DeSantis is More Polished and Less Bombastic Than Trump — But is He Less of a Threat to Democracy?

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the Nebraska Steak Fry. Image: Right Cheer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The midterms proved an abysmal disappointment for the Republican Party. Instead of the promised red tsunami, it was more of what many are calling a red ripple. Instead of winning the House by a large margin, they appear to have just scraped by—and have failed to gain control of the senate. However, there is one person who has emerged as the triumphant winner from this otherwise extremely underwhelming election night for Republicans: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.  

And while the Democrats’ surprisingly strong performance has bought American democracy some time, it doesn’t mean that the Right’s attack on democracy is over just because Republicans have become—at least privately—increasingly disgruntled with Trump. And herein lies the danger of DeSantis becoming Trump’s successor, or even being lauded by Never Trumpers and some media outlets as a less authoritarian version of Trump whose rise indicates a return to normal, a return to the “real” Republican Party. 

This view is based on the assumption that Trump was a bug, not a feature of American conservatism; that he’s a freakish aberration and not the result of a decades-long fostering of an increasingly anti-democratic and aggressive base. It fails to account for the fact that the American Right is, at its core, a project of minority rule, and has been for a long time. 

The views within the movement of how this minority rule should look might differ—with some, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, dreaming of executing her political enemies, and others supporting a heavily restricted form of something that looks like democracy on the surface, but keeps marginalized people in check and old power hierarchies in place through voter suppression and gerrymandering.

DeSantis is a chance for the GOP to win back people like Conor Friedersdorf, the right-leaning libertarian writer at the Atlantic, who already seems quite comfortable with the idea of DeSantis:  

“DeSantis frustrates and disappoints me within normal parameters. He hasn’t yet frightened me, as Trump does, as being superlatively incompetent, divisive, morally degenerate, or authoritarian.”

The reasoning is often completely untethered from reality. Friedersdorf wrote in October 2021: 

“(DeSantis) remains a plausibly acceptable candidate for anti-Trump conservatives, in part because winning narrowly in a purple state has all but forced him to moderate his populism.” 

I’m not sure in which world DeSantis threatening companies with state sanctions, should they take a stand against his discriminatory policies, passing anti-LGBTQ legislation and policing what universities and schools teach—again, threatening repercussions through use of state power—is a “moderate” form of “populism.” 

DeSantis is Trumpism without Trump. A less untethered, more disciplined, more intelligent form of Trumpism—equally mean-spirited, but with a sheen of respectability. He’s already been portrayed by Never Trumpers like David Frum as a more acceptable version of Trump who merely seeks to appease the base with culture wars rhetoric, but always returns to the mythical “center.” Frum claims that his style of politics is:

“a form of political judo that works by employing judicious but limited provocation, followed by a deft, just-in-time retreat to the center (…) the Florida governor has figured out that Republicans love a culture-war brawl, but that overdoing it can alienate a general-election electorate.” 

It’s unclear just what “center” DeSantis has ever returned to—he has a clear track record of implementing culture wars rhetoric into actual legislation that discriminates against LGBTQ people, he’s spread hate and lies about trans people, peddled the “anti-woke” and “anti-CRT” moral panics, sent a group of refugees across the country in an act of what seems to constitute human trafficking which has earned him a criminal investigation.

He represents the Glenn Youngkin model of politics: The same racist fear-mongering, White Christian nationalist rhetoric, dehumanizing policies, and authoritarian use of state power to threaten those who refuse to toe the line—including the threat of financial ruin and legal repercussions—but all of it with more polish and less incoherence and bombast. 

And yet, the pundit class has already turned to what many feared might be the outcome should Democrats buck the odds in the midterms: They’ve declared the threat to democracy over. Democracy has prevailed, Trumpism is defeated, no need for alarmism anymore! Takes like these express one thing in particular: that the person in question is completely uninformed on the nature of the political project of the American Right. In the wake of the midterms, journalist Jeff Sharlet, who’s been chronicling the fascist symbols of Trumpism in recent months, tweeted:

“Saying ‘MAGA failed’ is similar to the way the press has declared fundamentalism (Christian nationalism in current terms) dead every 5-10 years since Scopes ‘monkey trial’ of 1925.” 

It’s not certain yet that Republicans will actually break with Trump, although the shift in conservative media seems to be an indicator. Republicans have complained about Trump in private before—the question is whether they can convince the base to move on from Trump and whether they’ll be willing to say out loud what they’re now telling journalists anonymously. 

Even if DeSantis were to replace Trump, it wouldn’t be cause for celebration because, as Sharlet correctly observes:

“DeSantis doesn’t represent a break with fascism. He doesn’t even represent a break with Trumpism. Trump, the person? Perhaps. But ‘Trumpism’ is what we’ve been calling this particular American version of fascism, which DeSantis embodies as much as anyone.”

As a trained historian and scholar of fascism, I have bad news for those who believe fascism will wither and die after being “defeated at the ballot box”: fascism doesn’t care for the will of the electorate. The Christian Right doesn’t think in election cycles, they think in decades—even centuries. This setback is humiliating for them—but in the long run, it won’t deter them from trying to implement their goal: White Christian minority rule. 

If you think that a GOP under a Ron DeSantis would be less fascist, you’re fooling yourself. Fascism isn’t just the open thuggery of a Donald Trump—it can just as easily be found behind the bourgeois facade of a “family man” who portrays himself as the messiah sent by God.