Ron DeSantis is dry and dull — yet still more dangerous than Donald Trump

He's trying to win the primary by presenting himself as an authentic and successful culture warrior

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 5, 2023 6:03AM (EDT)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks about his new book ‘The Courage to Be Free’ in the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 5, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks about his new book ‘The Courage to Be Free’ in the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 5, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has, after much anticipation, finally entered the 2024 presidential race. Last week he announced his mission as "American decline is not inevitable...It is a choice. And we should choose a new direction, a path that will lead to American revitalization. We must restore sanity to our nation."

Donald Trump is salivating at the prospect of facing DeSantis in a battle for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. And given what we know about Trump's mind, he is likely imagining himself gobbling DeSantis up and then boiling his bones for soup.

Although he is intelligent, Ron DeSantis lacks charisma, is socially awkward, and possesses neither verbal dexterity nor quick wit. As seen at political rallies and other such events where he has to interact with "regular people", DeSantis's attempts to be "folksy" and "down to earth" appear to have had the opposite effect: people are left more uncomfortable and unsure of his sincerity.

By comparison, Donald Trump is a political cult leader and a fascist demagogue who possesses a deep well of dark charisma, which he uses to enthrall his MAGA followers and bind them to him. Trump also uses those same powers to intimidate and threaten his opposition. As with other fascist leaders, Donald Trump is much more than a man, he is a symbol. 

To say that DeSantis is outmatched by the force of Trump's personality (and shamelessness, sense of humor and professional wrestling heel persona) would be an understatement in the extreme.

Because of its commitment to horse race journalism, bothsidesism and other obsolete and dangerous frameworks for covering politics and current events in a time of democracy crisis and ascendant neofascism, the mainstream news media is desperate to create a competitive contest between the two men. Why? Beyond bad habits and institutional laziness, the mainstream news media needs a competitive match in order to generate ad revenue and other income.

Their solution? Like someone fixing a horse race (or a professional wrestling booker), the mainstream news media are going to make the match appear more competitive than it is by exaggerating DeSantis' chances against Donald Trump in the primaries. Thus, their use of language such as how the GOP primary is going to be a "fight" and a "brawl", "combative" and "pugilistic", and an "intense" "rivalry and "competition."

Republicans are "trapped by their own cowardice."

In what is the second of a two-part series, I asked a range of experts for their insights and predictions about Ron DeSantis's candidacy, his prospects for defeating Donald Trump, and what this all means for the American people and their imperiled democracy.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Joe Walsh was a Republican congressman and a leading Tea Party conservative. He is now a prominent conservative voice against Donald Trump and the host of the podcast "White Flag with Joe Walsh."

I know Ron DeSantis. He's a cruel, intolerant authoritarian like Trump, minus any of Trump's personality or charisma. Trump is the original cult leader. It's almost impossible to replace the original cult leader. DeSantis enters this race very weakened. In fact, he did not want to get in this soon. But his soft launch over the past few months has sent his polling numbers down and Trump's numbers up. His entry is a reminder though that there is only one lane in this Republican race for president: The Trumpy/cruel/intolerant/bully/authoritarian" lane. That's the ONLY lane. There is no "sane" lane. There is no "NeverTrumper" lane. There is no "Not Trump" lane. Only the Trumpy lane and both Trump and DeSantis are in that lane. Which is why only those two candidates have registered in the polls the past year or so. Nobody else has registered in any poll, and no other GOP candidate is capable of filling that only lane. That is the only lane because that's what the GOP base wants. DeSantis won't wear well. He's thin-skinned, he's not quick on his feet, he has a glass jaw, he's not nice, and he's weird with people.

I don't think DeSantis will do well. Too much of the base is "Trump or die." Also, DeSantis is trapped in the same way every other Trump challenger is trapped. To compete with Trump, they have to echo Trump's most dangerous bullshit. When Trump says the 2020 election was "stolen," his challengers have to agree and say the same or they are toast with the base. When Trump is indicted again, he'll scream "witch hunt," and his challengers will have to yell "witch hunt" too or they will be toast with the base. They're trapped by their own cowardice. Also, when DeSantis says the 2020 election was stolen, stolen from who? And if it was stolen from Trump, well then Trump must be the nominee in 2024 as the ultimate act of retribution. By echoing Trump's lies, his GOP challengers are actually making the case for Trump to be the 2024 nominee. Finally, DeSantis's candidacy as the clear #2 makes crystal clear that the GOP is a fully authoritarian party. No other candidate besides an authoritarian would have a shot.

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More candidates are getting in because they sense how weak DeSantis is. So, they will all compete with him to be the #2. But NONE of these candidates, including DeSantis, actually believes they can beat Trump. In fact, none of them are trying to beat Trump. They're all just hoping our justice system takes Trump out. And that's been the story of these cowardly Republicans these past 7 yrs. They all know Trump is dangerous and unfit, but they've all been afraid to say that publicly. They've always hoped someone or something else would make Trump go away because they've been too afraid to do that themselves. The same thing will go on with these 2024 "challengers."

David Rothkopf is a columnist for the Daily Beast and USA Today, host of "Deep State Radio" and author of many books on politics and foreign policy. His new book is "American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation."

I think DeSantis is a lousy candidate. What he lacks in personality he makes up for with an absolutely terrible track record as governor. I think he would lose to Trump were it not for the impact Trump's legal problems will have on Trump. As a consequence, I think DeSantis will lose to someone one else—a surprise candidate in the GOP field.

As for what DeSantis symbolizes? It is the most actively fascistic wing of the MAGA movement—which is saying something.

Norm Ornstein is emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and contributing editor for The Atlantic. He is also co-author of the bestselling books "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."

I am a deep skeptic about Ron DeSantis, and his chances of winning a Republican nomination. First, he is a deeply flawed personality, somebody who has little ability to relate to others. He is simply a sociopath. Granted, Donald Trump is even more of a sociopath, actually closer to a psychopath. Trump has the ability to garner deep personal support from cult members, something DeSantis does not. And while DeSantis is a Trumpist at heart, there is little reason for primary voters to accept an uncharismatic alternative to Trump himself. Second, the deeply authoritarian and mean-spirited methods DeSantis specializes in that seem to work well in Florida do not translate well to the rest of the country. And while Republican primary voters are not going to shrink back in horror at these methods and policies, I think there will be a pragmatic judgment by many that he can't win in the general election.

"None of them are trying to beat Trump. They're all just hoping our justice system takes Trump out."

Let me add that the sentiment I have seen among some that DeSantis is less of a threat to the country and democracy than Trump is misguided.

It is true that Trump's approach in a second term will be retribution and blowing up our alliances to favor, Russia, and other dictators. DeSantis would aim to completely undermine our democracy by turning us into an American version of Orban's Hungary. He is a clear and present danger to the Constitution and fundamental freedoms.

To those who say, wouldn't you rather have DeSantis than Trump, it is the same as saying, wouldn't you rather have Putin than Idi Amin?

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and the author of "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President."

The difference between Trump and DeSantis is ultimately a simple one: Trump loves the uneducated because he can fool them. The most dangerous fascist is a smart and well-educated one. That is DeSantis.

The men around Hitler were very cultured and smart. While I'm not sure of DeSantis and culture, I am clear how well-educated he is. People like him are more dangerous. He has already done things in Florida that Trump only promises to do. His promises mean nothing as my findings in "Trump on the Couch" reveal. He never followed through on anything except tax cuts for his friends. DeSantis has already changed the climate in Florida, gotten books banned, restricted teachers from teaching Black history. It's not clear where DeSantis gets his strength from, but Trump remains unconsciously someone full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

Federico Finchelstein is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author of several books, including "From Fascism to Populism in History." His most recent book is "A Brief History of Fascist Lies."

After many months of strategic hesitation, DeSantis entered the race without a single original proposal. Although he wants to believe that he is a Trump without the baggage (ie. nepotism, scandals, etc) he is not. He has his own history of mixing his persona with the state. What is true is he is Trump without charisma; A cult leader without followers. He wants to represent a Trumpism without Trump but this is not easy to accomplish in the current context. History is not kind to these imitators that try to be a better version of the cult's leader. This is very hard to do when the leader is still alive. Followers of the cult are hard to convince that the new apostle is better than the sacred leader. For example, in Argentina after Juan Domingo Peron's fall in 1955, but he was still alive and there were many failed proposals for a Peronism without Peron. Peronism with Peron eventually returned to power in the 1970s. DeSantis wants to be accepted by the extreme MAGA followers as well as by those in GOP that are somewhat lightly tired of the leader, and this is very hard to do. He ends up looking like a fake vessel for whatever looks good for him.

"He's trying to win the primary by presenting himself as an authentic and successful culture warrior."

In my opinion, unless the context radically changes, it seems he will do badly against Trump. He cannot symbolize a post-Trumpism when he insists so much that he is even more MAGA than Trump himself. In truth, he is a symbol of the state of a GOP which is embedded in the hatred, the intolerance, the violence, and the anti-democratic ways of Trumpism. The GOP cannot be something different unless it rejects the dictatorial ways of Trumpism. In contrast, DeSantis is profoundly authoritarian.

DeSantis is a contradiction in terms. He cannot be extremism light. He is only an extremist candidate, and in ideological terms it is hard to see the difference between him and Trump.

Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M, and author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump."

The DeSantis campaign rollout has been awkward. Launching on Twitter Spaces was an odd choice by the standards of traditional political communication in that it was audio-only and the potential audience was comparatively small. However, by the standards of infowarrior politics it makes more sense: Twitter is the location of the extremely online political conversation and DeSantis is running a campaign targeted at extremists (both in policy and communication practices). Throughout his campaign launch, he spoke in code about "woke" and used phrases and talking points that wouldn't make sense to the majority of the nation. He's trying to win the primary by presenting himself as an authentic and successful culture warrior, as opposed to Trump who he portrays as inauthentic and unsuccessful.

I'm not sure who will ultimately win the Republican nomination (Trump's many legal troubles may disqualify him from office, but he's currently way ahead of the rest of the field). Yet, the DeSantis campaign rollout has already succeeded in launching an internal war within the extremist wing of the Republican Party (at least on Twitter). We'll watch that war play out over the next six months until primary voters choose their candidate. DeSantis doesn't have Trump's charisma, but he also doesn't have his baggage. There isn't much difference between them otherwise—they occupy the same lane in the Republican primary field.

Reece Peck is an associate professor at the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island and author of the book "Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class."

The current discussion around DeSantis reminds me of how the commentariat was hyping up Marco Rubio's presidential chances back in 2015 and 2016. People forget that before Trump joined the race and sucked all the oxygen out of the primary, Rubio was being discussed as the future of the Republican Party. He was seen as a good-looking, well-spoken candidate that could effectively package hard-right positions with a youthful, cheery tone and sunny narratives akin to Ronald Reagan and his Morning in America themes. But Trump exposed Rubio as being a typical DC, political robot, and I believe Trump will do the same to DeSantis for the same reason.

Now, DeSantis has made moves to avoid the fate of his fellow Florida Republican by copying elements of Trump's much darker vision of America. For example, DeSantis has adopted Trump's far-right positions on immigration, and more than anything, he has leaned into Trump's culture war crusades against "wokeness," CRT, and trans rights. But because DeSantis lacks Trump's entertainment wrestling style of politics, his culture war rhetoric has no populist edge to it. As such, it comes across as esoteric and overly online. Right-wing culture war rhetoric packs its hardest punch when it is connected to deeper cultural divisions between the college-educated and the non-college-educated, divisions Trump intuitively understands as a tabloid media savant.

The only way in which DeSantis has tried to distinguish himself from Trump is to paint himself as a pragmatist that gets things done and who isn't obsessed with media celebrity. Whether merited or not, DeSantis's counter-lockdown approach to Covid-19 did positively reinforce his self-branding as a non-ideological, pragmatist. His dominant showing in the 2022 gubernatorial election and his current poll numbers and popularity in Florida also help reinforce this image. But the DeSantis as a "drama-free" pragmatist messaging strategy has an essential flaw: it assumes the conservative base cares more about policies and legislative wins than style and identity conflict. But this theory of Republican partisanship has been proven wrong election after election, generation after generation. No matter how hard he tries to emulate Trump at the level of rhetoric and talking points, DeSantis's style is hopelessly Magoo and middlebrow. He represents a boutique faction of the conservative movement, whereas Trump is worshipped and adored by the non-college-educated electoral majority.

The fact that DeSantis waited this long to enter the race doesn't make much sense either. If he were going to take the mantle from Trump and become the new figurehead of the Republican Party, he should have attacked Trump at his lowest points. For example, right after January 6 or after Trump's indictment. These were opportune moments to draw the contrast DeSantis desires to make, he's a competent institutionalist, Trump is chaotic and ineffective. But he, like every other major Republican leader, kowtowed to Trump, fearing the wrath of his loyal supporters.

In political time, November 2024 seems like eons away. So much can happen in this span. If DeSantis wins the Republican nomination, it will likely be due to something Trump did to inflict harm on himself as opposed to some sort of proactive move DeSantis will make. Trump's re-nomination feels inevitable, which is a sad indication of how moribund our political culture has become, that a politician in the United States could organize and carry out a full-blow coup d'é·tat in broad daylight while the whole world watched and is somehow still allowed to run for president again. It is crazy, but here we are.

Brynn Tannehill is a journalist and author of "American Fascism: How the GOP is Subverting Democracy." 

DeSantis may have missed his moment. His best polling came right after the November 2022 election when Trump's hand-picked wackadoodles mostly lost their state elections, and DeSantis carried Florida easily. As a candidate, he's firmly committed to the "anti-woke" schtick, and I call it that deliberately. He's going to make it his number one election theme. DeSantis is not even pretending to take policy seriously: when asked about the war in Ukraine he pivoted to saying he'd fix the US military by eliminating "wokeism" (by which he means kicking out trans people, and maybe removing women from combat roles). This isn't an answer to Ukraine, and it's not even a serious answer to addressing military readiness and he knows it, having been in the military himself. So either it's a schtick, or the man has had his brain completely addled by using his own supply.

I think DeSantis is looking like Ted Cruz in 2016 right now. He's running a culture-war conservative campaign against a guy whose base of support comes from white evangelicals. Trump has anywhere between 40-60% of the vote already in the bag. DeSantis is making the same mistake Cruz (and others) made in 2016, which is that they're leaving Trump mostly alone, and trying to steal everyone else's voters. Their hope is that as long as they don't attack Trump directly, Trump will concentrate on attacking other, more vocal critics of the former president. The problem is, the math doesn't add up: If Trump gets 50% of the vote, everyone else is just fighting for second place. If DeSantis wants to win, he has to steal Trump voters, and I don't think you can do that without throwing some haymakers at the kingpin. But, all the Republicans in the field are afraid to do that.

I think DeSantis is indeed a true believer. He's an arch-Catholic who genuinely despises LGBT people, birth control, abortion, and people who think there are still racial disparities in the US caused by our own history of slavery and racism. He can't get rid of women and Black people, but he's doing his best impression of Victor Orban by banning college curricula, trans people, abortion, letting his proxies ban books en masse, ban speech by political opponents, etc... DeSantis differs from Trump in that he is a dedicated ideologue, rather than more broadly just giving his base whatever they want. Trump is selling a product; DeSantis is on a crusade to remake the US in his trad-Cath image. If he becomes President (which is thankfully unlikely given his primary strategy of avoiding conflict with Trump), he will either succeed in turning the US into a competitive authoritarian hellhole like Russia or Hungary or in breaking the Union.

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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