Ron DeSantis should be second-guessing his race for the White House — Trump is just getting started

The Florida governor has been caught flat-footed by Trump's barrage of attacks

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 29, 2023 9:50AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Nobody has ever absorbed the right-wing politics of grievance as eagerly as Donald Trump.

In anticipation of his possible run for president in 2016, one of Trump's smartest moves was to deploy aide Sam Nunberg to listen to talk radio for him and give him a rundown on all the talking points floating around in the right-wing fever swamp. He was a CNN guy but he knew that whatever Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were talking about was what the base of the Republican Party was interested in and that's where he would aim his candidacy. As it happened, Trump found that he and they were very much on the same wavelength. He didn't even attempt to please the political establishment or cater to their needs.

Trump runs almost entirely on instinct. He's bragged openly that he doesn't need to learn anymore because he already knows everything he needs to know. In business, he refused to look at marketing data and analyses because he trusted his personal vibes over a bunch of pointy headed numbers crunchers. He hired people because they genuflected to him, not because they had any expertise. And he always leaned heavily on nepotism. His showboating celebrity style gave him his television show and resulting branding deals that kept him successful long after his father's money ran out.

Whatever their differences and similarities in style and approach, it's clear that both Trump and DeSantis are joined at the hip with the most ideologically extreme elements of the Republican Party.

Trump's main 2024 rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is taking a more systematic approach to figuring out what the base wants.

DeSantis is notoriously stiff and unspontaneous, without any of Trump's rhetorical flourishes that make him sound like the guy at the end of the bar to the MAGA crowd. But just as Trump listened in on the talk radio jungle drums to understand what the GOP base wanted to hear, DeSantis is hiring right-wing propagandists who have gained prominence during the Trump years for trolling, shitposting and memes. Some of them, like Chris Rufo, are affiliated with right-wing think tanks despite being little more than Trump-era internet stars, while others, such as his press secretary Christina Pushaw, are simply hard core online warriors, highly tuned in to that zeitgeist. He's even gone deep diving into the dark waters of the fever swamps, hiring a new staffer ( and possible speechwriter) who has cavorted with the Nazi Nick Fuentes. And it was announced this week that the think tank from which the legal justification for Trump's coup attempt was hatched, the Claremont Institute, has jumped aboard the DeSantis campaign. He's covering all his bases.

It's not that Trump didn't do the same thing in some very specific instances. The most obvious comparison to Rufo, who specializes in domestic culture war combat and is likely responsible for DeSantis' tiresome, obsessive focus on "woke," would be Trump's selection of the odious Stephen Miller as his senior adviser on immigration. And by all accounts, DeSantis is heavily reliant on his wife as his main adviser much as Trump leaned on son-in-law Jared Kushner and eldest daughter Ivanka. Now Trump's campaign is warning potential DeSantis staffers will be ineligible to join the Trump campaign or another Trump White House.

Whatever their differences and similarities in style and approach, it's clear that both Trump and DeSantis are joined at the hip with the most ideologically extreme elements of the Republican Party. Trump has used his rhetorical power to make people believe what is demonstrably false and DeSantis has found ways to leverage the power of government to change the system on the ground. They are two sides of the same coin. The question now is whether the Republican base understands the difference --- or if they care. They always say they loved Trump's "policies" but when asked to name them it's usually something amorphous like "he made America respected again" or "the economy was great." What they really loved about him is the "own the libs and the foreigners" circus. Can DeSantis' laundry list of "anti-woke" accomplishments compete with that?

The early reviews aren't great. Despite all the hoopla around DeSantis' campaign, the latest polls show that whatever momentum he had coming out of his 2022 re-election victory has slowed significantly. And part of the reason is that that victory was overrated as a selling point anyway. As former GOP strategist Stuart Stevens pointed out on Twitter:

Bill Weld won Ma. by 30. Pete Wilson won Ca. by 10. Rick Perry won Tx by 12. How'd they do? It means nothing in a presidential race.

More important than that, however, is the fact that DeSantis seems to be one of those politicians who doesn't make a great first impression. He sounds good on paper but when people get a closer look they're left kind of meh. This is a person who doesn't really benefit from too much hype.

But DeSantis is flailing a bit for the same reason there's a trail of dead presidential hopes in Trump's wake: nobody knows how to deal with him. The early skirmishes in the primary campaign have been less than impressive. Trump has given him a stupid nickname, Ron DeSanctimonious, which the Harvard and Yale grad DeSantis fatuously tried to claim he couldn't pronounce (because he's just a good ole country boy, dontcha know?) And Trump grossly insulted him by suggesting he "groomed" high school girls during the prep school teaching year DeSantis never mentions. In other words, Trump is letting loose the beast.

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But he also released a pretty good serious critique which DeSantis is also going to have to grapple with:

It turns out that DeSantis' Florida isn't all that. Nobody in the world knows more about dishonest PR than Donald Trump. His super PAC, MAGA Inc., has even filed an ethics complaint against DeSantis.

DeSantis has been all over the place in response to all this. He ignored him and then tried to be cutesy and then tried to piggyback on his disastrous Ukraine policy only to flip-flop days later. It's obvious that his numbers started slipping when Trump engaged. His fellow Florida Republicans, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, could have told him all about that.

Now there are reports that donors are getting antsy with some allies suggesting that he should wait until 2028 when the big orange monster is finally out of the game. It's probably too late for that, however. He's gone too far to back out now. He's just going to have to fight it out for a while and see if he can survive.

Like Trump, DeSantis understood that the extreme wing of the GOP is now at the helm and he has carefully calculated a campaign aimed at winning them with demonstrations of his ability to bring their wish list into reality. The problem is that they don't actually want that --- they want the show. And Ron DeSantis just isn't a very good entertainer. 

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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