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How Ron DeSantis's presidential bid blew up before it even started
He's mediocre and always has been.
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Ron DeSantis’s presidential candidacy is blowing up before its official launch, as his poll numbers tank, GOP politicians line up behind Trump, and some publicly insult him.
DeSantis’s launchpad catastrophe is not only a testament to his mediocrity as a politician, but also to the remarkably bad judgment of the rich donors who bankrolled him. It also reflects the preoccupation of many Trump-era journalists with the spectacle of theatrical bullying, a preoccupation that, in DeSantis’s case, led pundits to disregard the Florida’s governor’s political tone deafness — as well as the fact that his authoritarianism is starkly at odds with the views of most American voters.
Examining the multiple authors of the DeSantis failure, therefore, reveals a great deal about what is wrong with our nation’s political system at this moment.
For DeSantis, extremism is no vice; it is a political strategy
DeSantis spent six years as an obscure backbench GOP congressman who was widely disliked by his colleagues, and notable only for his dogmatic adherence to Tea Party dogma, including favoring cuts to Social Security.
In 2018, however, DeSantis, who wanted to become governor of Florida, remade himself as a follower of Donald Trump, and an advocate for the then-president’s big government MAGA ideology. Like so many Trump endorsees, DeSantis debased himself to win over Trump and his followers. In a pre-primary commercial, DeSantis “joked” about building a fake border wall with his young daughter, and pretended to read a book about Trump firing people on the Apprentice to his infant son.
DeSantis went on to win a surprisingly close general election race against a Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, who was facing ethical problems (he has since been indicted) in a state that has long trended Republican.
Upon taking office, DeSantis initially appeared to be something of a right wing technocrat, like one of his predecessors, Jeb Bush, including in his pursuit to remediate the Everglades. But DeSantis came to believe that he could become a leading presidential candidate if he set out to be the most systematically extreme GOP governor in the nation.
The covid pandemic was DeSantis’s break-out moment, during which he became known as a leading proponent of both anti-science conspiracism and the then-emerging GOP war on education and knowledge.
At the outset of the outbreak, DeSantis followed CDC (and Trump administration) public health guidance, including by closing the state’s public schools. But as it became clear that a right-wing movement was catalyzing around covid denial, DeSantis abruptly changed course.
DeSantis attacked local school boards that required masking, challenging them in court, and eventually forcing out school administrators and school board members that had the temerity to challenge his dictates.
As Florida’s covid death toll grew during the viral resurgence caused by the omicron variant, DeSantis expanded his attacks to include Florida’s doctors and other health professionals, who criticized his refusal to implement masking and other measures to stop overloading the state’s hospitals with the sick and dying.
With the anti-vax movement merging with the GOP base, DeSantis — who had initially touted Florida’s purported success in vaccinating senior citizens (and allegedly handed out shots as political favors) — went full bore anti-science. He began openly questioning the efficacy of the vaccines, and hired as the state’s surgeon general Joseph Ladapo, a physician known for his advocacy of conspiratorial anti-vax theories and appearance with a doctor who decried the dangers of "demon sperm."
Ladapo introduced himself to the state by refusing to wear a mask while visiting the office of a state legislator who had been diagnosed with cancer, and had informed Ladapo that she had a serious health condition. Recently, evidence has come to light that Ladapo altered the findings of a study to support his false claims that covid vaccines pose dangers of heart ailments to significant numbers of young people. Last year, DeSantis himself ordered a criminal investigation of vaccine manufacturers.
Florida suffered many avoidable deaths in the wake of DeSantis’s attack on vaccines. But the governor was encouraged by the praise he received from Fox News and Trump supporters, and he began seeking out other avenues for indulging his authoritarian tendencies.
For example, DeSantis decided to define himself as a public official who is even more cruel toward Latin American immigrants fleeing persecution and poverty than Trump. DeSantis apparently feared being out xenophobed by Texas governor Greg Abbott, who was regularly trumpeting his anti-immigrant bona fides on Fox News.
DeSantis responded by deputizing his “public safety czar,” Larry Keefe, to dupe around 50 asylum seekers in Texas to board a private jet leased from a former legal client of Keefe’s (at huge cost to the state) to Martha’s Vineyard with false promises of jobs, and dump them on the Massachusetts island where the Obamas are known to vacation in front of a Fox News camera crew that DeSantis alerted of the scheme. A plan to dupe another group of desperate asylum seekers to fly to Biden’s home state of Delaware failed to get off the ground.
The stunt, which was not only sadistic but potentially illegal, led to both civil litigation and at least one criminal investigation. But DeSantis seemed to judge it a success, given the publicity it generated.
Most notoriously, DeSantis has become the leader of what he calls the battle against “wokeness,” an ambiguously defined phenomenon which encompasses just about any activity that promotes the tolerance of minority groups and the study of history.
Thus, DeSantis expanded his battle against school boards to include attacks on teachers, who are now — under DeSantis’s “don’t say gay” law (which courts have partially stayed on First Amendment grounds) and other measures — being threatened with firing (and potentially with criminal charges) for allowing children to read books deemed illicit under deliberately vague standards. The DeSantian book banning frenzy led some teachers and schools to shut down their libraries out of fear of sanction.
While DeSantis denies that he has set out to ban books and instruction about such subversive topics as the Montgomery bus boycott, the regime he’s installed, which effectively requires a book to be “temporarily” pulled off school shelves if only one parent complains, made such results inevitable.
RELATED FROM PN: Inside DeSantis’s war on public education
The practice reached its apotheosis at a charter primary school with a “classical” curriculum created by Hillsdale College, an ideological ally of DeSantis. The Tallahassee Classical School’s board fired the institution’s evangelical principal for allowing a teacher to show students a picture of Michelangelo’s (unclothed) David, allegedly because she did not warn parents that their kids would be exposed to Renaissance art.
DeSantis has also set out to make Florida a national leader in the proliferation of high powered firearms, never mind that his state is plagued by mass shootings (or that DeSantis has sought to ban guns from his own appearances).
Finally, DeSantis has set out to become a leader in the GOP’s assault on reproductive rights, despite the fact that 56 percent of the state’s adults (along with most of the nation) support them. After signing a law barring abortions after 15 weeks before being reelected last fall, DeSantis recently signed a bill making abortions illegal after six weeks — before most pregnant people even know they are pregnant.
The big problem for DeSantis is you can’t out-Trump Trump
DeSantis has been touting his extremism, and attacks on history and science, as the foundation of his presidential campaign, bragging that — with the help of a GOP supermajority in both of Florida’s legislative chambers — he intends to enact even more radical right wing legislation as the prelude to making his candidacy official. But it has long been evident that DeSantis’s strategy is based on two nonsensical political propositions.
First, DeSantis believed that, simply by staking out the most extreme position on every possible issue, he could vault to the top of the GOP primary field and stay there. That theory has proven to be false, and for the most predictable of reasons: Donald Trump.
The Trump movement is, like its fascist predecessors, grounded on a single charismatic leader. And because the movement cannot be separated from its leader, DeSantis has — entirely predictably — found it impossible to criticize Trump, even gently, without facing the ire of his supporters, as evinced by the hugely negative response to DeSantis’s oblique attack on Trump’s infidelities, which you can watch below.
Meanwhile, Trump has had free rein to deride DeSantis, including most recently in an ad attacking DeSantis for being disloyal, which prominently excerpts the “build the wall” commercial that DeSantis used to garner the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2018.
DeSantis is, equally predictably, finding it impossible to out-extreme Trump. Trump has always made it his business to pander to the constituencies he relies upon by favoring the policies they do, however wack they may be. Trump has also never been troubled by inconsistency. Accordingly, he has seamlessly morphed, for example, from an advocate of vaccines (even claiming that he invented the covid shots) to his current status as a champion of anti-vaxxers.
Furthermore, Trump is far more insulated than DeSantis from criticism for his extremism, simply because Trump’s advancement of abhorrent policies is old news. DeSantis has no such leeway.
For instance, DeSantis (previously a staunch supporter of Ukraine) faced deservedly massive blowback after he effectively endorsed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Tucker Carlson’s show. DeSantis must have assumed that he would be able to get away with such a turn toward Putinism, while getting brownie points from the GOP’s isolationist extremists. After all, Trump had praised Putin and his mass murderous activities repeatedly, without any apparent consequence. That calculation blew up in DeSantis’s face.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, DeSantis’s GOP poll numbers have cascaded downwards. One recent poll has him down by 37 points against Trump among GOP voters. Other polls, like the one cited below, have him trailing by even more.
DeSantis’s second incorrect assumption was that adopting radically extreme positions on issue after issue that most Americans oppose, and in some cases find repugnant, would not impair his viability as a general election candidate.
DeSantis repeatedly pointed to the fact that he garnered 59 percent of the vote in his 2022 reelection race against Charlie Crist (a former Republican governor). His contention was that this proves non-GOP voters will overlook matters like his performative sadism toward asylum seekers, pandering to gun nuts, attacks on school teachers, and efforts to force women to give birth.
The premise that DeSantis’s Florida reelection numbers proved he could be elected president, despite being far to the right of Goldwater was, however, problematic from the outset. DeSantis’s reelection margin was almost the same as that of Marco Rubio, who received 57 percent of the vote against a far more dynamic opponent than DeSantis (Rep. Val Demings), despite the fact that he is close to being a laughingstock in his party.
By 2022, the Democratic Party of Florida was decimated, and lacked organizational or financial resources, as did its candidates. Given the increasingly Republican composition of the Florida electorate, and the lack of resources available to DeSantis; opponent, DeSantis’s victory margin was not even close to being a proxy for his likely performance in a general election.
Notably, in DeSantis’s reelection race he was weak among independent voters, who are key to every presidential general election. Recent polling indicates that 51 percent of Florida’s independents don’t approve of his job performance; neither do 61 percent of women.
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The wisdom of GOP donors is wanting
DeSantis’s fleeting status as a shadow frontrunner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination was due largely to his huge fundraising hauls from a relatively small number of super-rich individuals. DeSantis raised more than $217 million for his reelection race, the most ever raised in a gubernatorial election, much of it from wealthy GOP donors anticipating his presidential run.
At least until recently, the super PAC formed to support DeSantis’s anticipated White House campaign has realized similarly eye popping contribution numbers, having recorded $30 million in contributions during March 2023 alone, with $20 million of that reportedly coming from one hugely rich donor.
The donors who have been bankrolling DeSantis have long believed that an alternative to Trump is necessary. As billionaire brokerage firm owner Thomas Peterffy put it: “The problem with Trump is he has so many negatives. He can’t get elected, period.”
Until recently, Peterffy, and a number of his friends believed DeSantis was the “fresh face” they were looking for. Yet days ago, Peterffy declared that DeSantis is also likely unelectable and said that he and other unnamed donors had decided to place their financial support for him “on hold.”
In explaining his change of heart, Peterffy specifically cited DeSantis’s “stance on abortion and book banning,” which he deemed to be out of the mainstream and concluded could render him toxic in the general election.
He’s right. For example, a recent poll found that 64 percent of the nation believes that DeSantis is punishing Disney for exercising its constitutional rights of free speech. But as explained, the warning signs have been evident for a long time.
The obvious question raised by Peterffy’s (and his friends’) discovery of DeSantis’s non-electability is, where have they been? DeSantis’s habitual embrace of the most extreme position on virtually every existing hot button issue has hardly been a secret. His attraction to authoritarianism was front and center during the 2022 reelection campaign that so many donors contributed to, and was certainly a matter of public record when they began pouring funds into DeSantis’s super PAC.
The clear implication is that many hugely wealthy Republican donors who claim to be interested in “electability” are terrible at identifying actually electable candidates. The combination of DeSantis’s Mussolini-like swagger and his misleadingly touted reelection margin appears to have been enough to cause many donors to open their wallets without due diligence.
Days after announcing his turn away from DeSantis, Peterffy declared that he had contributed $1 million to the Super PAC of Virginia GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin. Apparently, Peterffy was unaware that Youngkin is as deeply opposed to reproductive rights as DeSantis, or that he grounded his gubernatorial campaign on an attack on “wokeism” in schools that provided much of the inspiration for DeSantis’s recent assaults on public education in Florida.
Youngkin has, as yet, been unable to implement many DeSantian policies in Virginia only because Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in one house of the Virginia legislature. But if the GOP garners unified control of the state government in upcoming elections, Youngkin stands poised to transform Virginia into a Mid-Atlantic outpost of DeSantism.
Therefore, it appears more than likely that even the rapid meltdown of DeSantis has not caused Peterffy or his friends to reflect on how they came to place such a misguided bet on a flawed candidate.
Last year, when he announced his search for a Trump alternative, Peterffy acknowledged that, if Trump ends up being the nominee, he will vote for him. It looks like things may be headed in that direction, and that the checkbooks of Peterffy and his friends may open again for Trump after all.
Pundits follow shiny objects
Unlike wealthy businesspersons, DC political journalists are supposed to be insightful analysts of the prospects of presidential candidates. Recent events have, however, confirmed that many of them are not. Until weeks, and even days ago, large numbers of pundits were declaring that DeSantis would be the undoing of Trump and was on track to be the GOP’s standard bearer.
The DeSantis pundit boosters largely fall in two categories: The wish-casters and the shiny object followers. The wish-casters are comprised of right wingers who have long been attracted to Trumpish authoritarianism (which they typically prefer to call “working class populism”), but were chagrined when Trump rendered the cause unfashionable, particularly by leading an attempted coup.
An example of this type of pundit is New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a leading Ivy League-educated booster of right wing populism in the US and abroad — including in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where Douthat has been particularly impressed by the dictatorship’s attacks on academic freedom and the press. Douthat had egg on his face in the wake of January 6, having asserted even before the election that Trump was all bluster, and would never attempt to void the institutions of democracy.
But rather than rethinking his proclivity for authoritarianism in the wake of the insurrection, Douthat turned his focus to identifying a Trump replacement — one who would wage a battle against cultural “decadence” like Trump, but in a more organized and strategic manner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Douthat landed upon DeSantis as the obvious potential Trump replacement. Equally unsurprisingly, Douthat has taken the increasing unpopularity of the “populist” hope DeSantis hard. In a recent column, Douthat declared that DeSantis should not let the collapse of his nascent campaign prevent him from soldiering on, stating: “DeSantis today is a man already graced by Fortune. And even if the goddess doesn’t always favor boldness, she takes a stern view of those to whom favor is extended who then refuse the gift.”
Douthat’s wish-casting is, perhaps, understandable, given his abiding interest in seeing a post-Trump authoritarian win the next election. But purportedly hardheaded DC journalists have no such excuse. Yet many of them were as taken in by the DeSantis phenomenon as fanboys like Douthat.
Armies of journalists recently headed to Florida to witness one of DeSantis’s daily “press conferences,” as he touted his latest measures to place guns in schools, attack the state’s most important financial engine, Disney, or threaten to jail former felons for voting. They also dutifully went on to tout his war chest and golden boy status.
Furthermore, as media organizations competed to enlist journalists who could give them the inside scoop on “DeSantis world,” many seemed curiously uninterested in the governor’s affinity for bullying anyone mildly critical of his program. Axios responded to the DeSantis team’s attack on one of its reporters for sending an email (accurately) describing a DeSantis press release as propaganda by firing him, apparently concerned about the risk that the nascent frontrunner might deny the publication treasured “access.”
Few of these political observers took the time to examine whether DeSantis actually had a plan for detaching Donald Trump’s supporters from their charismatic leader, or whether DeSantis — who they declared to be a “more electable” version of Trump — could possibly attract voters outside the GOP base, even as he touted ever more extreme public policy positions.
It is now clear that, as has been the case so many times before, political “experts” are easily convinced that the attentions of well heeled donors are an inevitable sign of political success (see “President” Jeb Bush). But pundits’ recent enthusiasm for DeSantis takes on a more disturbing tinge when one considers how openly and notoriously DeSantis has made cruelty, amorality, and outright attacks on civil rights and democracy the centerpiece of his political brand.
DeSantis’s pain is Trump’s gain
In the wake of the multiple electoral failures Trump has led the GOP into, including the 2018 and 2022 midterms, as well as Trump’s own unsuccessful reelection campaign, the proposition that a majority of American voters desire a president whose goal is to destroy the nation’s democratic institutions simply does not hold water. Furthermore, as Greg Sargent has observed, there are numerous indications that the power of the GOP’s insurrectionist wing, while it remains a grave threat to the nation, is actually waning.
Yet the press seemed taken by DeSantis’s carefully staged events touting authoritarian initiatives, from which critical reporters were often excluded — and during which DeSantis’s supporters were filed in to cheer — apparently believing the hyped claims that these photo ops reflected a groundswell for his nascent candidacy. The echoes of pundits’ fascination with the many spectacles Trump began feeding to the press in 2015 — and that he continues to supply today — are hard to miss.
And the ongoing collapse of DeSantis’s shadow campaign seems unlikely to augur the end of the bad judgment of many DC elites. To the contrary, it likely indicates that the coast is clear for Donald Trump to again take over the arena, with the full assistance of pundits and cable news programmers, just as he did before the 2016 election. He will stay at the center of media attention despite — if not because of — his continuing legal problems.
We should all be concerned.
That’s it for this week
Aaron will be back with more Monday. Thanks as always for your support, and have a great weekend.