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How Ron DeSantis can win
Hint: Not by trying to out-Trump Trump
FIRST OF TWO PARTS
Two years ago, Ron DeSantis was as much of a hero to me as any politician had ever been.
Other leaders had bent the knee to the health authoritarians who pretended Covid was the plague. Not DeSantis. He locked down late, then reopened almost immediately. He fought teachers unions and county executives to open schools and end mask mandates.
He did all this against overwhelming media pressure and without much help from fellow Republicans, including the one in the White House.
(YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO)
Yes, Donald Trump cut and ran when DeSantis needed him most, during Florida’s summer 2020 Covid wave:
(Spoiler alert: The intensive care units didn’t actually run out of space)
Even then, DeSantis did not give into the pressure to lock down again.
His state handled Covid without unnecessary restrictions, an example the world should have followed. The next year, he encouraged mRNA shots early on for the elderly - a reasonable position at the time - but later blocked mRNA jab mandates.
I’m not sure DeSantis understand even now how much he meant to Team Reality members living in states which banned the unmasked or unjabbed from restaurants and libraries and public spaces.
By fall 2021, I no longer recognized New York.
It had vaccine passes and mask mandates and a crazy-eyed governor telling unvaccinated people they weren’t “listening to God and what God wants.” (Apparently God wanted New York to pay $600 million for Covid tests to one of the governor’s biggest donors, too.)
But Florida was a straight shot down I-95. I knew we could move if things got much worse. And if New York had tried to make our kids get mRNA shots, we would have.
DeSantis wasn’t exactly inspirational, but he was strong and smart and unafraid to do what he thought was right.
That’s why the last year - and especially the last six months - have been so disappointing, as DeSantis spends more and more time on an increasingly vicious culture war.
Look, I almost respect his decision to sign the six-week abortion restrictions, too, though I disagree with it. At this point, he must know a six-week ban would be poison in a general election, which suggests he’s doing what he thinks is right.
But much of the rest of what he’s doing seems performative and stupid - and self-defeating. Disney has become his white whale. Yes, it’s an annoyingly woke company, but it also supports hundreds of thousands of people in central Florida and produces television shows and movies that kids love. Worse - from DeSantis’s point of view - the company has outfoxed him. If you have to talk about putting a state prison next to an amusement park, you’ve lost.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has encouraged book bans and supported an effort to encourage defamation lawsuits against journalists that even Florida’s Republican legislature would not support.
I don’t know if DeSantis truly believes in these issues or just thinks he has to go after Disney to appeal to Republican primary voters and peel them away from Trump.
Either way he’s making a mistake. Going sideways at Trump by playing culture warrior won’t work.
DeSantis cannot out-Trump Trump by appealing to the sense of grievance in the Republican based that Trump channels. No one can. Trump is unique, in the worst possible way. He is at once whiny and vicious, angry and self-pitying. He’s a bully with a glass jaw. He is the basketball player who screams for ten minutes at the ref about how he’s been fouled and then as soon as he has a chance elbows the guy he’s guarding in the short-and-curlies. (Then blames his teammates for not getting him the ball.)
It is not that Trump is awful despite having good qualities. His awfulness is - amazingly - not merely his only character trait but his only virtue. He is so terrible he causes his opponents to overreact and thus reveal themselves.
A fair number of Republican voters like him for that very reason. They will never vote against him. The loudest and most committed culture warriors are in that camp. DeSantis will never peel them away.
How can he beat Trump, then?
If the last eight years have taught Trump’s opponents anything, it should be this. The only way to deal with Trump is neither to ignore him or engage with him. It is to dismiss him - in the simplest, crudest way possible, in a way that cuts to the self-doubt at his core. Don’t threaten him with prosecution or blow up his importance by calling him a danger to American democracy, just make it clear you aren’t afraid of him and move on.
That guy’s a moron, even Tony Fauci fooled him, what an idiot, I couldn’t care less what he says about me. I’ve got a vision for this country that’s about something more than me and my whining. I’ve got a record that’s something more than complaining about 2020 forever. I’m a winner, not a loser.
Yes, Trump’s core supporters will hate DeSantis for saying Trump out, but they will never vote for DeSantis anyway. DeSantis has to peel off enough Republicans to win a primary - if such a feat is possible - without hopelessly alienating moderates for a general election. Demonizing Disney won’t get him there.
I’m a winner.
But for that plan to work, DeSantis needs a vision - and a record.
Fortunately, he has both.
(End of Part 1. Part 2: The politician DeSantis should be channeling.)