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Too online, too rigid, too weird: why Ron DeSantis failed

The presidential hopeful was the darling of the intellectual right – that was his problem.

By Sohrab Ahmari

To a certain type of conservative intellectual, Ron DeSantis looked like the perfect candidate to usher the GOP into a post-Trump era. He had served in the military, held Ivy League degrees, and carried no obvious baggage. He was the popular governor of Florida, a large state with diverse demographics. He’d presciently opposed Covid restrictions early on and put himself on a populist warpath against Disney and other “woke” corporations. He was like Donald Trump – but better, more disciplined, and ideologically purer.

Why did DeSantis’s presidential bid unravel? Such that he felt he had to drop out of the Republican presidential race on Sunday 21 January. The short answer is that a campaign tailor-made for right-wing podcasters and columnists isn’t necessarily one that appeals to a wider electorate. Or put another way, precisely what made DeSantis so alluring to the right’s political and journalistic class turned off the Republican base. The DeSantis campaign was too online, too ideologically rigid, and at times just too weird.

The made-for-social-media quality of the campaign derailed things almost from the get-go in May last year. Instead of launching his bid with a traditional in-person event covered by traditional media, DeSantis turned to the “Spaces” feature of the app formerly known as Twitter. Evangelical Grandma in Iowa, needless to say, doesn’t doom-scroll, let alone know what the hell Spaces is. Adding insult to injury, the platform malfunctioned, delaying the start and barring many from logging on. Ah, that famed technical adroitness of the “based” genius Elon Musk.

The launch event was a conversation between DeSantis, the ostensible man of the moment, and Musk, who dominated much of the airtime. A montage hastily put together by the campaign after the virtual event featured footage of Musk dancing in a tuxedo at some laser show. This, while DeSantis could be heard talking about America’s fentanyl crisis.

It was the most what-the-f**k moment in American electoral history since the late Alaska senator Mike Gravel released an ad showing him throwing a rock into a pond during the 2008 cycle. But there was discernible logic behind it: for a younger generation of Republican elites, Musk represents a throwback to the heroic age of capitalism, a would-be Silicon Valley Caesar determined to save the American spirit from the woke scolds and censors. By launching his campaign alongside Musk, even playing second fiddle to the Tesla boss, DeSantis tried to associate himself with that vibe. The trouble is that young conservative intellectuals’ pet issues – social media censorship and the like – don’t necessarily top ordinary Republicans’ concerns, even if they, too, might grumble about wokeness.

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DeSantis, however, made everything about wokeness. The Sunshine State, he boasted, is where “woke goes to die”. In a June address echoing Winston Churchill, he vowed: “We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in the corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress.” There wasn’t a single issue that DeSantis didn’t somehow reduce to the problem of wokeness. Asked on Fox News what he would do about Ukraine on Day One, he offered a long disquisition on the spread of wokeness and gender ideology in the military. Asked about the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, he blamed – you guessed it – “DEI”, or diversity, equity and inclusion.

Which brings us to DeSantis’s decidedly skin-deep populism. Yes, he railed against corporate America’s diversity pieties. Beyond that, however, he was more or less a conventional Heritage Foundation Republican with no vision for reviving manufacturing and working- and middle-class prosperity. Whatever his failures of execution in office, Trump got there by emphasising such themes. DeSantis, by contrast, took no steps to disavow his earlier congressional record as a benefits slasher and privatiser – a failure that Trump-aligned political action committees used to devastating effect against him.

Likewise on foreign policy, DeSantis failed to stake out a sharply anti-establishment position appealing to a Republican base that has had it up to here with interventionism. In a written response to a questionnaire on Ukraine posed by Tucker Carlson to the candidates, DeSantis initially described the conflict as a “territorial dispute” and played down its importance for US national security. But then he walked back those remarks, reportedly after getting told off by a hawkish donor, the hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin; though one GOP insider told me donor pressure had less to do with such moves than the influence of his wife, an old-school Reaganite.

The end result was that DeSantis didn’t really stand out from the rest of the crop. Coronated by the right-wing pundits, he lost sight of the electorate.

[See also: Is a Kamalaissance possible?]

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