Who Ron DeSantis should fear — and why it isn't Donald Trump

The future of the GOP is Trumpism on steroids. That's not Ron DeSantis, it is Tucker Carlson

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 2, 2023 6:10AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks during his "Our Great American Comeback" Tour stop on June 1, 2023 in Salem, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks during his "Our Great American Comeback" Tour stop on June 1, 2023 in Salem, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Last week, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis finally announced that he would seek his party's 2024 presidential nomination.

The mainstream news media and political class are very excited that DeSantis has finally confirmed the obvious: that he will be attempting to "Make America Florida." It is not the specific content of DeSantis's objectively cruel, sadistic, authoritarian, and generally anti-human policies that he has tested on the denizens of Florida that are the source of excitement (in all likelihood most of America's mainstream political and media class view DeSantis and his policies as being abhorrent). Instead, it is the idea that there is now officially a contest within the Republican Party between Donald Trump, the traitor ex-president, and a real challenger in the form of Ron DeSantis that is causing the feelings of a dark and naughty thrill mixed with relief and comfort at the familiar.

Styles make fights; Conflict plus characters create a story.

To that point, DeSantis's candidacy will allow the news media to feast on horse race journalism, personality profiles, public opinion polls, rumors and gossip, manufactured and exaggerated "gaffes" and "missteps. A contest between Trump and DeSantis is also an opportunity, of course, to make lots of money from ad revenue and the clash between the two rivals and other members of the Republican field – and how President Biden and the Democrats respond to them. But these are not "normal" times in America. Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are both neofascists with a deep contempt for America's multiracial pluralistic democracy. The differences between the two men are mostly of personality and charisma and overall style as opposed to malevolence, evil, and sadism.

Because the American mainstream news media as an institution (and many of the political class and general public) is desperate for a return to "normalcy" and the accompanying sense of false security, Ron DeSantis will be presented as a more reasonable, viable and responsible alternative to the outright fascism and unrepentant demagoguery of Trump and his MAGA movement even though such differences are a fantasy that has little if any relationship to the facts.   

"Defeating Trump and DeSantis is absolutely critical if we are to see the American experiment continue."

In an attempt to make better sense of Ron DeSantis's candidacy, his prospects for defeating Donald Trump, and what this all means for the American people and their imperiled democracy, I asked a range of experts for their insights and predictions.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Wiggins is the Chief of Staff for the pro-democracy advocacy organization the Lincoln Project.

Ron DeSantis is going to get beat. His awkwardness and disdain for people is going to make it difficult, if not impossible to connect on the campaign trail. Launching his campaign on Twitter was a disaster that blew up in his face. It was a product rollout for Musk and made DeSantis a secondary character in his own announcement. He's already been beset by bad staffing decisions and poor choices.

Ron DeSantis is going to lose to Trump. Trump is way ahead in all of the polls and DeSantis is competing with the other candidates for leftovers. Trump controls the party top to bottom; the infrastructure, the messaging, and has positioned himself as the central force in GOP politics. He gained support after his arrest, and there's no way he loses support if arrested again. No one should see Ron DeSantis as a savior for the Republican Party. He will not bring it back to "normal." Anyone who thinks that Ron represents the establishment is deluding themselves. Ron is as authoritarian as Trump is, as evidenced by his fight with Disney, his war on librarians, and his hatred towards LGBTQ individuals.

This nation is in crisis. The authoritarian MAGA movement has taken control of the GOP and is actively working to undermine our democratic institutions and processes. Defeating Trump and DeSantis is absolutely critical if we are to see the American experiment continue.

Wajahat Ali is the author of "Go Back To Where You Came From." He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast, Medium, MSNBC Daily, and co-host of the Democracy-Ish Podcast.

I've been saying for a while that DeSantis is a wet noodle who is cosplaying as a MAGA alpha man. He doesn't have "the stuff" to win a national election. This is the same man who has to be coached on how to meet and greet fans and supporters. He's the same man who barely won office in 2018 and has looked like a terrified deer in headlights in his debates with Gillum and Crist. He's the invisible cola of GOP politicians - no matter how much right-wing money and anti-Trump conservatives want to promote him, the kids just ain't into him.

That being said, he is dangerous because he realizes that the future of the GOP is Trumpism on steroids. He has used Florida as his laboratory to create MAGA's wet dream crusade against "wokeness." Unfortunately, for him and future MAGA upstarts, these policies are repulsive to most Americans. As we saw from CNN's disastrous town hall, Trump is still the king of this MAGA cult, and all the polls back this up. If anything, the fight between both will further erode the GOP's chances to win back the White House in 2024. Trump will unleash hell on him and take every opportunity to ridicule him as he did during the laughable and embarrassing DeSantis Twitter fiasco last week.

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Mainstream media outlets and institutions will continue to fail us as they normalize and mainstream what has become a radicalized and weaponized GOP movement in the interest of "both sides" framing and not rocking the boat to help line their bottom lines and gain access to power. That's the scary part —- we have a radical movement that has taken over one of the two major political parties. Trumpism is the future.

Steven Beschloss is a journalist and author of several books, including "The Gunman and His Mother." 

Ron DeSantis may seem like a stylistically less extreme, less deranged, candidate than Donald Trump. But his anti-democratic bullying behavior, hostility to education and diversity, demagogic rejection of gays and people of color, attraction to violence and insistence on the make-believe "woke virus" as the nation's greatest danger illustrates how Trump's cancerous influence continues to drive Republican thinking. That he represents a credible alternative to Trump for many—even while he's taking some issues farther than Trump—shows how the GOP has lost its will to win by expanding its base.

"DeSantis is a wet noodle who is cosplaying as a MAGA alpha man."

There once was a time when we might have expected a candidate like DeSantis to go cruel and negative in the primary, then become more inclusive were he to make it to the general. But there's no reason to assume that in his case; his authoritarian mentality and fear-based policy making is clearly who he is. His technologically disastrous launch on Twitter only underscores his inability to differentiate himself from Trump. His pledge to "fully" build the wall only made it obvious that he's devoid of ideas that will meaningfully expand the base. At this point, with Trump so far ahead in the polls, DeSantis can only hope that a flood of indictments will finally drown Trump and make his candidacy possible.

Rachel Bitecofer is a political analyst and election forecaster.  

The so-called "Beltway Bubble" is never bigger than when it comes to covering presidential nomination campaigns. Few outside daily cable news watchers are paying ANY attention to this "issue" yet, and won't even begin to tune in until late fall as Iowa caucus approaches. This is why polling in what we political scientists call the invisible primary heavily favors the candidates with "saturation" name ID.

Nomination campaigns tend to begin and end with the two candidates best known to the electorate. Now, with that out of the way: we haven't seen an alt frontrunner poll as strong as DeSantis is against Trump since the 2008 Democratic Party contest between Obama and Clinton. Clinton was a VERY strong frontrunner through the entire invisible primary until the final months heading into Iowa, where an insurgent challenger managed to beat her and thus get the Big Mo' "momentum" he needed to win South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states. The fact that DeSantis is +80 on name ID and polling in the 20s against Trump is not weakness, its strength. First off, if Trump was as strong a frontrunner as the Beltway claims he is, he'd be polling in the 70s or even 80s. Yes, he received an increase in support over the past two months (which is likely more from the narrative that DeSantis is a poor candidate than it is from Trump being formally indicted) he is still running below expectations for what we'd expect an incumbent president to put up.

Calling DeSantis a failed candidate before he even announced is wishful thinking and brings to mind comparisons with Tim Pawlenty in 2012 and Kamala Harris in 2020 as candidates who exited the race before it even began based in the Beltway Bubble who, if they had stayed in the race, likely would have benefitted from frontrunner collapses/angst like about Biden as it became clear he was the only one that could compete against Sanders.

When the so-called establishment gets spooked about their likely nominee you want to still be in the candidate field to fill that alternate role. Harris could not become the Biden-alt in 2020 because her entire time period in the race was constrained to the Invisible primary which only exists on cable news and political reporting. The reason DeSantis is so well positioned is that other than Mike Pence, he is the only Republican in the field that can compete with Trump in terms of name ID. But also because he is the only candidate in the field that will have the name ID enough to look viable to win the nomination that MAGA can accept once it becomes clear that Trump has too much indictment baggage. My expectations are that by late fall Trump will be facing multiple indictments and will begin to be seen as too risky to nomination. At this time, DeSantis is by far their most likely landing pad. The rest of the field as it currently exists is too obscure. Now, if a different MAGA flamethrower with very high name ID like Tucker Carlson was to emerge, THEN DeSantis would be in trouble.

Jared Yates Sexton is a journalist and author of the new book "The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis."

Ron DeSantis has been running for president since the first day he picked up the baton for the myriad of right wing think-tanks and institutes funded by the billionaire class. His slate of oppressive bills and laws was to please them and find his place in their favor, and now he's trying to collect his reward.

"Since in Florida, DeSantis himself has led the way as opposed to a gerrymandered state rep somewhere, he has actually increased awareness about how the attack on democracy is playing out in states."

If Donald Trump and DeSantis meet on a debate stage, Ron is in real trouble. But what he's banking on now is the idea that Establishment Republicans and the donor class he serves will get him past Trump, which is also what he's hoping Elon Musk and the Tech Right will help him with. Whether it'll work or not remains to be seen.

This is an increasingly volatile and dangerous situation. DeSantis is as cold-blooded as they come. His marriage with these donors and Right Tech are troubling developments.

David Pepper is a lawyer, writer, political activist, and former elected official. His new book is "Saving Democracy: A User's Manual for Every American".

While he represents a large state and has an enormous war chest, Ron DeSantis has almost no other qualities that make for a good candidate. And against Trump, my guess is that baseline weakness makes it incredibly difficult to make up the enormous gap that already exists. His deeply flawed launch was yet another confirmation that he's not ready for prime time.

He doesn't have the personal bravado or authenticity to take away Trump voters themselves—even as he's moved way to the right in an attempt to do so. And the non-Trump support is hopelessly divided among far too many candidates.

Outside of something truly dramatic involving the Trump investigations (and indictments alone don't qualify as "truly dramatic" at this point, at least in terms of the primary), I don't see DeSantis gaining much ground in the primary. It's far more likely that once on the big stage, he falls even further. I think Trump will run over him just like he did the 2016 field, especially in direct interactions such as debates. And he symbolizes how much Republicans have failed to come up with viable alternatives to a man they know is destroying their party.

In terms of the broader battle for democracy, DeSantis has helped highlight just how extreme and anti-democratic states have become. Usually, that is hidden within the anonymity of statehouses, which usually are the ones leading the charge as people look elsewhere. But since in Florida, DeSantis himself has led the way as opposed to a gerrymandered state rep somewhere, he has actually increased awareness about how the attack on democracy is playing out in states.

Cheri Jacobus is a former media spokesperson at the Republican National Committee and founder and president of the political consulting and PR firm Capitol Strategies PR.

While I understand how dangerous Ron DeSantis can be, and is for Florida, I am not sold on the "hype" surrounding him.  Aside from the comically disastrous presidential campaign "launch" on Twitter, an obvious revenge dig by Elon Musk on Donald Trump for not returning to Twitter, DeSantis is awkward, tone-deaf, uncomfortable around people, and seems perpetually "off."  What plays well with the shuffleboard and "Florida man" crowd, isn't translating to the broader MAGA crowd, despite DeSantis' alarming lunges into the heart of fascism. Perhaps it's the missing messy personal behavior Republicans crave? Indictments? There's still time. Today's Republicans seem hyped up on maniacally cheering on Trump to "beat the rap" for his crimes.  If that's the juice needed to win the GOP presidential primary, then DeSantis needs to dirty up his personal life, marriage, finances, and throw in a sprinkling of treason and canoodling with dictators and despots to be competitive. The cable TV networks seem also to require it. 

The DeSantis strategy appears to be 100% dependent on Trump federal indictments which are rumored to land this summer. He's counting on his bland, boring demeanor, personality, personal life and simple but heavy fascist maneuverings to be the safe landing pad for enough MAGA voters, and importantly, big donors.  

The question is: Does Ron DeSantis have the gravitas to lead a national ticket? And an even bigger (and more frightening) question is: What does "gravitas" require in the GOP in this Trump fascist era?  

The media that make big bucks from Trump, as well as super PACs that make their members very, very rich pretending to fight Trump, are doubling down on DeSantis in order to prop up Trump and ensure he is the GOP nominee. Just as many rightwing figures in 2015-2016 propped up Trump because they thought a Trump nomination ensured a Hillary Clinton presidency and many of them made their fame and fortune the first time there was a Clinton in the White House — and wanted that again — some on the left (or at least the "anti-Trump" side of things) need Trump as the GOP nominee again. It's a rather lucrative cottage industry, after all.

To quote Yogi Bera, "It's deja vu all over again".

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Election Interview News Media Ron Desantis Tucker Carlson