Ron DeSantis moves more radically to the right in race with Donald Trump

Culture war issues cause Trump and DeSantis to wrestle, but the party is actually pretty united

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 21, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

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

There's a lot of chatter right now about Florida Governor Ron Desantis' presumed presidential campaign sputtering before it's even started. Donors are going public with complaints and he's sinking in the polls while Donald Trump is rising after his indictment in the porn star hush money case. I'm old enough to remember primaries when Bill Clinton was political roadkill, John Kerry was dead in the water and Donald Trump couldn't possibly win so I wouldn't count anyone out just yet. But if there's one thing we do know already, it's that if DeSantis doesn't decide to take his ball and go home, the battle will be ferocious.

Even more dismaying is the race to the bottom they've already started when it comes to the culture war. DeSantis got off to a strong start with his war against "woke" which consists of attacking everyone from school teachers to teenagers to Disney for failing to be properly cruel to immigrants, transgender kids and Black people. His latest red meat offering to the MAGA base was to sign a bill lowering his previous abortion ban from 15 weeks to 6 weeks and censoring all discussions of LGBTQ issues in Florida public schools through the 12th grade. (This was an expansion of his earlier ban on all such discussions through the 3rd grade.)

Trump has actually been lagging behind on the hatefest but he's now making some bold moves on that front. Not to be outdone by DeSantis' all-out assault on trans people, he has promised to "protect children from left-wing gender insanity," with a series of extreme policy pronouncements including the proposal of a federal law that recognizes only two genders, bars trans women from competing on all women's sports teams and prohibits all federal money from being spent on gender-affirming health care (which he will ban for minors under all circumstances.)

If you think DeSantis is out on the extreme with his campaign to bring "woke" Disney to heel, Trump pledged to order the Department of Justice to investigate pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to determine if they are "deliberately covering up horrific long-term side effects of sex transitions in order to get rich."

He also has an innovative plan for the homeless --- concentration camps:

Those are just a few highlights of what we can already see are the "issues" that Republicans have decided are at the forefront of Americans' minds. We have a long year and a half ahead of us as the new generation of authoritarian bigots, DeSantis, demonstrates how he will use the power of the state to attack anyone with whom he disagrees and Trump has finally started to trade in his tiresome Big Lie rant for a forward-looking spiel.

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After hearing about Republican donors getting cold feet about DeSantis, Politico reported on a recent RNC donor retreat at which Trump declared that he "single-handedly 'saved' the Republican Party from 'the establishment class' when he won in 2016" promising that if he were given another term it would make the Republican Party an "unstoppable juggernaut that will dominate American politics for generations to come." He said the "old Republican Party is gone, and it is never coming back."

Echelon Insights set out to prove or disprove that last point. Taking a look at some of the underlying trend lines, one of which is whether people consider themselves Trump first or party first, they found that "52% said they are party-first Republicans, while 38% considered themselves primarily Trump supporters." I don't know about you but I don't find that reassuring. 38% of Republicans translates into tens of millions of people, most of whom are clearly radical and extreme if they support a man who wants to put homeless people in concentration camps.

Any hope that there exists a winning "sane lane" by which some white (of course) knight swoops in and saves the party from the ugly Trump-DeSantis cage match is an illusion.

There is some good news. The vast majority of both the Trumpers and Party Firsters don't want to see Social Security and Medicare cut. Although, according to a newly released Wall Street Journal poll, in which DeSantis's 14-point advantage over Trump in December has plummeted to a 13-point deficit, "55% of Republicans say that fighting 'woke ideology in our schools and businesses' is more important than protecting entitlements from cuts." 

Trump's America First foreign policy doesn't have majority support in the party as a whole and even the Trumpers are almost evenly split. We can, of course, see this divide in Congress on the issue of support for Ukraine.

They all pretty much agree that foreign workers are very bad for America, which means that the GOP's horrific xenophobia will go uncontested within the party. This does not surprise me. Anti-immigrant fervor has always been a big part of the Republican brand even when the leadership, usually at the behest of some big business libertarian donor types, were pushing their "compassionate conservatism" on the subject. More interesting is where the party is dividing on traditional business issues. More from Echelon:

We asked two questions about the intersection of politics and business and found the party has relatively close divides. When it comes to the topic of "woke capital", Republicans favor businesses running as they see fit by a 9-point margin. Nor are Republicans necessarily against businesses addressing climate change and taking environmental action on their own...Overall, Republicans say they don't mind private companies wanting to be environmentally friendly, 54-34.

There remains a lingering muscle memory among Republicans about government interference in private businesses. In this instance, it's probably a good thing since businesses are responding to their customers' desires that they be socially responsible. On the other hand, it's also the sort of ideology that supports the new push among red states to reintroduce child labor into the work force.

As for the culture war issues over which Trump and DeSantis are currently wrestling, the party is actually pretty united:

The social and cultural issues that once defined the GOP in the 2000s and into the 2010s were often ones such as religious liberty and abortion. While both remain live issues today, we wanted to see how those two issues compared to more recent concerns among Republicans today. When we pressed respondents to choose which social challenges concern them most, "radical gender and racial ideologies" are narrowly more concerning to Republicans, whether Trump-first (by a 14-point margin) or party-first (by 10 points.)

What this means, unfortunately, is that any hope that there exists a winning "sane lane" by which some white (of course) knight swoops in and saves the party from the ugly Trump-DeSantis cage match is an illusion. This is the heart of the GOP. They may not agree with Trump on foreign policy or DeSantis on the righteousness of taking on "woke capitalism" but they all agree that teaching kids about racism and allowing transgender people to live their lives in peace is the greatest threat this nation faces. Contrary to popular myth, this bigotry isn't something they have to push in order to please "the MAGA base." It's what binds the whole coalition together. And there's nothing new about that.

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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