As given voice by Donald Trump, American right-wing populism has sounded more like a howl of rage or a whine of self-pity than a rational plan for the country’s future. When he ran for re-election, the Republican Party could not even bring itself to write a platform. “Trumpism” blurred boundaries between his policies and his needs and interests, distinctions that vanished as his obsession with his loss in 2020 consumed his message. Reactive and emotional, Mr Trump has reigned as the id of populism, and that has made him dangerous to democracy. Ron DeSantis, the chilly, cerebral governor of Florida, has an outside chance of becoming its superego, and thus dangerous to the Democrats.
Mr DeSantis may wind up as just another speed-bump under Mr Trump’s relentless wheels. But more than any other Republican, he has extracted a coherent agenda from the jumble of Trumpian fears and hostilities, pointing the way towards a Trumpism without Trump. And if that has worked in Florida—a diverse state and once a political toss-up that has gone solidly Republican under Mr DeSantis—Democrats would be unwise to dismiss its appeal. Mr DeSantis’s zeal for culture war is not a sideline to this potential successor ideology. It is the unifying principle.
The end of the cold war was hard on American conservatism. Anti-communism had served as what the writer William F. Buckley called the “harnessing bias” of the movement. With the Soviet Union gone, old divisions began widening again between libertarians and religious conservatives. Isolationism, protectionism and nativism, conservative strains that retreated at the outbreak of the second world war, began creeping back.
George W. Bush’s war on terror held them in check for a time, dangling the prospect of another unifying struggle against an ideological foe. But it was not to be. “If the Vietnam war splintered the Democratic coalition, then the 2003 Iraq war fractured the Republican one,” writes Matthew Continetti in “The Right”, a history of the conservative movement. “Conservatism was never the same after the first improvised explosive device detonated in Baghdad.”
The financial crash further discredited establishment Republicans like the Bushes, with their contentment with trade, immigration and Wall Street. The ferocity of the Tea Party’s opposition to President Barack Obama obscured its comparable disdain for establishment Republicans. Then came Donald Trump. He rolled over Jeb Bush with a message of contempt for elites and the institutions they dominated. They were all corrupt, dispensing money and privilege to insiders, and only he could fix it.
Mr DeSantis shares Mr Trump’s lack of humility but not his lack of discipline and understanding of government. A Harvard lawyer who served in Iraq and then for three terms in Congress, Mr DeSantis is the thinking Republican’s populist. He shares with progressives a conviction about the primacy of “narrative” in entrenching power. But he argues that the left has taken control of America’s core narratives through undemocratic means, by seizing cultural and corporate institutions, and is telling stories that warp young minds and curtail freedom. America’s institutions are not just corrupt; they are insidiously corrupting.
More clearly than Mr Trump, Mr DeSantis has defined an ideological foe to rally conservatives and provided them with a plan to fight back. In his telling, leftist ideology has infiltrated the federal bureaucracy, public schools, universities, news media and major corporations in much the way conservatives once feared communism had. “Because most major institutions in American life have become thoroughly politicised, protecting people from the imposition of leftist ideology requires more than just defeating leftist measures in the legislative arena,” Mr DeSantis writes in his memoir, “The Courage to Be Free”.
Mr DeSantis appears to be channelling an adviser he cites elsewhere in his memoir, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has called for “laying siege to the institutions”. In one display of this besieging mentality, Mr DeSantis appointed Mr Rufo to the board of trustees of New College, a progressive school in the Florida state system, to help change its leadership and curriculum. Mr Rufo quickly moved to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Students have protested against the changes. But they will graduate and move on, and in time Mr DeSantis’s preferred narratives will probably take hold.
Every day he rewrites the book
Opportunistic rather than ideological, Mr Trump has been attacking Mr DeSantis from the left on entitlements (saying that Mr DeSantis wanted to cut them), from the right on taxes (that he wanted to raise them) and from the left again on abortion (Mr DeSantis’s six-week ban is “too harsh”). Mr Trump has even risen to the defence of corporations that Mr DeSantis has accused of abetting leftist indoctrination. Mr DeSantis has been calling Mr Trump a loser, though without naming him. “We must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years,” the governor said in a recent speech in Iowa. Yet this creates a box for Mr DeSantis: Will he say outright that Mr Trump lost the 2020 election?
Mr DeSantis is a glowering glad-hander. He comes off as humourless. Should he win the nomination, Democrats think his bullying demeanour and culture-warring will repel suburban and independent voters. That may be right.
But at 44, with three children and a telegenic, savvy wife, Mr DeSantis would accentuate Joe Biden’s seniority. The governor, a quick study, may grow as a candidate. His high job-approval rating in Florida suggests voters there have not concluded he is an extremist. Given a microphone to voice his own narrative, Mr DeSantis has a knack for making his resistance to progressives on matters such as gender sound like common sense. For Democrats and their very real influence over cultural institutions, the story of Ron DeSantis may not have a happy ending. ■
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