Ron DeSantis’s Copycat Strategy Is Failing

Ron DeSantis’s Copycat Strategy Is Failing

Ron DeSantis’s Copycat Strategy Is Failing

The Florida governor’s bungled campaign launch makes clear there is only room for one Trump.


Ron DeSantis’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination was already faltering even before he formally entered the fray on Wednesday in a much-touted launch on Twitter Spaces. As The New York Times noted, DeSantis “has struggled in recent polling, receiving an average across polls of around 20 percent among Republicans, falling far short of former President Donald J. Trump’s roughly 50 percent. The gap between the two men has grown steadily over the past few months, as Mr. Trump’s share has increased and Mr. DeSantis has lost ground.”

Unfortunately for DeSantis, his decision to take up Elon Musk’s suggestion of a Twitter launch meant the event was marred by numerous technical glitches and has already entered the annals of political lore as a stupendous bungle. Politico characterized it as a “botched rollout” that could undermine “the very argument he is making to Republican primary voters—that he is a competent alternative to the chaotic presidency of former President Donald Trump.” My colleague Joan Walsh described it as a “fiasco.” The New York Times called it a “meltdown.”

Far from helping him against Trump, DeSantis’s tech mishap seems to have energized the former president. Trump’s campaign quickly fired off gleefully derisive videos mocking the Twitter Spaces disaster, including one showing an imploding rocket labeled “Ron! 2024.” The exclamation mark was an allusion to Jeb Bush’s failed campaign of 2016 (marketed as “Jeb!”), while the rocket was a cruel invocation of a recent Musk space vehicle debacle. Another nasty Trump video had DeSantis sharing Twitter Spaces with a host of villains ranging from Dick Cheney to Adolf Hitler to the devil.

It was not surprising that Trump seemed to be enjoying himself. Insulting a rival or foe is one of the few things that give Trump pleasure. Neither his inherited wealth, his hedonistic lifestyle, nor even the political power of the presidency ever brought happiness to Trump—a vicious malcontent even at his best. But give Trump the chance to hurl abuse, and his face lights up. Trump’s true vocation, as astute observers have noted, is not for politics but for insult comedy of the type practiced by Andrew Dice Clay and shock-jock radio performers like Howard Stern (in his 1990s incarnation). Trump needs a foil, a straight man who can serve as a convenient target for barbs and invective. It is the sad fate of DeSantis (aka “Ron DeSanctimonious” or “Meatball Ron”) to be Trump’s straight man.

One of the sharpest observations about the DeSantis-Trump dynamic came from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is also running for president. Speaking to Fox News, Haley pointed out that DeSantis’s entire campaign is based on “copying” Trump. Haley observes,

The way [DeSantis] speaks, the way his hand gestures are, the fact that he has moved his policies, whether it’s Ukraine and Russia, to entitlement reform, he’s done a total 180. All of it is copying Trump. He needs to be his own person. He needs to get out there, say what he believes, what he thinks. If he’s going to be an echo to Trump, people will just vote for Trump.

DeSantis’s sales pitch is that he offers Trumpism without Trump: He’ll give voters Trump’s policies, but carried out in a more effective way, with less drama. The underlying assumption is that Trump voters are motivated by policies that are distinct from his showmanship. DeSantis’s faltering poll numbers give the lie to this theory.

As a Trump imitator, DeSantis is a total bust. Part of what makes Trump a singular figure is that he’s willing to viciously attack fellow Republicans in pursuit of dominance over the party. Who can forget “low-energy” Jeb Bush and “Little Marco” Rubio? By contrast, DeSantis rarely goes after Trump—and when he does, it’s with passive-aggressive digs. More commonly, DeSantis ignores or defends Trump’s worst actions. DeSantis wouldn’t comment on Trump’s losing a sexual assault civil suit against E. Jean Carroll. On Thursday, DeSantis indicated that if elected he might presidentially pardon January 6 offenders. If that is what DeSantis is offering, why not just get the real thing and vote for Trump?

This reluctance to take on Trump directly makes DeSantis look like a weakling. The Republican presidential campaign is not so much a political contest as a wrestling match between competing primates for dominance. In that jungle, Trump remains the alpha male, the boss ape whom all the other monkeys submit to.

While DeSantis won’t attack Trump, he does try to mimic Trump’s bullying by going after marginalized or subaltern groups such as teachers, librarians, LGBTQ people and Black voters.

The problem for DeSantis as a culture-war politician is that, while he’s won some legislative victories, he tends to offer raw-meat politics in language that might be too abstract for voters. During the Twitter Spaces event, he kept talking about “the woke mind virus” and arcane issues such as ESG (environmental, social and governance criteria for corporations) and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) training.

As Zack Beauchamp noted on Vox, DeSantis’s framing of his anti-woke politics is too specialized for a mass audience. Beauchamp draws a contrast between “DeSantis’s approach to culture war” and “Trump’s visceral, angry, populist attacks on the elites. Nattering on about ESG and DEI is very different from saying ‘build the wall’ or ‘lock her up.’ DeSantis speaks to the culture war’s generals; Trump is speaking to its foot soldiers.”

By obsessing over culture war esoterica, DeSantis also leaves important issues unaddressed. This was acknowledged by even Michael Brendan Dougherty, a National Review writer who otherwise admires DeSantis. Dougherty noted,

There was a different silence in the DeSantis launch. He filled it with more than enough talk about the “woke mind virus.” But we need an answer from DeSantis: What kind of economic agenda should America pursue?

DeSantis is a Trump wannabe without any of Trump’s gifts. It would be too generous to say he’s to Trump what Pat Boone was to Elvis. More accurate would be to say that in DeSantis’s whiny voice we can hear the earache-inducing sound of an Elvis impersonator who can’t carry a tune.

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