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What Trump vs. DeSantis says about the future of the American right

DeSantis’s governing style isn’t a break with Trumpism, but its evolution.

On the left, former President Donald Trump, looking down, and on the right, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, looking to the left.
Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis illustrate a divide in the Republican Party.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

This evening, former President Donald Trump will announce his candidacy for the presidency in 2024 — the Fort Sumter moment in the Republican Party’s looming civil war. On the one side, Trump and his hardcore supporters; on the other, a Republican establishment that’s doing its damnedest to prop up Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a viable alternative in 2024.

That’s the narrative that’s sprung up in the political press since the midterms, at any rate, and for good reason. It really does appear that the Republican establishment is tired of Trump and are using the midterms as a pretext to try to topple him from the party throne.

Yet this framing also skates over something important: that a DeSantis victory in 2024 would not, in any sense, represent a return to Republican pre-Trump normalcy or the triumph of the “traditional GOP,” as some observers see it.

The Florida governor, who won a blowout victory in his reelection bid last week, is not a Republican cut from the Bush-Cheney-Romney cloth. He represents an evolution of Trumpism, a new way of channeling the illiberal populist forces unleashed by the former president’s rise to power in 2016.

His ascendancy as Trump’s principal challenger represents not the return of the GOP establishment, but its adaptation to the insurgency that defeated it six years ago. His model is less John McCain or Mitt Romney, the last two GOP nominees before Trump, than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a leader who, after being elected in 2010, proceeded to use his right-wing populist ideology as a cover for authoritarian power grabs.

This is not to say that Trump and DeSantis are identical. In fact, they represent two related but distinct versions of American right-wing populism: Trump its wild id, DeSantis its more calculating and intellectualized ego. If one looks closely at which prominent conservatives and media voices are backing which candidate, these subtle distinctions become clearer — pointing to the different ways that these two figures threaten liberal-democratic norms.

These distinctions are real, important, and, as an intellectual matter, quite interesting. But they should not obscure what this matchup really represents.

DeSantis versus Trump is not normalcy versus radicalism. It’s American Orbánism versus the berserk.

DeSantis became Trump’s chief rival because of their similarities, not differences

Tuesday’s election results, where DeSantis and fellow Florida Republicans won handily while Trump-backed candidates floundered across the country, created the conditions for a clash between the two men. Somewhat ironically, DeSantis owes his current prominence to a Trump endorsement in the last midterm elections.

Back then, Ron DeSantis was a Congress member with little national profile, fresh off the heels of an abortive primary challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the 2016 cycle. Running for governor in 2018, DeSantis positioned himself as the Trumpy choice in the race — an insurgent challenger aiming to unseat the GOP establishment’s choice, then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. He sought, and received, loud public backing from the president.

Then-President Donald Trump greets erstwhile Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis during a campaign rally in Estero, Florida, in 2018.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader ... He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!,” Trump tweeted in December 2017. At campaign rallies, DeSantis would read Trump’s tweet verbatim on stage.

When DeSantis triumphed, despite being considerably outspent by Putnam, national media covered it as one of several examples of the Trumpian wave sweeping the Republican Party. “Trump strengthens grip on the GOP as Ron DeSantis triumphs in Florida governor primary,” went a representative headline published by NBC News. It was obvious to most that DeSantis was Trump’s disciple: one of many mini-Trumps around the country, attempting to ride the populist energy that had propelled Trump to the GOP’s commanding heights.

DeSantis’s facility for playing the Trumpist game — his seemingly unique ability to be almost more Trumpy than Trump himself — is a key part of why he’s emerged as the former president’s chief rival today.

At the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, the Florida governor capitalized on Republican rage against masking, school closures, and restrictions on gathering — keeping Florida as open as he could, positioning the state as what he would later describe as “a refuge of sanity when the world went mad.” The wisdom of these policies is tricky to suss out, even in hindsight: the available data suggests Florida’s approach may indeed have produced a swifter economic recovery, but at the cost of more Covid-19 deaths (particularly among young people). The data on whether the decision to reopen schools earlier helped keep learning loss down appears mixed.

DeSantis’s stance on vaccination is both more radical and less substantively defensible. After the rollout, he evolved into the highest-profile Republican official to court support from anti-vaxxersfalsely saying that “risks outweigh the benefits” when it comes to vaccinating kids under 5, and appointing a surgeon general who has discouraged men under 40 from getting MRNA vaccines. In this, he outflanked even Trump, who has long attempted to claim credit for vaccine development via Operation Warp Speed.

That DeSantis’s Covid approach prompted howls of outrage from liberals and public health officials was a feature, not a bug. The Florida governor, like no other politician, understood a key element of Trump’s success: that Republican voters wanted someone who would “own the libs” as hard and as publicly as possible. The more angry they got, the more Republicans would come to adore him.

And his lib-owning was accomplished through concrete policies, ones even some Trump-skeptical Republicans admired, as opposed to Trump’s diatribes and angry tweets. In April 2021, one anonymous DeSantis ally described the governor’s approach as “competent Trumpism” in an interview with the New York Times.

DeSantis’s Trumpism, like the original flavor, contained a healthy dose of hostility to basic liberal-democratic norms. After Florida voters passed a ballot initiative in 2018 that would end felon disenfranchisement, DeSantis signed a bill that would require felons to pay outstanding fines in order to vote — a poll tax, in effect, linked to debts so opaque and/or punitive that many could not feasibly pay them. In 2020, the ACLU argued that his law would functionally disenfranchise “hundreds of thousands” Floridians.

While not explicitly declaring the 2020 election stolen, DeSantis will not condemn “stop the steal” conspiracy theories when asked by reporters. He campaigned for hardcore deniers like Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano and, on the anniversary of the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack, downplayed its severity and mocked the media for continuing to focus on the day’s events. In advance of the 2022 elections, he allocated over a million dollars in state funds to a new police unit dedicated to investigating “voter fraud,” including violations of his pay-to-vote bill. The squad found virtually no actual crime but may have worked to deter lawful voters from showing up at the polls.

When Florida’s state legislature drew fairer election maps for the House in 2022, DeSantis vetoed them — demanding more Republican-tilted maps. He got what he wanted, delivering a multi-seat rightward swing that could yet make the difference in the exceptionally tight battle for the speaker’s gavel.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rallies the crowd during a “Don’t Tread on Florida Tour” campaign event in Coconut Creek, Florida, on November 4.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But nowhere is the Trumpian cast of DeSantis’s politics clearer than in his war on “wokeness,” which has replaced Covid skepticism as his political raison d’etre.

In early 2022, the governor and his allies pushed through a vague and broadly worded bill that empowers both the state and private citizens to go after schools that teach about LGBTQ identity. This “Don’t Say Gay” law prompted criticism from many sectors of the country, including a high-profile objection from Disney — prompting DeSantis to retaliate against the Florida-based corporation. He signed a bill to strip the corporation of its special tax status in a 40-square-mile area around Disney World, an explicit act of punishment against the company exercising its speech rights.

The Disney incident, one of many examples of DeSantis’s culture warfare veering into illiberal territory, echoed some of Trump’s actions as president. The most notable is Trump’s reported attempt to block AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner because he hated CNN’s coverage of his campaign and administration.

But Trump failed to follow through on such corporate punishment, whereas DeSantis actually made good on his threats (at least until the courts intervene). This is the essence of what DeSantis boosters mean when they talk about “competent Trumpism”: that the governor is equally committed to owning the libs as the former president, but better at actually using power to hurt them.

DeSantis, in short, does not represent a sharp break with Trumpian illiberalism. If anything, his rise proves that the GOP has fully internalized its basic premises.

Orbánism versus the berserk

But while DeSantis’s ideology may be an offshoot of the Trump phenomenon, that does not make the two equivalent. In fact, the two men represent different species of right-wing illiberalism.

Trump’s political career has been characterized by what Philip Roth memorably termed “the indigenous American berserk.” Trumpism was less an ideology, replete with doctrines and policy positions, than a political messiah complex: a belief that Trump alone can fix America once given sufficient power to destroy his many enemies. On the basis of this appeal, the former president built up a fanatical group of supporters — including a very literal cult of personality — that the Republican establishment has proven unable to pry from his hands. He had the juice to convince thousands to charge the barricades on January 6, a level of violent devotion without compare in the modern history of American politics.

Trumpism’s berserk nature rendered it ineffectual as a governing doctrine, a reflection of its namesake’s well-known disinterest in policy details and implementation. But it also made Trumpism unpredictable, capable of threatening the norms of American politics in ways few thought possible. The January 6 insurrection is of course the most vivid example, as is the entire election-denying project that underpinned it: both were frontal assaults on the way of doing things in American politics.

Rioters supporting former President Donald Trump storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.
John Minchillo/AP

Trump’s value proposition in 2024 is that only he can harness the energy of the berserk for the Republican Party. He promises not only a continued fixation on the 2020 election, but a continued war on the legitimacy of any important election won by a Democrat. Trump’s behavior in the past week — where he has repeatedly claimed that Democrats are stealing elections in Nevada and Arizona — shows that past is prologue. A Trump candidacy in 2024 means more chaos: a crisis of election legitimacy if he loses, a wholesale attack on the foundations of the federal government if he wins.

While DeSantis has shown no interest in confronting Trump’s most chaotic outbursts, he doesn’t really seem to mimic them either. His style is less warfare than lawfare: destroying his enemies not through violence and public humiliation but by wielding policy as a weapon in culture wars.

In this, DeSantis resembles no one more than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán, a lawyer by training, has developed a model of authoritarianism as subtle as it is effective. He has managed to politicize virtually every element of governance to tighten his hold on power, creating a political environment where the opposition is on such an uneven playing field that he has no need to abolish elections or even stuff ballot boxes. Orbán’s power grabs are often justified in culture-war terms: necessary steps to control the cultural and financial hegemony of the international left. This cultural appeal helps him to retain genuine popularity among a significant segment of the Hungarian electorate, something that DeSantis can also claim of the Florida voting public.

The Florida governor has also demonstrated a strikingly similar interest in using culture-war policy fights to assail the sources of his opponents’ political strength, on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to higher education to social media policy. In fact, there’s some evidence that DeSantis’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill was modeled, at least in part, on a Hungarian policy limiting LGBTQ free expression rights.

In a recent interview, Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth warned that DeSantis’s governing record in Florida resembles some steps that “electoral authoritarians” like Orbán use to consolidate power. Chenoweth is most concerned by the efforts to disenfranchise felons and crack down on “voter fraud,” but notes a number of other troubling examples:

DeSantis also signed a law that aggressively restricts the ability of people to submit others’ absentee ballots, which upended long-standing community organizations’ efforts to make it easier for working people and people with disabilities to vote. Along with partisan redistricting that dramatically reduces competition and representation, limits on expression in public schools, harsh penalties for various forms of protest, and trafficking immigrants as a political stunt with impunity, for example, we can see the hallmarks of electoral authoritarianism.

The comparison to Hungary is not mere liberal slander. Rod Dreher, a prominent conservative pundit and one of Orbán’s biggest stateside fans, has suggested that “maybe Florida is becoming our American Hungary.” Not coincidentally, Dreher concluded after the midterms that “DeSantis’s smashing Florida victory last night makes him the head of the conservative movement.”

In this, Dreher is speaking for a broad swath of so-called “national conservative” or “New Right” intellectuals: the pundits and academics who have dedicated themselves to theorizing a new kind of American conservatism compatible with the populist sentiment unleashed by Trump. This corner of the right, where the culture war is paramount and Orbán is seen as a model, believes DeSantis better embodies the qualities they admired in Trump.

“DeSantis knows how to fight the culture war as media combat, but more importantly, he knows how to fight the culture war as public policy,” Christopher Rufo, the New Right’s leading activist, wrote last Wednesday. “He lays out the agenda, passes the legislation, and governs the state. Substance is ultimately more important than style.”

Supporters of LGBTQ rights protest against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis outside a campaign event in Fort Myers, Florida, on November 6. In 2022, DeSantis and his allies pushed through a bill that empowers the state and private citizens to go after schools that teach about LGBTQ identity.
Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Others took less subtle digs at the Donald after the election. “I would vastly prefer unity right now over in-fighting and sniping. But that’s up to Trump. If he continues his ego-driven meltdown, he’ll drag the whole movement into this shit and nobody comes out better for it,” tweeted right-wing pundit Matt Walsh, referring to Trump’s tirade against DeSantis in the wake of his midterm victory.

The contrast with Trump’s post-midterm defenders is instructive. One of the most notable has been Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Congress member who became famous for controversial statements and a high-profile scandal. Gaetz is a showman who revels in the Trumpian berserk; chaos is where he thrives.

His case for Trump, laid out in a November 9 op-ed for the Daily Caller, implicitly argues that elevating his state’s governor over Trump would be a concession to the Washington elite:

Just look at who is lined up against Trump already in the 2024 primary. It’s folks like Paul Ryan or billionaire mega-donor Ken Griffin, who is planning to back a Trump challenge. Politico reports Griffin “wants to … blunt the vein of populism that has complicated the party’s relationship with the corporate world.” This is why a Trump 2024 run is so necessary. We know that he will continue to disrupt and serve the people against the Swamp. ...

We would be giving up by not having Trump as the Republican nominee in 2024. It would be a reward to the scumbags on the January 6 Committee and all of those who are aligned against our movement.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), an even more authentically berserk figure, argued on Twitter that “losing a strong Republican governor early [because] consultants who make a fortune from campaigns are urging them to run for president, hurts our country overall.” In her thread, she specifically name-checks Florida as a state where Republicans should focus on “keeping [the governor] in place.”

The substance of the arguments for Trump or DeSantis is in some ways less revealing than the identity of the advocates themselves. On the one hand, you have those on the right who dream of Budapest on the Potomac; on the other, congressional bomb-throwers who enjoy nothing more than battling the left under the ring lights. Each represents a different vision of how to challenge the American political status quo, to pull it in a more illiberal and less democratic direction.

Elements of this radicalism have always been a part of the conservative movement. Prior to Trump, there was a sense among many that the “responsible” elite could prevent things from going too far.

That they are now backing a figure as illiberal as DeSantis proves that this guardrail has completely fallen off — if it was ever in place to begin with.