Ron Desantis (Taliban: Florida) has announced his campaign for President in a widely-mocked, glitch-filled Twitter appearance, so it may be time to re-read a February New Republic essay “A DeSantis Presidency Could Be Even Worse Than Trump.”
The sub-head is brutal: “Donald Trump was and is a lazy, ignorant narcissist. The Florida governor is a smart, motivated, very right-wing Catholic who wants to remake America as he imagines God wants it to be.”
The article preceded DeSantis’ precipitous plunge in the polls, and takes seriously the possibility of DeSantis capturing the GOP nomination. Back in February, before the general public became more familiar with DeSantis’ agenda (autocratic) and personality (wooden/off-putting/missing), the Florida Governor was viewed as relatively sane and intelligent, at least compared to Trump, and many in the public assumed that meant DeSantis would be a better president than Trump.
The following paragraphs from the essay reminded me of a gloomy conversation I had with a friend the weekend after the 2016 election. Her most hopeful prediction–which turned out to be very accurate–was that Trump’s manifest incompetence would prevent him from actually enacting much of the damage he was promising.
DeSantis differs from Trump in several ways. While Trump couldn’t care less about “critical race theory” or transgender people, and simply throws stuff into speeches at his rallies that get the biggest reaction, DeSantis is a deeply conservative Catholic and a true believer in the culture wars he engages in. The other key difference is that DeSantis is a Harvard- and Yale-educated lawyer, while Trump skated through a bachelor’s in business where one of his professors called him “the dumbest goddamn student I ever had.”
The damage Trump was able to do was limited by his lack of discipline, ignorance of how the system worked, laziness, and lack of motivation. He is simply a narcissist who likes feeling rich, powerful, and important. DeSantis, however, is none of these things. He is not lazy. He has discipline, motivation, and an intimate knowledge of how to use the system to get what he wants. DeSantis fully intends to remake America the way he believes God would want it to be, and his knowledge of law and governmental structure allows him to do it on a scale, and with a precision, that Trump could only dream about.
The essay noted that DeSantis was pursuing what it called “one of the most aggressively authoritarian agendas in the country” by using two primary strategies: “capturing the referees and strategic ambiguity.”
DeSantis quietly packed both the Florida Board of Medicine and the New College Board of Trustees with ideological fellow travelers to bend institutions to their will. The Board of Medicine now includes campaign donors, Catholics who substitute the Vatican’s positions for that of professional medical organizations, and proponents of conversion therapy, while the surgeon general of Florida is an anti-vaxxer.
The strategy is to move the decision-making process out of the public spotlight by giving important decision-making authority to people who can’t be held accountable at the ballot box. (Diane Ravich recently noted that DeSantis had gutted Florida’s open records law–another ploy to keep that “capture of the referees” hidden from public view.)
And that “strategic ambiguity”?
DeSantis has made persistent war on “woke” education–from public schools to state universities.
The DeSantis administration swore up and down that the “Florida Parental Rights in Education Act” (the “Don’t Say Gay” law) was simply there to protect vulnerable young children from being exposed to dangerous or obscene ideas, images, or writing. In reality, it was deliberately vague and overly broad. When schoolteachers and librarians reached out for guidance on what is allowed, they were met with silence by the DeSantis administration. This left them with the choice: Do we remove everything from school libraries, or do we risk the potential legal consequences of annoying his administration?
Back when we had a legitimate Supreme Court, employment of this tactic was repeatedly struck down for creating a “chilling effect,” that violated the First Amendment.
The article lists a truly terrifying number of ways a DeSantis administration could use these strategies in support of a radically Rightwing culture war agenda. I would encourage you to click through and read it all if I thought this little martinet had a realistic chance to be President, or even the Republican nominee. But since February, when this essay was published, Americans have learned a lot about Mr. DeSantis.
Current polling reflects the public’s response to DeSantis’ repetitive attacks on “wokeness” and the strategic stupidity of picking a stubborn, petty fight with Disney (Florida’s largest employer and largest tourism draw), among other unforced errors.
And really, no one wants to have a beer with this guy.