Political post-mortem of Ron DeSantis: The Caudillo who wasn't there
"A fool and his money are soon parted"
One year ago it seemed like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had everything going for him. His record in office was impeccable. Due to his careful management, Florida citizens were spared the enormous visible declines in quality of life that had been felt all over the country in the last 5 years. Americans “voted with their feet” and were moving to Florida in larger numbers than ever with before.
President Trump, an eccentric and somewhat outspoken former reality TV star and real estate mogul, had lots of baggage from his decades in the public spotlight and even more tumultuous presidency. DeSantis, on the other hand, had always been known as a good soldier in Republican politics. He was the straightest shooter ever to emerge from Yale Law School and the Navy JAG Corps.
It wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that a candidate like DeSantis was able to assemble a massive campaign war chest. President Trump had many enemies in the Republican establishment after his successful insurgent primary campaign. There was an entire class of Republican consultants and donors who were easily outmaneuvered and humiliated by Trump’s almost preternatural force of personality and will. All of these enemies saw DeSantis as the vehicle for their revenge.
DeSantis was placed in an unenviable position for any politician: His strength in office was mostly that he, unlike most Republican politicians, was willing and able to implement popular common-sense conservatives policies. He was not an idiot, a huckster, or an empty suit. He had almost too good a record to run on. Because of this, there was not an easily definable “DeSantis platform” other than success.
All things considered, “success” is a pretty good thing to be identified with. However, lack of personality or texture was a decisive disadvantage in a race against President Trump, a world-historical figure who, however incoherent some of his decisions or policy pivots may have seemed, was clearly channeling the unspoken currents of American thought. It was often difficult to dissociate DeSantis’s policy proposals from whatever was popular in Republican online circles at the time.
As a result, DeSantis tried to define himself in two directions. To some, he was Trump but more extreme: An “Iron Caudillo” willing to use STATE POWER (all caps) to change Disney’s special tax status (the extent to which many of these actions were media hype to be quietly rolled back remains to be seen). Although I have literally no evidence to support this, I suspect that the reason many DeSantis online surrogates engaged in (very unrealistic) discourse about National Divorce about a year ago was a concerted effort by the DeSantis campaign to capitalize on this perceived “hard edge.” As a competent state executive (who even reactivated his state defense force) DeSantis would seem like the perfect leader for an imaginary secession conflict that has no chance of occurring, and that DeSantis would not even want to occur.
To others, DeSantis was Trump without the “objectionable” eccentricities, disputed presidential legacy, and dozens of pending criminal charges. By all accounts, DeSantis is a kind and considerate person. He has an idyllic family life and not a whiff of controversy surrounding his personal integrity. “DeSantis can give you Trump policies, but without Trump drama,” surrogates began to claim after it became clear (following several disastrous midterm and referendum elections) that the voters did not want an extremist, however quickly rhetoric was escalating online.
This escalation led DeSantis to become a victim of the pro-life movement’s greatest success, attaching himself to a very controversial (and unpopular at the polls) 6-week ban on abortion. Although President Trump likely accomplished more for the pro-life movement than any leader in history, no one would mistake him for someone with hardline views on these issues. For all the hysteria about Trump’s supposed extremism on immigration and criminal justice and foreign policy, he has never been anything other than a Moderate Centrist with views in line with the majority of Americans.
In general, people don’t want to think about this stuff. If voters think about abortion (tragic and eliciting very powerful emotions on both sides), Republicans lose. If voters think about Trump, Republicans (and the pro-life movement) win. Trump is extreme in many ways, but he is also magnanimous and accommodating. He’s funny and human. I believe him when he says he just wants to save the world. People don’t think he’s twisting the knife just to twist it. DeSantis, clearly just going along with whatever’s popular among (widely hated) Republican pundits at the moment, does not inspire the same confidence and trust from the general public.
Both of these definitions, DeSantis as both more and less Trump than Trump, were fatally flawed from the beginning: they could never exist without Trump. For all of Trump’s faults and failings, this period in American history will undoubtedly be referred to as the Trump Era. We are all merely trapped within his gravity. By fighting the world spirit, DeSantis’s donor-supported army of humiliated Republican campaign consultants was meddling with powers far beyond their understanding or control.
Indeed, it soon became obvious that DeSantis and his mercenaries were out of their depth. For starters, DeSantis is a charisma black hole. The more voters saw of him, the less they liked him. He’s awkward and bookish, and it’s obvious that his more energetic public performances were highly rehearsed. I’m not knocking him for this, I’m really bad with people, too. People hate me. DeSantis is obviously very intelligent and did a great job as Governor. In another life, DeSantis would be a high achieving lawyer at a big law firm. A few months of DeSantis on the campaign trail made it clear why it took Trump dragging DeSantis over the finish line in 2018 to get DeSantis into the governor’s office. Man must know his limitations and work within them.
Most concerning is the idea that DeSantis probably did know his limitations. He seems to be a very reluctant candidate and is obviously miserable while engaging in retail politics. I’ve read rumors that it was DeSantis’s wife Casey, who has taken a major role as a surrogate, who pushed him into making the final decision. If it wasn’t her who pressured him into this situation, it was one of the many sycophants who slowly fell into DeSantis’s orbit over the last few years. Whoever the architect of this disaster was, it doesn’t seem like DeSantis was steering the ship on his own campaign.
This was made most clear in an early misstep by DeSantis. When asked about the war in Ukraine, an avoidable humanitarian and diplomatic disaster that has led to the complete devastation of the Ukrainian male population, DeSantis gave a good answer: he said the matter was a “territorial dispute” that the US should not become further entangled with.
Although the tragedy of the war should not be minimized, Americans definitely should wonder what foreign policy interest is being served in spending hundreds of billions of dollars (and hundreds of thousands of lives) to prop up a comically corrupt regime in a war it has no chance of winning, being fought with increasingly elderly conscripts using lavishly expensive foreign equipment. The tragedy is compounded by unverified claims (which I believe) that the war could have been over years ago, but a preliminary ceasefire agreement was blocked by the US and its allies. The situation is a mess that should be brought to a close as quickly as possible.
DeSantis’s remarks were perhaps too reasonable for DeSantis’s big money donors. After receiving criticism from the Republican establishment, DeSantis soon walked backed his early statements on Ukraine in a convoluted and confused way. As Ronald Reagan once said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” and DeSantis clearly always had a lot of explaining to do to the people funding his campaign.
This is in stark contrast to Trump, an outspoken billionaire unafraid to take positions that seem foreign to or unpopular with the Republican base. He is able to defy conventional political logic and create a new logic all its own. I will always remember the eve of the 2016 South Carolina primary. I had just dropped out of a Canadian film studies program (don’t ask) and moved to New York City to take a job in marketing. An older conservative-leaning woman scoffed when she described how Trump had just said that the Iraq War was a mistake on the debate stage. Trump, she confidently proclaimed, was finished this time.
She assured me that South Carolina had so many veterans and family members of veterans that voters would viscerally hostile to this message. It kind of made sense, especially when you considered Bush-era Republican jingoism related to the Iraq War. And yet, everyone at the time kind of already knew that the Iraq War had been a big mistake. You just couldn’t say it, at least in Republican politics. And yet, Trump said it, and people actually listened. I’m sure that before Trump’s statements, Republicans would have been vaguely hostile to that message. It wouldn’t have polled well. And yet, Trump defied all of this logic. He won South Carolina by an overwhelming margin. It wasn’t close. And then, all of a sudden, everyone could admit that the Iraq War was a mistake. He allowed people to understand what they already knew.
This is a very rare gift, and taps into the core of the Trump effect. Trump is able to connect with people at a very deep level. He’s able to tap into their strongest emotions, their hopes and dreams. “Make America Great Again” is the perfect slogan for such a person. It is an optimistic slogan, it looks forward. He is not merely reacting. DeSantis would come out with some dumb focus-group tested throwaway line about “Declaring WAR on WOKE” to try and boost his sagging poll numbers while Trump is simply flowing with the universe at his own pace, creating impromptu standup comedy that rivals anything you’d see on TV.
As a result, while the Trump movement (and it is a movement, a genuine social phenomenon, not merely a political campaign) is very effortless, the DeSantis reaction was very effortful. Trump followed the Way of the Open Palm from the forgotten Jade Empire game (it was OK). DeSantis thought he could use the Way of the Closed Fist.
This brings us to the next aspect of DeSantis’s failed primary coup attempt that must be acknowledged. Much could be said about DeSantis’s fatally flawed message, but his messengers were somehow worse. I’m sure everyone has noticed this by now, but DeSantis online surrogates are fucking annoying. Lacking any kind of affirmative vision of their own, DeSantis-aligned influencers set about attempting to create an online debate club in which the many flaws and failures of Trump over the tumultuous last few years could be brought back into public view.
Understandably, most Republicans found this obnoxious. Positive messages resonate much more than negative messages. People who liked Trump (often for non-political reasons) didn’t appreciate being told why they shouldn’t like him anymore. Everyone on the Right was already aware of Trump’s missteps. They got over it. Conservatives hear the same anti-Trump rhetoric from liberals all the time and it’s very abrasive.
Making this message more abrasive was the fact that DeSantis never stood a chance. His candidacy was always an extreme longshot. Trump was the most popular Republican primary candidate in history. Most people understood that, whatever happened, we were stuck with Trump. The only people who seemed to not understand were the small circle of online influencers that DeSantis had cultivated before announcing his candidacy. Whatever individual problems people may have had with Trump, everyone has suffered greatly since Trump left office. We all need the Republican nominee to win, and Trump is probably that guy. Trying to make your bones by attacking him is bound to not be viewed as very productive.
Unless, of course, Trump was simply not the nominee anymore. That scenario would seem impossible if it weren’t for the clown-car’s worth of corrupt federal and state prosecutors who have charged Trump with increasingly legally-dubious crimes. DeSantis seemed to be counting on liberal efforts to imprison Trump on bogus charges in order to bail out his long-shot primary campaign. DeSantis’s objections to these false charges were half-hearted at best, even though they represent the most important issue in American politics today: can corrupt liberal officials jail the conservative presidential frontrunner?
Although DeSantis was clearly waiting for Trump to be brought down by the same forces DeSantis was nominally running to oppose, that never happened. In fact, Trump’s poll numbers seemed to only increase as liberals heaped on bogus charges. Never one to forget betrayal, Trump began to attack DeSantis for going behind his back and waging a primary campaign in all-but-name for months. Eventually, DeSantis had to attack President Trump in return.
These attacks, predictably, did not land and made DeSantis widely hated. They were often just rehashes of failed bad-faith attacks on Trump from the 2016 primary campaign. I remember DeSantis claiming Trump, the most comically pro-Israel president in American history, was insufficiently loyal to Israel because Trump (correctly) pointed out that the military groups behind recent attacks on Israel were professional fighting forces that needed to be taken seriously. DeSantis was just making noise for morons.
Perhaps the most revealing moment in the DeSantis campaign came after Trump faced his first politically-motivated criminal charges from New York state prosecutors. DeSantis seemed to initially condemn the move, which was unpopular even with liberals, but then added “I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.” It was the sort of passive-aggressive and humorless snipe that illustrated why DeSantis would never hold the same sway over the public that Trump did.
This brings us to the final phase of the DeSantis campaign. Faced with an impossible to overcome disadvantage in the polls, no clear message, and a candidate with statistically zero shot of winning nationally, the DeSantis campaign began to bitterly lash out at everyone who failed to recognize their greatness. If DeSantis lost, which was always going to happen, everyone would have needed to support Trump anyway. The ultimate goal is a good outcome, not necessarily the victory of your candidate, and everyone should be able to agree that it’s better that Trump win than Biden.
You would never tell this by listening to the remaining DeSantis surrogates, who continue their bad faith attacks on Trump and insults to his supporters. DeSantis’s fans are not in the voting booths, they’re shitting up your Twitter replies. None of it matters, yet they persist. It seems as if DeSantis is running out of spite at this point, and his former surrogates (who presumably have all been fired or laid off after their disastrous defeat in Iowa) are now rallying around Robert F. Kennedy as a spoiler to help Biden. The claims that DeSantis was always a NeverTrump reject project grow more vindicated by the day.
In John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, an epic poem recounting the Garden of Eden story and the fall of Satan from Heaven, Milton describes Satan’s return to Hell to after his failed rebellion. Satan, having (predictably) failed to overcome divine order, returns to his followers with an indignant pride. He expected applause for his vain and impotent performance. Milton writes:
So having said, a while he stood, expecting
Thir universal shout and high applause [ 505 ]
To fill his eare, when contrary he hears
On all sides, from innumerable tongues
A dismal universal hiss, the sound
Of public scorn; he wonderd, but not long
Had leasure, wondring at himself now more; [ 510 ]
His Visage drawn he felt to sharp and spare,
His Armes clung to his Ribs, his Leggs entwining
Each other, till supplanted down he fell
A monstrous Serpent on his Belly prone,
Reluctant, but in vaine: a greater power [ 515 ]
Now rul'd him, punisht in the shape he sin'd
Much like Satan in Paradise Lost, the DeSantoids mistakenly believe that their confused, wasteful, and ultimately pointless struggle deserved praise. Completing the parallel, these small feelings have transformed them into something truly grotesque: The last DeSantoids are now cursed to think like libtards, and to live as libtards do, lashing out in animal terror at the beautiful forces that they never really understood and could never have overcome. More psychic casualties for the pile.
There are other brief critiques to be made of DeSantis’s campaign. Although his organization spent a staggering $200 million in less than a year, the ads this money produced seemed to be strikingly low quality. There were promoted tweets with millions of views and less than a dozen likes. This went beyond the predictable lack of enthusiasm for DeSantis. Many election observers noted the DeSantis’s ground staff seemed poorly trained and organized. I’m sure the depleted pre-Trump Republican consultant class came to view the DeSantis primary campaign as a welfare scheme, half-heartedly going through the motions one last time.
And the worst part is that it all could have gone a different way. At every stage of this process, DeSantis could have simply stopped. He probably knew that running was a dumb idea, but let himself be pressured into it anyway. It would have been embarrassing to end his campaign before Iowa, but it would have been far less embarrassing than the situation he finds himself in now. Even after the disaster in Iowa, all he would have had to say to salvage some of his political capital was “I was President Trump’s biggest critic on the campaign trail, but now that he has won I resolve to be his greatest friend. This coming election is about the fate of the country.” All DeSantis needed to do was nothing. Everyone would have been better off if DeSantis had simply burnt the money in a pile rather than spend it on his campaign.
Now, having fought to (only his) exhaustion, DeSantis faces the ultimate indignity: getting beaten by Nikki Haley by double digits. Haley is one of the most aggressively stupid and vapid political figures ever to afflict the American public. Although DeSantis had a great record to run on and is very impressive personally, Haley is an empty and formless vessel for foreign interest and corporate money to flow into. Listening to her talk, I find it genuinely impossible to understand how any person could consider any aspect of this woman or her message appealing. She is the political equivalent of television noise running in the background at a nursing home.
Many of Haley’s statements, like “It’s not that Israel needs America, America needs Israel,” are simply ridiculous. They don’t make sense from any perspective. And that’s one of her main campaign slogans, she’s repeated it several times. The recently revived rumors that Haley owes her political rise to affairs with multiple figures in South Carolina state politics are almost more comforting than the other explanation for her success: a small but not insignificant number of voters would always be happy to cheer on the Ghost Dance of a confident and brainless woman in a fashionable pantsuit who solemnly swears to balance the budget and start World War III.
Defeat by Haley is a political fate worse than death for DeSantis, but it’s hard to see how he doesn’t deserve it at this point. DeSantis has had to compromise every part of himself to dig himself into this hole. He had to change his views. He had to change his height. He even had to change how he pronounced his name. He should have known to not attempt this. His family should have stopped him. His advisors should have warned him before it was too late. Yet no one did, they were all too focused on using Ron DeSantis the entity, the Iron Caudillo, to get wherever they wanted to go.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was like a lightning bolt to the heart of the American Right. After decades of stagnation and decline, it seemed like all things had become possible once again and the contradictions that had come to define our lives could at last be resolved. It is clear that many conservatives fundamentally misunderstood this phenomenon, even if they benefitted from it substantially, and still misunderstand it. As Nietzsche said: “[T]hose who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
The explosion of creative energies and optimism that followed the Trump election, however many hopes may have been dashed in years of unprecedented criminality and obstruction by the American establishment that followed, is still around. It’s the only reason we’re still in the game. Rather than trying to force the universe to bend to your wants and desires, or blindly reacting to whatever misfortunes await, it’s important to adopt a loftier perspective. A little lighter. A little fatalistic.
Let’s let the good times roll.