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Ron DeSantis Is Overplaying His Hand


The DeSantis boom is not something I am particularly worried about. This isn’t because I don’t think he’s a scary. He’s slimy evil little fascist who wants to be the American Orban. But, like Paul, I think Trump is almost certainly the candidate in 2024 if he even remotely tries, which actually seems unclear at this point. In any case, DeSantis could be the candidate, sure. But I don’t see how he wins. First, he has the charisma of a rock. Say what you will about Trump or George W. Bush, but the men had certain types of charisma that appeals to certain Americans. Ron DeSantis, like Scott Walker before him, absolutely does not have a lick of it. He simply comes across as terrible on television.

But second, and I think a lot more important, is that he is massively overplaying his hand on the culture war stuff. Let’s review some of this:

An unrelenting assault on truth and freedom of expression in the form of laws that censor and suppress the viewpoints, histories and experiences of historically marginalized groups, especially Black and L.G.B.T.Q. communities, is underway throughout the country, most clearly in Florida. The state’s Department of Education recently rejected a pilot Advanced Placement African American studies course from being offered in Florida’s public high schools.

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE” law — which would limit students and teachers from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender — Florida is at the forefront of a nationwide campaign to silence Black voices and erase the full and accurate history and contemporary experiences of Black people. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the American Civil Liberties Union, the A.C.L.U. of Florida and Ballard Spahr filed a lawsuit on behalf of university professors and a college student opposing the “Stop WOKE” law and, along with a second lawsuit, won a preliminary injunction blocking Florida’s Board of Governors from enforcing its unconstitutional and racially discriminatory provisions at public universities.

Florida’s rejection of the A.P. course and Mr. DeSantis’s demand to excise specific subject areas from the curriculum stand in stark opposition to the state-issued mandate that all students be taught “the history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition and the contributions of African Americans to society.”

While litigation continues, the various provisions of “Stop WOKE” and now the rejection of A.P. African American history could have devastating and far-reaching effects on the quality of education for Florida’s 2.8 million students in its public K-12 schools. The same reasons that the “Stop WOKE” law is blocked from enforcement in university settings hold for elementary and secondary schools. As a federal judge ruled in November, the law strikes “at the heart of ‘open-mindedness and critical inquiry,’” such that “the State of Florida has taken over the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to suppress disfavored viewpoints.”

The problem here for DeSantis is that this is not going to play nationally. No question, the man has learned how to dominate Florida like Mussolini over Italy. It’s not only that he has managed to turn enough of the marginal Democratic voters to him through his strongman tactics, though a lot of this is in the specificity of the Latino communities–Cuban, Venezuelan, Honduran–that are in Florida and are especially vulnerable to this kind of culture war stuff. He’s also turned Florida into a haven for far-right elements and also just your general old white evangelical fascist lover who is moving down there to be warm around other crazy people. That’s what is probably making Florida uncompetitive for Democrats for awhile going forward.

So you have to give him credit of a sort here.

But I don’t see how this plays nationally.

First, there are lots and lots and lots of white voters who are pretty OK with a little racism mixed in their white politicians, but they don’t want to talk about it. DeSantis makes them choose. It’s true enough that Glenn Youngkin made this work in Virginia with the CRT nonsense, but he did it in a Patagonia vest and fake moderation. That can work. Those suburban white voters in Virginia are likely to look quite a bit differently at an open fascist hearkening back to George Wallace.

Second, by attacking education, he is attacking what matters the most to a whole lot of white voters. As we’ve seen even among the well-off and quite liberal commentariat at this site, to get in the way of getting Connor and Maddie THE BEST EDUCATION is absolutely beyond the pale of acceptable politics. And that’s what DeSantis is doing here. These relatively moderate whites who might have moved to the burbs for the schools don’t want Chris Rufo and Ilya Shapiro types running their kids’ education. They want to have a little bit of diversity, to be telling themselves that their kids know a little Black history (if only the right kind), and that their kids are going to be set up to compete in the global marketplace. DeSantis is shutting all of that down.

In short, DeSantis, like Trump before him, is making people really choose what they want. But after having been through Trump, lots of borderline Republican voters are likely to be skeptical of full-fledged fascism, as we saw in both the 2020 and 2022 elections. But full-fledged fascism is required to win the Republican primaries in 2024 and whether it is Trump or DeSantis or Haley or some wild card, it’s going to be a hard sell to those voters.

If anything, I see DeSantis as the least likely person to appeal to these voters. What works in Florida is not necessarily going to work in Arizona, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

So I think DeSantis has reached the apex of his career and once he runs up against Florida’s term limits, he ends up on Fox News. It’s not often that I get accused of optimism, but this is how I feel right now about it.

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