A duel for the ages seems to be shaping up in earnest. Who is the Florida man?
WASHINGTON– This is not an endorsement.
I plan to write at length on the 2024 campaign, which promises to be the greatest show on Earth. When I was on the primary path earlier this spring, Senate and governor’s primaries had presidential energy, an inevitable byproduct, one supposes, of not having a campaign to speak of in 2020. Donald Trump’s protestations about the result that year clearly have political staying power in part because of a generally felt sense that that year was unconscionably off. This has damaged everyone. President Brandon’s—er, Biden’s time in the White House, it is plain now, lacks some real punch.
Another rival to the 45th president appears to be emerging, whose name isn’t Joe Biden.
Two basically superb treatments of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis were published this week. They were written by liberal journalists and DeSantis himself did not comply with the coverage, but they’re pretty good. If interested, you can read the palatial “Can Ron DeSantis Displace Donald Trump as the G.O.P.’s Combatant-in-Chief?” by Dexter Filkins, and Ronny & Nancy of Tallahassee from Tina Nguyen in Puck, which expands on prior coverage of the impossibly powerful presence of DeSantis’s wife, Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis. That relationship is compared there, of course, to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The assertion is that their Floridian pairing has taken on the appearance of a true Sunshine State duumvirate. DeSantis’ old Yale, Harvard and military chums seem less important.
Close perhaps only with his wife, the 40th president and former California governor was shrouded, ultimately, in enigma, and that comparison is now being made to the current Florida governor. Such relationships in politics can be a double-edged sword: enviable stuff in good times (who wouldn’t want to be in love?), but the source of all evil in bad times. If DeSantis was less successful, this duo would be compared negatively to the likes of the unknowable leftist president Daniel Ortaga and his spouse Rosario Murillo of Nicaragua, and not to a legendary Republican predecessor. Indeed, what is probably most unusual about DeSantis, now a major contender in the presidential arena, is that he is a certified introvert.
Now to assert some “street cred” and a disclosure: Your writer voted for Trump in the 2016 primaries, and presidential elections, and if needed, one can poll my friends, girlfriends, and family as I shocked and awed them with enthusiasm from July 2015 on. In fact, I took him seriously from about May that year on, when front-runner Jeb Bush was running on trade protection authority for President Obama, or whatever. Trump presented what I felt was a more accurate snapshot of the state of the union: “This country is a hellhole.” I remain today much the kind of voter I was then: If history had played differently, I would have gladly voted for Bernie Sanders over Jeb Bush, or whatever version of Marco Rubio we were on back then. But that time changed it all: My generation would be defined by a miserable street fight between right and left, not anti-establishment versus establishment. Besides, today the left is the American establishment, par excellence.
And yet, doubts about Trump’s ability to change this country for the better surfaced from the beginning: the endless personnel carousel, the insidious refusal to play the ultimate presidential Trump card, appearing above-the-fray. Then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told the Weekly Standard upon his August 2017 ouster: “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over. … It’ll be something else. … And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over.” And true enough, it was something else, and the world since March 2020 has made 2017-2019 seem like a pleasant hallucination, surely the main fount of Trump’s enduring appeal. Times were pretty great, even if we didn’t know it.
But back to the future.
Times columnist Ross Douthat sees a 2016 redux. Citing a very positive single poll for DeSantis in New Hampshire, Douthat diagnoses, “I read this as evidence DeSantis is consolidating the ideological, high-information conservative voter — the ‘movement’ bloc that Cruz won in 2016. Trump still has more of the disaffected, less-political, populist bloc.” I could not disagree more, and would gently remind the very talented Mr. Douthat that he picked Marco Rubio as the winner of the 2016 primary. DeSantis’s appeal is far less “Bible-thumping” (putting aside how religious Cruz really is, and putting aside the crude hatred of the faithful in corners of this country) than was Cruz’s image. DeSantis’s culture-warring is far more suited for new American fault lines, if you buy the now-infamous “Hochman Thesis.”
Now, to “steelman” the DeSantis case.
Florida in the age of the coronavirus has become a true countermodel, known not only in the rest of the United States, but positively notorious as well in Europe, as a place to collectively escape Western hysteria and do some business. Every day brings news of a fresh relocation, the latest being Ken Griffin’s bad boy hedge fund, appropriately named for these purposes Citadel, which is packing up from Chicago and getting on I-24 full-speed to Miami. Even Trump now lives most of the year closer to the Gulf of Mexico than Manhattan. Covid-19, its still-unexplained origins, and the schizophrenic reaction to it from the American establishment have supplanted 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2016 election as the touchstone of most Americans’ political lives. Especially conservatives. Especially younger votes. I turned thirty in July 2020, certifiably marking the closure of my childhood.
And so, politically maxed out, DeSantis is not Ted Cruz circa 2016 (please) but rather a combination of Trump in 2016 (a proven fighter) and Glenn Youngkin in 2021. He won’t revolt suburbanites, at least not in the same way. Aesthetically, DeSantis’s classic smarts and non-boomerism, played correctly, could engender him broader respect, or at least a less catatonic response from people who do not vote for him. One imagines him a relatively more palliative choice, one that won’t up the ante still further on America’s increasingly egregious gender divide.
The rap on DeSantis from the hardcore, though, is that you can’t trust him.
Indeed, as Douthat’s audience on Twitter correctly responded to a poll he put out, opposition to DeSantis may intellectually come most passionately from “early Trump adopters.” In the most extreme critique, they see a Bushie in a nationalist’s clothing. The most incendiary condemnation surfaced in the Filkins dispatch is that the Florida governor is standoffish, impersonal, cold, imperious. That has not been my limited experience. In my one interaction, he was social, drank Cabernet Sauvignon, answered all questions politely, even when he began to doubt the response out of Washington on the pandemic, a lockdown response one reminds that was originally led by President Donald Trump (‘”late March ,’ DeSantis answered quickly, on when his doubts surfaced”). Sure enough, news of that fissure broke months later, with DeSantis saying he only wished he doubted Trump sooner.
It is probably true enough that DeSantis would not have moved the “Overton window” on what is possible in American politics as Trump did in 2016, putting an end to the stale Obama-era paradigm, drearily Fukuyaman in its own way. But if my coverage and sporadic access to political VIP’s has taught me anything, it is respect for an open will to power. Politicians are not philosophers, and if they are, they cannot be philosophers first. Results matter. DeSantis may have not been the man for 2017-2019, but in the Covid-19 complex (and attendant cultural revolution), the Florida governor found his crisis. He did not shrink from it. Despite his elite background, he distrusted the elite when it mattered most.
The knock on getting through Harvard and Yale is not that that you are naturally stupid or evil (of course not, if anything the opposite), it’s that to get through those institutions today you have to become stupid or evil. But at age 43, that DeSantis comes out of those places then is a testament to his work ethic and discipline, not his ideology. By all evidence, a DeSantis administration would not be trojan-horsed old medicine. Not the “realism” and “restraint” of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Not the “nationalism” of Ted Cruz (that speech happened).
If one had to close out this case, age would be the determining factor. Now 76, Trump remains hilariously energetic for a man in his eighth decade. But the difference between the two men’s ages is greater than this writer’s lifespan. Finally having a president young enough for the job would feel like a jump off the high-dive. In the end, competence matters, too. If it really is the “Flight 93” era, then it would seem incumbent to remorselessly pick the most-skilled pilot.
about the author
Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.