercial in which he “joked” about teaching his kids to revere Trump.
But upon taking office, DeSantis demonstrated a recognition of a political reality that escaped some other Trump-era GOP politicians: The way to gain power in the party was not to pander to Trump himself, but rather to pander directly to the extremists that Trump had invited into the GOP — often by being more extreme and conspiratorial than Trump.
DeSantis’s war on public health
DeSantis first demonstrated this political strategy in his response to the pandemic. After initially implementing responses, including school shutdowns recommended by public health scientists, DeSantis quickly glommed onto the attraction of covid conspiracism to the GOP base, and became perhaps its most visible champion.
By the summer of 2021, DeSantis had embarked on a full-scale battle against elected municipal school boards that had the temerity to require students to wear masks in the midst of covid outbreaks, he was suing the CDC for requiring passengers to be vaccinated, and Florida state troopers had arrested at gunpoint a whistleblower who challenged the reliability of Florida’s covid case reporting.
Most dangerously, DeSantis — who initially championed his state’s vaccine distribution efforts — began to openly appeal to anti-vaccine conspiracism, exemplified by his appointment of a notorious proponent of discredited public health claims, Joseph Ladapo, as Florida’s Surgeon General.
Ladapo was a member of a group calling itself “America’s Frontline Doctors,” and appeared at a DC press conference alongside a physician who claimed that gynecological problems are attributable to demon sperm. Since joining DeSantis’s administration, Ladapo has gained notoriety for refusing to wear a mask while meeting with a legislator suffering from cancer and for endorsing bogus claims about the dangers of vaccination.
The cost, in human lives, of DeSantis’s political gambit has been high. Florida has had a massively higher death rate than New York and other states with high vaccination rates. And the cost is even higher when one considers the pressure DeSantis’s strategy placed on GOP politicians in other states to follow his anti-public health approach.
But DeSantis’s nihilistic strategy accomplished a critical political goal: Placing him at the very vanguard of an anti-vax movement which had moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream of the GOP. DeSantis managed to surpass Trump as covid conspiracist leader; after all, unlike DeSantis, Trump was saddled with his association with the development of the dreaded life-saving vaccines.
DeSantis’s culture war on education
Over the past several years, DeSantis has also taken it upon himself to wage an all-out war against a shadowy enemy he claims is seeking to corrupt Florida’s youth, exemplified by his “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The law prevents Florida’s teachers from providing lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity to children in kindergarten through the third grade. Few, if any, teachers have ever provided such instruction, making the law — on its face — appear to be entirely unnecessary. But, of course, the purpose of the law was not to address any actual danger to Florida’s children, but rather to appeal to yet another fringe element taking root in the Republican Party.
In recent years, the nation has become ever more accepting of the LGBT community. For example, while 68 percent of Americans opposed, and 27 percent favored, recognizing same-sex marriage in 1996, 71 percent favor, and 28 percent oppose it, today. But a deep resentment to this fundamental societal shift is reflected in the extremist mainstream of the Republican Party, which has focused with ever greater intensity on paranoid (and often QAnon-inspired) claims that teachers are somehow indoctrinating children into a “woke” culture of deviance.
As in the case of his war on public health, DeSantis’s LGBT culture warring closely allies him with a fringe movement that is at odds with most Americans, but firmly in the mainstream of a Republican Party that has become consumed with extremism.
DeSantis’s embrace of xenophobia
DeSantis received perhaps his greatest national attention to date for an ill-fated human trafficking escapade in Martha’s Vineyard. As will be well known to most readers, DeSantis and his cronies employed funds that were appropriated by Florida’s legislature (and that probably originated from the federal government) to fund a wildly expensive scheme to lure a group of Venezuelan asylum seekers in Texas onto a corporate jet and dump them in Martha’s Vineyard, where former President Obama is known to vacation on occasion.
The scheme — which DeSantis arranged to be televised on Fox News — was intended to “own the libs” on the Massachusetts island, but backfired when residents rapidly mobilized with a demonstration of empathy and assistance for the bewildered migrants. Subsequent investigations have begun to uncover a sordid scheme, pursuant to which DeSantis’s “Homeland Security” advisor entered into a lucrative contract with his former legal client to transport the migrants, after they were defrauded by a contractor who falsely promised the migrants they were to receive employment and other assistance if they got on the plane.
In the wake of the debacle, DeSantis abandoned a plan to send another group of similarly deceived migrants to Biden’s home state of Delaware. And numerous lawsuits, and at least one criminal investigation, have followed since.
But despite the obvious cruelty, and potential corruption, of DeSantis’s human trafficking scheme, it served its immediate purpose. It demonstrated that DeSantis is committed to another primary obsession of the GOP: xenophobic paranoia regarding immigrants. As DeSantis well knows, demonizing immigrants is simply essential for any Republican Party candidate. Indeed, it appears that DeSantis rushed forward implementation of his human trafficking scheme because he feared that was being outshined by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who was engaging in similar acts of performative sadism, and on a much larger scale.
The problem is that, like his anti-public health and culture wars, DeSantis’s gratuitously cruel response to immigration is in the mainstream of the GOP, but not of the nation. Polling indicates a marked growth in support for increased immigration since the turn of the century, while the number of Americans favoring decreased immigration actually peaked decades ago. And the GOP’s assiduous effort to — like DeSantis — make fear of immigrant hoards the centerpiece of the midterm general election campaign fell flat.
DeSantis exemplifies the GOP’s extremism trap
DeSantis has attracted tens of millions of dollars from GOP donors, who believe he offers the Republican Party an escape route from its ill-fated fealty to Donald Trump, and point to his 20-point reelection victory as purported proof of his viability as a general election candidate.
Those arguments, however, ignore the critical fact that the Democratic Party is in a virtual state of collapse in the state of Florida, and that DeSantis’s vastly outspent Democratic opponent did not even have the financial wherewithal to mount a credible campaign. Given that Marco Rubio, one of the laughingstocks of the Senate, was able to win by a similar margin in the same election provides further perspective on the current political situation in the state of Florida, and how unrepresentative it is of the broader nation.
If DeSantis is able to garner the Republican nomination — a big if (and one that perhaps hinges on if criminal justice problems force Trump out of the race) — he will enter the general election as easily the most extreme GOP presidential nominee not named Trump since Goldwater in 1964.
Furthermore, as he prepares for his increasingly likely presidential run, DeSantis shows no sign of retreating from his appeals to extremism. That is unsurprising, given that DeSantis is preparing to market himself as the choice for GOP voters seeking Trumpism without Trump.
Despite the fact that Trump has been attacking DeSantis of late, DeSantis was notably not among the growing ranks of GOP leaders who criticized Trump’s dinner with several antisemites. This is unsurprising; DeSantis — like Trump — is plainly mindful that bigots are now a key part of the GOP’s base, and has repeatedly avoided opportunities to denounce a significant block of the party’s voters.
There is every reason to expect that DeSantis will continue to embrace, and may even amplify, the extremist appeals that have dominated his governorship as his quest for the Republican nomination proceeds. That is because those appeals are an absolute necessity to win the votes of GOP primary voters. With or without Donald Trump, the core of the Republican Party will remain consumed with conspiratorial extremism for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, any other candidate who vies for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination will inevitably continue to appeal to the very same extremism that has doomed the party to repeated electoral defeats.
Indeed, immediately after the election, the DeSantis administration was in court defending DeSantis’s suspension of an elected prosecutor for having the temerity to express support for reproductive rights (and for allegedly refusing to enforce laws against gender transition treatment — although Florida had no such laws).
Earlier this month, DeSantis held an event during which Florida surgeon general Ladapo falsely asserted that the covid-19 vaccine is killing people. The governor then declared his intention to commence a criminal investigation of alleged vaccine “wrongdoing.” DeSantis also announced that he is creating a “Public Health Integrity Committee” for the stated purpose of challenging the CDC’s science-based public health guidance.
As the Trump campaign recognizes, DeSantis is actually exploiting one of Trump’s few vulnerabilities within the GOP’s conspiratorial base: Trump’s association with the development of life saving vaccines.
Therefore, while Ron DeSantis, and the conspiratorial extremism DeSantis has made integral to his political brand, may well be the future of the GOP, it is a future that may be very bleak for the party.
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