Where Ron went wrong

DeSantis was just too wooden to play the disruptive role the working classes want.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics USA

I had a feeling the jig was up for Ron DeSantis when DC insiders started praising him for being ‘presidential’. ‘Presidential’ has become code for ‘Not Trump’. It means ‘one of us’. It might once have referred to a person who has the right bearing to be president, but in the populist era it’s been used to distinguish between those the establishment can work with and those they absolutely cannot. Between politicos who adhere to DC decorum and others who flip a bird at such old moral codes. Between us and them – them being Trump and his rough voters. So when, in 2022, even the Washington Post ran a piece by an old conservative insider cheering DeSantis for showing that a ‘populist can be presidential’, I knew his days were numbered.

His number is now up, at least as far as the 2024 presidential race is concerned. He’s dropped out, ahead of the Republican primary in New Hampshire tomorrow, where he was polling in single digits. Ouch. He had already been thrashed by Trump in the Iowa primary last week, as had Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, and he clearly didn’t fancy another very public blow to his White House hopes. I don’t have ‘a clear path to victory’, he admitted yesterday. It was a pretty swift and surprising end to a campaign that many on the right had high hopes for, given DeSantis’s popular governorship of Florida and his much-hailed ‘war on woke’.

His campaign got off to a poor start in May last year. Tellingly, he chose to launch his bid in a Twitter Spaces hangout with Elon Musk. It was plagued by glitches. Worse, it felt distinctly un-populist, aloof even, to announce your presidential run in an audio stream with a billionaire rather than among a heaving crowd of your own flesh-and-blood voters. As CNN said, it meant the ‘biggest moment in [DeSantis’s] political career’ was ‘played out through a disembodied voice’. It was an early glimpse of his awkwardness, his seeming preference for shoulder-rubbing with fellow powerful people over Trump-style rallies with the noisy throng.

His campaign did have promise. He’s a politician willing to fight the culture war. He famously described Florida as the place where ‘woke goes to die’. As governor, he relished delivering counterblows to elite consensus opinion. He banned critical race theory from Florida schools. He forbade teachers from talking about sexual matters and ‘gender identity’ with kids under 10. He went into battle with a demagogic Disney when it used its economic clout to try to block his anti-woke laws. And he resisted lockdown fanaticism, lifting mask mandates and relaxing rules before other states. He was cheered by the right as the acceptable populist, one who isn’t gruff, like you know who.

And yet a tension emerged between his populist beliefs and his technocratic demeanour. Between his promise to wage war on elite correct-think and, well, his woodenness. He sounded like someone who could sock it to the woke, he just didn’t look like someone who could. As Freddy Gray observed, there was a fascinating disconnect between his popularity online and his lack of an online vibe. ‘He lacks Trump’s sense of humour. He’s just too serious in a time when all everyone wants is online LOLs’, wrote Gray. It is testament to the media elites’ detachment from voters, and possibly DeSantis’s detachment too, that they’ve never understood that some folk like Trump because he’s unguarded and intemperate and sometimes ridiculous.

The accusations of stiffness against DeSantis stacked up. Things came to a head when the Washington Post interviewed people who ‘lack social skills’ and who said they feel ‘sympathy for the governor’. Pity from the awkward – that’s hard to come back from. It became clear that DeSantis isn’t ‘presidential material’, said Gray. So when the old media referred to him as presidential, what did they mean? There’s the rub. They didn’t mean he was JFK-like or Obama-like, since he clearly lacks their easy charm. They didn’t mean he was Lincoln-like, either – even his loudest backers wouldn’t liken a war on genderfluidity in schools to a war on slavery. No, they meant he was measured, free of dangerous passion. In short, he’d fit in with the careful, grey new establishment.

Consider the Washington Post piece that said DeSantis is proof populists can be presidential. It praised him for being able to do something Trump is ‘unable or unwilling to do’ – ‘flip a switch’ and go from being a populist bruiser to being ‘the very model of a chief executive’. He can turn off the silly populism when necessary and be ‘all business’. Trump, on the other hand, seems to be in the grip of anti-DC fury 24 / 7. DeSantis came to be ‘coronated by right-wing pundits’, says Sohrab Ahmari, and as a result ‘he lost sight of the electorate’. More importantly, I think, his coronation meant the electorate started to view him differently – as too cosy with the very people they’ve been revolting against these past eight years.

The conservative script essentially says: you can be a populist, sure, but sometimes you’ll have to ‘flip a switch’ and be presidential. This reduces populism to a fun pastime, not something that should be in the White House, not really. The old right saw DeSantis as safe because he can do ‘normal’ politics as well as ‘populist’ politics. But to many voters, populism isn’t a game. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a tweet. It’s not even the odd law, and DeSantis has passed some good laws. No, it’s what they believe, all the time: that the views of ordinary people should carry more weight than the beliefs, prejudices and mad ideologies of the elite. A part-time populist is surely just a technocrat in disguise.

You don’t have to be an uncritical follower of Trump to recognise that part of his attraction is precisely that he’s ‘unpresidential’. That he refuses to play the DC game and speak in guarded tones that often disguise sinister agendas. After all, Obama was super presidential, and yet we know that behind his polished veneer there lurked a disdain for working-class voters who are ‘bitter’ and who ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’. Is DC decorum just the mask elitism wears? Many will have wondered that.

It is disruption some voters desire, still. Disruption to the old political order, the new ideologies of wokeness and an economic system that has left so many of them jobless and hard-up. Perhaps DeSantis’s problem is that he was just a critic of the way things are, when what people want is a cudgel.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA


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