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The DeSantis Dilemma
Is he the only politician who can save us from a second Trump term?
“I would say my big decision will be whether I go before or after. You understand what that means?” Donald Trump told New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi this week. He likes to tease. But we know what’s coming. The deranged, delusional liar who tried to stop the peaceful transfer of power is going to again. He still commands a huge lead in the GOP primary polls; he shows few signs of flagging energy; and the president who succeeded him is imploding in front of our eyes.
The preeminent question in politics right now is therefore, to my mind, a simple one: how to stop Trump — and the spiraling violent, civil conflict and constitutional chaos a second term would bring. To re-elect a man who attempted a coup is to embrace the definitive end of the American idea.
The Democrats, meanwhile, appear to have run out of fake “moderate” candidates, are doubling down on every woke mantra, presiding over levels of inflation that are devastating real incomes, launching a protracted war that may tip us into stagflation, and opening the borders to millions more illegal immigrants. They are hemorrhaging Latino support, and intensifying their identity as upper-class white woke scolds. And a Biden campaign in 2024 would be, let’s be honest, “Weekend At Bernie’s II.”
So get real: If you really believe that Trump remains a unique threat to constitutional democracy in America, you need to consider the possibility that, at this point, a Republican is probably your best bet.
One stands out, and it’s Ron DeSantis, the popular governor of Florida. And yet so many Never Trumpers, right and left, have instantly become Never DeSanters, calling him a terrifyingly competent clone of the thug with the bad hair. He’s “Trump 2.0” but even “more dangerous than Trump,” says Dean Obeidallah. “He’s dangerous because he is equally repressive, but doesn’t have the baggage of Trump,” argues a fascism scholar.
“DeSantis has decided to try to outflank Trump, to out-Trump Trump,” worries Michael Tomasky. He’s a clone of Viktor Orbán, says Vox, and on some issues, “DeSantis has actually outstripped Orbán.” Then there’s Max Boot: “Just because DeSantis is smarter than Trump doesn’t mean that he is any less dangerous. In fact, he might be an even bigger threat for that very reason.”
Jon Chait frames the case: “Just imagine what a Trumpified party no longer led by an erratic, deeply unpopular cable-news binge-watcher would be capable of.” Chait’s critique focuses at first on the fact that DeSantis is an anti-redistributionist conservative, and believes that pure democracy is something the Founders wanted to curtail. Sorry — but, whatever your view on that, it’s light years away from Trump’s belief in one-man rule.
On this, in fact, Chait acknowledges that DeSantis once wrote that the Founders “worried about the emergence of popular leaders who utilized demagoguery to obtain public support in service of their personal ambitions.” He meant Obama — not Trump. Unfair to Obama, of course. But the same worldview as Trump’s? Nah.
Chait then argues that DeSantis is an anti-vaxxer, or has at least toyed with anti-vaxxers, and out-Trumped Trump on Covid denialism. But like many criticisms of DeSantis, this is overblown. Dexter Filkins reports that DeSantis, after his lockdowns during the panic of April 2020, studied the science himself, became a skeptic of lingering lockdowns and mask mandates, and, for a while, risked looking like a crazy outlier.
But from the vantage point of today, not so much: Florida’s kids have not been shut out of schools for two whole years; the state’s economy beat out the other big ones except Texas; Covid infection and death rates were not much higher than the national average; and compared with California, which instituted a draconian approach, it’s a viral wash.
As David Frum put it in a typically perceptive piece:
The DeSantis message for 2024: I kept adults at work and kids at school without the catastrophic effects predicted by my critics. Because I didn’t panic, Florida emerged from the pandemic in stronger economic shape than many other states —and a generation of Florida schoolchildren continued their education because of me. Pretty powerful, no?
Very powerful in retrospect. And again: not Trump.
And this is a pattern: DeSantis says or does something that arouses the Trumpian erogenous zones, is assailed by the media/left, and then the details turn out to be underwhelming. His voter suppression law provoked howls; but in reality, as Ramesh Ponnuru notes,
the law includes new restrictions, such as requiring that county employees oversee ballot drop-boxes. But it’s also true that the law leaves Floridians with greater ballot access, in key respects, than a lot of states run by Democrats. Florida has no-excuse absentee voting, unlike Delaware and New York.
DeSantis wins both ways: he gets cred from the base by riling up the media, but isn’t so extreme as to alienate normie voters.
Ditto his allegedly anti-gay bigotry. Vox’s Beauchamp says DeSantis is another Orbán. But Orbán’s policies are a ban on all teaching about gays in high schools, a ban on anything on television before 10 pm that could positively show gay or trans people, and a constitutional ban on marriage rights. DeSantis’ policy is to stop instruction in critical gender and queer theory in public schools for kids under 8, and keep it neutral and age-appropriate thereafter. In other words: what we used to have ten minutes ago before the woke takeover.
And who but a few fanatics and TQIA++ nutters really oppose this? I know plenty of gay people who agree with DeSantis — and a majority of Floridians support the law as it is written. The fact that his opponents had to lie about it — with the “Don’t Say Gay” gimmick — and then resorted to emotional blackmail — “This will kill kids” — tells you how unpopular their actual position is.
Some more contrasts: Trump famously wanted to torture captured prisoners, steal the oil in occupied Iraq, and desecrate Islam to break down Muslim detainees. DeSantis, on the other hand,
was responsible for helping ensure that the missions of Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets [in parts of Iraq] … were planned according to the rule of law and that captured detainees were humanely treated. “He did a phenomenal job,” Navy Capt. Dane Thorleifson, 55, said of DeSantis … [describing him] as “one of my very close counsels that as we developed a mission concept of operations, he made sure it was legal. I respected him a lot as a JAG. He was super smart, articulate, resourceful and a positive part of the staff.”
Imagine Trump taking care to make sure anything is legal!
Trump ripped children from illegal immigrant parents. DeSantis opposed the policy. Trump launched his real estate empire with a “small loan of a million dollars” from his mega-wealthy dad. DeSantis grew up in a working-class neighborhood, scored in the 99th percentile on his SAT, and worked several jobs to help pay his tuition at Yale.
Trump is a teetotaler, and while in office “his administration made a number of hostile anti-marijuana actions — rescinding Obama-era guidance on cannabis prosecutions to implementing policies making immigrants ineligible for citizenship if they consume marijuana.” DeSantis ensured that Florida’s overwhelming vote in favor of legal medical marijuana was passed into law, and he even suggested that the drug be decriminalized — despite his distaste for the smell of weed in public.
Trump wings everything, and almost never delivers. He couldn’t even build a fraction of his wall. DeSantis is disciplined, studies issues closely, and follows through. On a good day, Trump is fun. DeSantis, to be kind, isn’t. He has a Nixonian edge.
Trump believes climate change is a Chinese hoax, and, given the chance, would cover our national parks with condos and oil rigs. DeSantis is a governor in a state where rising sea levels and floods are real, so Trumpian insanity is a non-starter. “I will fulfill promises from the campaign trail,” DeSantis said shortly after taking office:
“That means prioritizing environmental issues, like water quality and cleaning the environmental mess that has resulted in toxic blue-green algae and exacerbated red tide around the state. We will put Everglades restoration into high gear and make it the reality that Floridians have been promised for three decades.”
DeSantis signed into law a remarkable piece of environmental legislation that could become a model for the rest of the country. The project will establish the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a blueprint for the state to connect all of its large national and state parks with tracts of open land.
The corridor, once complete, would create an unbroken swath of preserved land from the Alabama state line all the way to the Florida Keys, nearly eight hundred miles away. It would insure that a population of wildlife — whether it be black bears or panthers or gopher tortoises — would not be cut off from other groups of its species, which is one of the main drivers of extinction.
So far, DeSantis is not that far from the “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist” he claimed to be. Yes, he’s mainly focused on responding to, rather than preventing, climate change — “Resilient Florida” is the slogan. And he’s allergic to green uplift or catastrophism. But another Trump? Nope.
His authoritarianism? He certainly gives off vibes. He picked a fight with Disney, for example, over their belated opposition to his parental rights bill — and punished them even after the law had passed. Using executive power to target companies for their free expression is not conservatism. (It’s worth noting, however, that in this case, the “punishment” was ending very special state treatment for the company.)
There is also disturbingly vague wording and vigilante enforcement in his parental rights bill — which is why I opposed it. He has tried to curtail free speech in colleges in ways that will almost certainly be struck down by the courts. Three state university professors were prevented from testifying against state policies (DeSantis denies any involvement). His comments on tenure are chilling. He said something dangerous about the role of child protective services in punishing parents for taking their kids to raunchy drag shows. Parental rights for conservatives, but not for liberals?
His spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, is Trumpian in her provocations, reviving the ugly trope that gays are pedophilic “groomers” until proven otherwise. DeSantis wages the power of government in the culture war — and with alacrity. There’s a pugilism to his style that comes off as bullying at times, so he can, quite clearly, be a charm-free prick. He’s been a coward over January 6 and Trump’s Big Lie. And as Tim Miller notes, he hasn’t exactly declared he would not be another Trump in his contempt for constitutional democracy (although such a stance now would effectively sink his bid to replace Trump). He’s said nary a word on abortion; and has ducked real questions about guns in the wake of Uvalde. Who knows what his position on Ukraine is?
I’m deeply uncomfortable with much of this.
But how different is it really from the Biden administration rigging Title IX to impose trans ideology and end due process for the accused in schools and colleges? Or from the federal government mandating active race and sex discrimination for the sake of “equity”? Or trying to ban any mental health therapy for gender-dysphoric kids that doesn’t instantly affirm the self-proclaimed gender of a child? Or proposing vaccine distribution by race? Or imposing mask mandates and lockdowns with a fervor that lasted far beyond the need to control the first and second waves — and that were instantly and conveniently waived when BLM arrived on the scene?
More generally, look at the broader context. The imposition of woke dogma throughout corporate America, the government, the nonprofit sector and our educational institutions has been a deeply authoritarian movement, brooking no dissent. The Democrats have embraced this putsch, with Biden among the most strident, deploying federal government power to advance far-left ideas. None of his underlings can define what a woman is. All seem to view America as a form of “white supremacy” — and want to teach this as fact to kids. Do Democrats really believe that all this is simply government-as-usual, and any attempt to balance this out on the right is inherently some kind of authoritarianism? I don’t.
At some point, we really do have to fight back and defend a liberal society. The Dems are attacking it. Trump can’t do it — he merely empowers and legitimizes the woke. DeSantis has shown he can actually beat them — at their own game. A conservative seeking some swing of the cultural pendulum back to the center is not a fascist.
We will doubtless see much more vetting by the press as the year goes by — which is right and appropriate. Let’s hope it’s more accurate than in the recent past. I hope to air all the arguments against DeSantis in the coming months — so please add your critiques and worries to the Dish mix. I don’t really have a solid grasp of his core character, and I have to remain a skeptic on this, but his steadfastness and independence of mind under Covid was encouraging. He served his country in Iraq. He works hard. He is a devoted family man. In all this, he is not just not-Trump. He is his opposite.
Yes, he’s a politician in a deeply illiberal moment, trying to win over a party dragged into a moral and constitutional abyss. Some slack is merited. So let’s wait and watch and even hope a little. In politics, picking the lesser of two evils, and the good over the perfect, is often a more moral stance than purism or partisanship.
Which is to say: DeSantis sure isn’t my dream candidate. But the currently viable alternative — we must always remember — is a nightmare.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a long and sometimes heated discussion with my old friend Peter Staley; tough dissents from readers on sexual freedom, conservatism, and Obama’s record; eight notable quotes from the week in news and Twitter; a Mental Health Break video to make you forget about Twitter; 12 pieces we recommend by other Substackers, including a journalist turned gardener; a lush view of a garden through a reader’s window; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a continued subscriber:
I appreciate the advance notice for my annual subscription to the Dish, and bring on another year! I loved the interview with Continetti. You hit him with everything including the kitchen sink, he responded with vigor, and it ended with characteristic Andrew warmth. Keep it up!
From another of the many emails we’ve been getting this week, ahead of our July 17 Substack birthday:
I’ve been a subscriber for about a year now, so to mark the anniversary I’d like to say thanks for your honest and thought provoking work. With age, I’ve detected a shift in my politics — from standard university Dem to something else — and I’m glad to have the Dish as a guide.
One more note we’re grateful for:
I have learned from the Dish to be more grateful, to be a better listener, to think more critically, to be more tolerant, and to be more courageous in speaking up when I see illiberalism afoot (and wow, has it been afoot these last five years or so!) You have on guests with whom you agree and disagree. To thinking people, your podcast and writing are like an oasis in the desert.
New On The Dishcast: Peter Staley
Peter is a political activist, most famously as a pioneering member of ACT UP — the grassroots AIDS group that challenged and changed the federal government. He founded both the Treatment Action Group (TAG) and the educational website AIDSmeds.com. He also stars in the Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” and don’t miss his memoir, Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism. Peter is an old friend and sparring partner, so the episode gets fiery at times.
For two short clips of our convo — on how he and other AIDS survivors turned to meth, and Peter pushing back on my views of critical queer theory in schools — pop over to our YouTube page. There’s also a long segment on just the monkeypox stuff. Listen to the whole episode here.
If that episode isn’t gay enough for you, we just posted a transcript of the episode last year with Katie Herzog and Jamie Kirchick. Both of these Alphabet apostates were on Real Time last month — here’s Jamie:
Katie appeared alongside this clapped-out old bear:
We now have 20 episodes of the Dishcast transcribed — check out the whole list, and all of our episodes, here.
Dissents Of The Week
A reader quotes me:
“As for sexual freedom, you’ve got me there. As long as it’s between adults, and consensual, I have no problem with it, and lots of experience with it. I truly don’t think it is intrinsically wrong. Human beings’ sexuality is far more expansive and diverse than most other species’, and if children and marriage are not involved, I see no reason to curtail it, and many reasons to celebrate it.”
How can you leave out STDs as a factor here? While I would agree children and marriage are factors one and two, STDs and their impact on society are a close third. While not nearly as dire as AIDS, we are currently dealing with a monkeypox outbreak because of such promiscuity. It is disingenuous to pretend like that is not a significant problem.
Read my lengthy response to that dissent, along with two others, here. As always, keep the dissents coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.