Ron DeSantis Is Flaunting His Résumé—Does Anyone Care?

Ron DeSantis Is Flaunting His Résumé—Does Anyone Care?

Ron DeSantis Is Flaunting His Résumé—Does Anyone Care?

The Florida governor, who recently announced his bid for the presidency, is eager to prove his credentials. But GOP primary voters aren’t interested.

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was planning to launch his presidential campaign as this issue of The Nation went to press, is accruing leadership credentials in a party that no longer exists. DeSantis has used his super­majority in the Florida Legislature to launch a head-spinning array of salvos in the right-wing culture wars—from an anti-trans surveillance regime in public schools and rolling book bans to an improbable assault on Disney as the avatar of all things woke.

But even as DeSantis has been polishing up his inquisitorial résumé, he’s been hemorrhaging support among the conservative movement faithful. Some of that slippage may be due to DeSantis’s defiantly anti-charismatic stump performances, or a reaction to the sort of executive overreach that comes with a state government’s steady transformation into an ideological plaything. In the main, however, DeSantis can’t overcome the stubborn fact that today’s Republican Party remains a wholly owned subsidiary of the Donald Trump image-marketing empire.

This point was driven home with unmistakable authority in the run-up to DeSantis’s announcement, when a Manhattan jury found Trump liable for $5 million in damages for sexual abuse and defamation in E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against the former president. Having the court system belatedly acknowledge Trump’s well-documented standing as a serial sexual assaulter would, in any remotely reality-based political order, create a massive opening for anyone challenging his hold on his party. Instead, during his CNN town hall appearance, Trump claimed that his polled support increased in the wake of the Carroll verdict. That was a typically unsourced and premature claim, but opinion surveys in the run-up to the verdict bore out the trend. One Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted during the trial found that 42 percent of respondents who supported Trump in 2020 said that “Trump should still be allowed to serve as president if the jury determines he raped Carroll,” and just 6 percent thought that Carroll was telling the truth. A post-verdict Morning Consult poll showed that Trump’s support among potential Republican primary voters had increased to 61 percent, up from 59 percent on the day the verdict was reached.

If any of this came as a shock to GOP insiders, it shouldn’t have. Ever since the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, Trump has cannily repackaged every new revelation about his corruption and illegal activity as just more evidence that he’s come under the relentless persecution of the deep state as punishment for his commitment to rescuing the republic. That line of argument, opportunistic and bankrupt though it is, has held up through the Mueller investigation, two impeachment proceedings, an arraignment in Manhattan criminal court, a Georgia election-fraud inquiry, and two pending investigations by the Justice Department. It has now hardened into dogma, since GOP leaders have long relinquished any claim to advancing any higher civic mandate than the capture of power by any means necessary.

That’s why, even as DeSantis was gearing up for his campaign announcement, he had already begun to lose his grasp on the GOP’s organizing base. University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket has been querying Republican county chairs across the country about their emerging presidential preferences. The responses to one of his early canvasses, in March, suggested that Trump’s death grip on local party organizations seemed to be giving way amid renewed concerns about how his legal troubles would affect his electability, with Trump and DeSantis virtually tied for the critical support of county-level GOP leaders. That trend has effectively reversed, with Trump now claiming 24 percent support in the Republican field, and DeSantis’s earlier 18 percent share declining to 13 percent. The chief cause, Masket explains in his Substack newsletter, was a spike in Trump’s support at the expense of DeSantis’s emerging base in the wake of Trump’s criminal indictment.

It’s hard to imagine a more thorough repudiation of DeSantis’s lovingly cultivated, résumé-based pitch for the presidency. Apparently, his erstwhile supporters were more impressed by his chief rival’s indictment on fraud charges relating to hush-money payments for a liaison with a well-known porn actress. It’s as though the final reel of Scarface were spliced onto Alexander Payne’s 1999 political satire Election as an epilogue.

DeSantis’s waning appeal is a more focused reprise of the dominant motif of the 2016 GOP primary, which mustered a widely hailed (if dubiously successful) crew of A-list political talent for an open presidential cycle. One by one, these credentialed and experienced leaders all succumbed to the rising Trump cult of personality, in a bald rejection of the meritocratic catechism of conventional political success. Since Trump’s elevation to the presidency, the GOP has frantically rebranded itself as the party that spurns establishment pedigrees of all kinds—leading to absurdities such as Yale-matriculated venture capitalist J.D. Vance’s makeover as a horny-handed son of toil. Instead of boasting of legislative accomplishments or ambitious policy agendas, rising leaders in Trump’s GOP clamor to one-up each other in election conspiracy-mongering and prophecies of a violent comeuppance for the lords of the deep state.

This ongoing realignment also helps explain why DeSantis has so far been at a total loss to land on an effective message for the GOP primary base. He even made an empty show of announcing a blockade of any extradition of Florida resident Trump to the courthouse in Manhattan where he would face charges in the Stormy Daniels case—while Trump and his allies were so keen to get their hands on mug shots from the arraignment as fundraising swag that they eventually went ahead and made some of their own. For the vast majority of right-wingers who’ve emerged from the mystic spell of meritocratic cant, the moral here was obvious: These days, the Republican Party is the kind of place where a guy like Ron DeSantis can’t get arrested.

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