Ron DeSantis lacks the appeal of Donald Trump — but is he the second coming of Richard Nixon?

Nixon, like DeSantis, had great resentment toward the so-called elites and it colored his worldview in toxic ways

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 1, 2023 9:20AM (EST)

Richard Nixon and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Richard Nixon and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There is some new polling out this week on the nascent Republican primary which shows that former president Donald Trump has gotten a little bump in the last month or so.

An Emerson poll shows Trump leading Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, 55% to 25%, while the Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows him over DeSantis, 47%-39%. DeSantis had been leading Trump by 4 points last month. The GOP polling firm Echelon Insights, meanwhile, has Trump at 46% and DeSantis 31% and the big kahuna, Fox News, has Trump over the Florida governor, 43%-28%. It would appear that at the moment that despite all the DeSantis hype, Trump is still the favorite among GOP primary voters.

To further illustrate that point, here's a classic moment this week from Fox News, which is clearly trying to push DeSantis' candidacy:

It's still not obvious to the GOP establishment, which includes the right-wing media, even after all this time that their voters really do like Donald Trump. Some obviously like him more than others. The "Always Trumpers" appear to make up about 30% of the party, a substantial bloc. But the rest of the party at least sort of likes him too, even if they might wish he'd cause less trouble. DeSantis is more of an idea at this point, maybe even a backup in case Trump gets impossibly snarled in legal trouble or keels over. But no one should kid themselves that GOP voters no longer like Trump.

DeSantis hasn't declared yet but he's clearly running. He's recently been traversing the country giving speeches in blue states obviously trying to get national press and raise his profile beyond the hardcore right-wing media audience that sees him on Fox News. To that end, he's also published the obligatory campaign book, "The Courage To Be Free," and has set out on the requisite book tour.

The book looks like it's going to be a bestseller, but I will be shocked if more than 10% of those who buy it can get through more than a few chapters before they relegate it to the bookshelf or the garbage can. It's a really tough read, so boring that it makes you look longingly at that huge tome on the history of the federal reserve you've been avoiding for years now. As Jennifer Szalai memorably quipped in her devastating review in the New York Times:

For the most part, "The Courage to Be Free" is courageously free of anything that resembles charisma, or a discernible sense of humor. While his first book was weird and esoteric enough to have obviously been written by a human, this one reads like a politician's memoir churned out by ChatGPT.

Chat GPT would likely be more entertaining. That's because, by all accounts, this boring book is an accurate reflection of the man himself. He's a dour, withdrawn, cold automaton who many people who know him really can't stand. Not only does nobody want to have a beer with him, but they are also downright hostile to being in the same room with him. In a profile for the Atlantic, Mark Liebovitz quotes a former Florida lobbyist saying, "I'd rather have teeth pulled without anesthetic than be on a boat with Ron DeSantis." In another profile by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, an anonymous politician says, "Ron's strength as a politician is that he doesn't give a fuck. Ron's weakness as a politician is that he doesn't give a fuck."

He seems nice, doesn't he?

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Ron DeSantis is anything but a happy warrior. In fact, he doesn't appear to like human beings very much at all which seems to me to be an odd characteristic for a politician. But it isn't unprecedented. DeSantis doesn't go into much detail in his book about anything personal but he does make a point of saying that his parents were originally from Ohio and Pennsylvania and therefore imbued in him "rust belt values" even though he grew up in Florida. He came from a middle-class home, excelled in school and went to Ivy League schools by dint of his own hard work — and he makes quite a big deal about how he didn't fit in with all the prep school rich kids. He spends a great deal of time railing on the elites and how he felt their scorn and proudly says that he left the liberal academy more conservative than he went in. It's hard to tell if his sense of grievance about all that is contrived to make himself more attractive to the Republican base or if he really feels it. 

Nixon, like DeSantis, had great resentment toward the so-called elites and it colored his worldview in toxic, distorted ways.

The contrast between him and Trump is quite interesting. Trump doesn't really like to mingle with average people except when they are paying customers at one of his properties. The way people react to Trump is like fans in the presence of a celebrity — they think he's glamorous and exciting (for some reason.) And Trump feeds on the crowd's love. DeSantis could not care less about them.

As I was slogging through his dull assault on literature it came fully into focus that despite all his whining about "woke" (a word which must come up 635 times) culture war grievances and hostility to the press, he's not like Trump at all. He's much more like another disgraced Republican president: Richard Nixon.

Like DeSantis, Nixon had a naturally introverted, withdrawn personality. Nixon, like DeSantis, had great resentment toward the so-called elites and it colored his worldview in toxic, distorted ways. Those distortions led him down the path of immorality and corruption that culminated in his infamous disgrace. This attitude is not healthy for a political leader.

There's no reason at this point to believe that DeSantis is as deeply corrupt as Richard Nixon. But then when Nixon first ran for president people didn't know that about him either (although there were certainly hints of it.) When he ran again eight years later he had honed his skills at exploiting the culture war issues of that time — which included a real war—- and he won narrowly in a three-way race. Four years later he was re-elected in one of the most monumental landslides in American history proving that even a person who nobody on Earth would ever want to have a beer with can win the presidency. So don't count DeSantis out. He may not have the inexplicable appeal of Donald Trump but he might just be the second coming of Richard Nixon.  

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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