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Politics : A Real American President: Ron DeSantis
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From: Joachim K11/10/2022 10:37:10 AM
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Trump paved Ron DeSantis’s way. Now apprentice has turned on master

Cas Mudde

Trump unleashed a revolution that opened the door to people like DeSantis. Now the Florida governor and his supporters want to continue that revolution without its original leader

‘The turn from DeSantis to Trump mirrors developments in Europe, where crude far-right politicians like Matteo Salvini are being “upgraded” to more subtle peers like Giorgia Meloni.’ Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Thu 10 Nov 2022 13.55 GMT

The day after the midterm elections, the knives were out for Donald Trump. On rightwing social media, people were emotionally debating the alleged toxicity of the former president and his hand-picked nominees, while Fox News highlighted the victory of the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, emphasizing that he is “reviled by Trump”, while heralding the “ dominating win” of the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis. A Fox News contributor pronounced DeSantis “the new Republican party leader”. In fact, the idea that DeSantis is the big Republican winner of the midterms – and Trump the big loser – seems to be the broad consensus in today’s media.

There is, of course, at least one dissonant voice: Trump himself. Sensing that the tables are turning rapidly, he went on Fox News to warn DeSantis to stay out of the 2024 presidential election. In his typical mafioso way, Trump said, “I don’t know if he is running. I think if he runs, he could hurt himself very badly. I really believe he could hurt himself badly.”

There is no doubt that DeSantis had a great night. He won his own race convincingly, while delivering three new House seats to the Republican party, courtesy of his blatantly partisan gerrymandering. At the same time, DeSantis did less than 2% better than Marco Rubio in the Senate race, putting some doubt on his particular appeal. Moreover, as too few media noted, Florida Republicans undoubtedly profited from DeSantis’s years-long campaign of voter intimidation, which entailed unleashing a newly created “ vote-fraud squad” on mostly innocent voters; against the broader national trend, Democratic turnout seemed significantly down in Florida.

It is important to note that the shift from Trump to DeSantis does not indicate a return to “ normal”, in the sense of old-school conservatism. DeSantis and Trump are both clearly far right and there is little ideological space between the two. Rather, it is about strategy and style. As far as Republican voters had any problems with Trump during his presidency, it was always more about his delivery than about his policies. It is not just his style but also his strategy – Trump largely operates outside of the traditional party establishment and political system.

Trump is not a politician and has no desire to become one. In sharp contrast, DeSantis is and has already significant political experience with running one of the biggest states in the country in terms of both economic power and population. Whereas Trump mainly shouts from the sidelines, respecting neither the institutions of liberal democracy nor the political practices of Washington, DeSantis practices what Princeton professor Kim Lane Scheppele calls “ democratic erosion by law”: the weakening of liberal democracy from within both the legal and the political system.

In this way, the turn from DeSantis to Trump mirrors developments in Europe, where crude far-right politicians like Matteo Salvini are being “ upgraded” to more subtle peers like Giorgia Meloni. It is, if you will, the Orbánization of the far right. The Hungarian leader is the prime example of democratic erosion by law, having effectively destroyed democracy in Hungary by perfectly legal means. It is no coincidence that Orbán is a hero of the so-called “national conservative” wing of the Republican party – mostly politicians with law degrees, such as DeSantis and Josh Hawley.

What Trump lacks in legal and political expertise, however, he compensates in charisma, something DeSantis sorely lacks. The Florida governor has gained nationwide Republican support by what he does, not by who he is. DeSantis is a rather uninspiring speaker who neither draws large crowds nor captivates smaller ones. It is his actual fights with “woke capitalism”, in the form of Disney, or “woke academia”, in the form of the University of Florida, that supporters point to. As he bragged in his victory speech on Tuesday night, “Florida is where woke goes to die.”

Moreover, DeSantis lacks that unique quality of Trump, authenticity, something the former president identified in bestowing the new moniker “ Ron DeSanctimonious”. And while Trump, rather uncharacteristically, seems to have dropped the nickname for now – after a barrage of criticism from rightwing media – you better believe he will return to it, or to even worse names, should he face DeSantis in a Republican primary.

Poll after poll might show the divisive nature of Trump, as well as his dropping favorability among both independents and Republicans, but he was still twice as popular among Republicans before the midterms. Although this can change rapidly, particularly if Fox News would support DeSantis over Trump, Trump will continue to command a modest but highly mobilized hardcore – who could make or break Republican candidates in many races, including the presidential one.

While DeSantis’s star might be rising, the Republican party remains at the mercy of Trump. The former president unleashed a revolution within the Republican party that has opened the door to people like DeSantis. Now the Florida governor and his supporters have less than two years to figure out how to continue that revolution without its original leader.

Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the school of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia
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