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25 May 2023updated 13 Jun 2023 12:31pm

The dark reality of Ron DeSantis’s disastrous campaign launch

It was embarrassing for the Florida governor and Elon Musk. It could be a tragedy for American democracy.

By Sarah Baxter

Earth to DeSantis. Are you there? Pop, crackle, silence… By the time Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, could be heard on Twitter Spaces on Wednesday (24 May) evening, his nascent presidential campaign was crashing and burning as thoroughly as Elon Musk’s servers. Hello from the other side. The loser’s side.

The hashtag #DeSaster began trending on Twitter, joining Tiny D, Meatball Ron and Ron DeSanctus as unwelcome nicknames. Musk, the twit-in-chief, forgot that his medium is made for trolling, not solemnly launching presidential campaigns. All the blather by DeSantis’s tech bro and launch sidekick David Sacks about him “breaking the internet” (with 600,000 initial listeners, fast dwindling) merely mimicked the worst spin room excuses of traditional political operatives.

New swamp, meet the old swamp, this time with a nearly all male line-up of sycophants on Twitter whom nobody had heard of, including a congressman from Kentucky and an Iowa radio host, with plugs for crypto and attacks on “cultural Marxism” thrown in. DeSantis wasn’t even the big cheese on the night: the patsy guests were more in awe of Musk.

Over at Truth Social, Donald Trump’s own social media site, the former president was having a great time. “Wow! The DeSanctus TWITTER launch is a DISASTER! His whole campaign will be a disaster. WATCH!” A fortnight ago Trump had taken on his media foes at CNN and turned a Town Hall event into a festival of lies, and DeSantis thought he could outflank him by choosing a nerdier forum.

The launch felt like a big suck up not only to Musk, the would-be king of conservative media, but also to Tucker Carlson, the right’s “formerly” most influential commentator (I use that word advisedly), who is seeking a new platform on Twitter after being fired by Fox News. And it failed. DeSantis is being ridiculed left, right and centre.

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A gleeful Fox News caption on the launch read: “Amateur Hour”. But more people than DeSantis have a stake in this debacle. The tragedy is that Trump is even more likely than before to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election. It is a gamble with democracy that America cannot afford to lose.

I do not share the confidence of Joe Biden’s camp that the 80-year-old Democratic president has beaten Trump before and can do so again. Perhaps he can. But a repeat match of the 2020 election is fraught with risk. A poll by Harvard/Harris on 19 May showed Trump beating Biden by seven percentage points. The idea that DeSantis might be more electable than Trump was also dented: he only scraped a tie with Biden.

[See also: Donald Trump head back to court, and this time it’s serious]

I used to think: well, at least DeSantis won’t foment an insurrection, surely the minimum requirement for a presidential candidate. But the governor, 44, stopped trying to be a sensible alternative to Trump long ago. Turns out his flirtation with the terminally online alt-right wasn’t just a pose; this is his home of choice. Even the hope that he might represent Trumpism without Trump – ultra-conservative, but more efficient, without the lies, offensiveness and authoritarianism – was fading before the Twitter meltdown.

On Wednesday DeSantis tried to play it both ways by aspiring to the role of the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in the 1952 film High Noon. “If you nominate me you can set your clock to January 20, 2025, at high noon because on the west side of the US Capitol, I will be taking the oath of office as the 47th president of the United States,” he managed to say, once the audio finally worked. “No excuses, I will get the job done.”

But what job exactly? That is no longer so clear. Big media, including Murdoch outposts, wanted DeSantis to be the Trump slayer, hoping they could wriggle free of the latter’s clammy embrace. But they are already being drawn back to their all-time ratings champ. In terms of clicks and eyeballs, it is 2016 all over again. There is still only one show in town.

Big money liked DeSantis because he kept Florida open in the pandemic. The sunshine state’s relatively low rate of fatalities (helped by an efficient vaccination programme and rigorous voluntary masking policies by most shops and food chains) was impressive. All this contributed to DeSantis winning the Florida governorship by 19 points while Trump’s hand-picked candidates flopped in the November midterm elections.

That was the high point of Ron DeFuture mania. In mid-December DeSantis was beating Trump in a head-to-head match-up by 56 per cent to 33 per cent, according to a USA Today/University of Suffolk poll. Now Trump is the one with double-digit leads in every poll. Yet at the height of his polling popularity, friends in Florida were warning that DeSantis lacked the personality for retail politics and would soon be exposed on the campaign trail.

DeSantis’s anti-woke culture war has been backfiring among parents who don’t want cherished school books threatened with bans by crazed QAnon witchfinders, let alone a full-blown economic war over the “don’t say gay” bill with the Mighty Mouse. Disney has just scrapped a $1bn investment in Florida as a result of its feud with the governor. Plus DeSantis managed to upset suburban women voters (Trump’s greatest weak spot) by signing into law on 14 April a bill banning abortion in the state after six weeks of pregnancy.

He still has oodles of money. The New York Times reported on 24 May that Never Back Down, a DeSantis super pac (political action committee) has up to $200m to shower on his campaign, including a professional ground operation in primary states. Its aim? To prove that DeSantis efficiency can overpower Trump chaos.

That endeavour now looks like a colossal waste of money. Putting a brave face on the disaster, the DeSantis camp claimed to have raised $1m in online donations one hour into Wednesday’s Twitter fiasco. As Jason Miller, Trump’s communications chief, triumphantly tweeted: “Forget $1 million. $1 billion couldn’t fix the damage done to the DeSantis campaign.”

[See also: The chaos and confusion of Trump on trial]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation