If Ron DeSantis does end up challenging Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, the media will be awash in attempts to explain who he “really” is. Is he an incipient authoritarian, or is he really just a typical Republican?
In my view, he can be either — depending on what’s in his interest at the time.
Looking back through DeSantis’s career in elected politics, the main through line isn’t policy principle or ideological fealty, but rather apparent opportunism. In just over a decade, his persona has undergone a series of quite calculated shifts based on what DeSantis evidently felt could help him climb the next rung.
All politicians pander to the prevailing mood to some extent. But what sets DeSantis apart is the number of makeovers he’s had in just over a decade in politics — and how successful each has been in advancing his ambitions.
Being a Tea Party conservative got him into Congress. Becoming a staunch Trump defender got him the Republican nomination for Florida’s governorship. Being a pragmatist who avoided national controversies helped boost his approval rating early in his governorship. Now, his latest reinvention as an “anti-wokeness” culture warrior has helped make him the leading alternative to Trump in polls of national Republican primary voters. Each shift was optimized for his next political objective.
Some on the right like to mock what they see as liberals’ tendency to champion “The Current Thing” — falling in lockstep behind a new cause suddenly in vogue in the media or among their peers. DeSantis has made supporting the right’s version of The Current Thing the core of his political strategy, and it has paid off immensely. (Asked for comment, DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin said, “Vox is not a serious or objective publication,” and that this amounted to “dressing up wild leftist talking points as truthful analysis and reporting.”)
The problem with shifting so often and so blatantly is that it opens you up to criticism for being a phony who lacks all principles. But DeSantis has embraced each new identity so fervently that he’s avoided that pitfall up to this point — though Trump will surely go after him with that line of attack.
It also makes it difficult to assess what his actual underlying policy beliefs are and how he’d govern as president.
Liberal commentators disagree on whether a President DeSantis would be an authoritarian demagogue using the power of the state to promote bigotry and impose censorship, or whether he poses far less of a threat to democracy than Trump.
On the right, commentators disagree on whether a DeSantis administration would bring about “a post-Trump GOP return to normal” or whether he’d be an even more effective heir to Trump’s legacy on the issues that matter.
These debates boil down to which DeSantis you foreground during a decade-long political career that has seen many pivots. The only thing we can likely say for sure is that the DeSantis we see today will not necessarily be the one we see tomorrow.
A popular meme among the right, captioned “I Support The Current Thing,” mocks what they see as liberals’ lemming-like tendency to quickly and passionately embrace new causes simply because they are popular in the media or among their social circle.
DeSantis is the “Current Thing” politician for the right. He regularly tries on different political identities, all of which seem optimized for his next ambition and for the causes that happen to be in vogue among the audience he’s cultivating at the time. Here are some of those personas.
The Tea Party conservative: DeSantis first entered politics by running in a crowded GOP field for a newly created US House district in 2012. With few ties to the local establishment, his strategy was to win endorsements from national conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, as well as nationally known conservative figures like John Bolton and a certain celebrity developer splitting his time between Florida and New York:
Ron DeSantis, Iraq vet, Navy hero, bronze star, Yale, Harvard Law, running for Congress in Fla. Very impressive. http://t.co/kkPDZv7r
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2012
During those Tea Party years, defining yourself as a conservative champion meant pushing for cuts to government spending, so DeSantis embraced that cause, saying he wanted to partially privatize Medicare and Social Security. He won the House seat and followed through on his commitments once in Congress, supporting the effort to shut down the government (in an attempt to defund Obamacare) in 2013 and becoming a co-founder of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus in 2015.
That year, Sen. Marco Rubio launched his campaign for president, so DeSantis gunned for Rubio’s Senate seat, rolling out endorsements from those same groups. But the old playbook didn’t work again. DeSantis’s polling was bad, and he appeared headed for defeat, in an early indication that conservative voters had moved on to other issues with Trump’s rise. (He got a lifeline when Rubio, defeated by Trump, decided to run for his seat again after all, letting DeSantis retreat and run in his House district in a face-saving way.)
The Trump superfan: Once President Trump was in office, DeSantis saw a new path for advancement: becoming one of Trump’s biggest congressional defenders. In August 2017, he started a push to defund special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, and he grilled Justice Department officials over whether the probe was politically biased. He then got to ride with Trump on Air Force One, where, according to reports, Trump pledged support for his bid for Florida’s open governorship, saying, “You’re my guy.” A presidential endorsement came by tweet in December 2017.
Still, DeSantis remained locked in a tight race with Adam Putnam, a better-known candidate tied to the state’s traditional GOP establishment. So he hugged Trump ever tighter, to the point of absurdity, with an ad showing him “building the wall” of blocks with his daughter and reading The Art of the Deal to his baby (“Then Mr. Trump said, ‘You’re fired.’ I love that part”).
It worked: DeSantis won the primary by 20 points. But the strategy may have come back to haunt him in the general election, when he eked out a victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum by a mere 0.4 percent margin. Florida voters’ shift to the right was enough to save him in a year of Democratic backlash, but only just.
The conciliator: So DeSantis recalibrated again when he took office as governor in 2019, and spent much of his first year winning praise for his approach.
Initially, DeSantis “seemed determined to govern from the center on the environment, education, marijuana, criminal justice and public accountability,” and he won “unexpected praise from both the right and the left for his efforts,” Andrew Romano later wrote for Yahoo News.
DeSantis focused on clean water. He posthumously pardoned the Groveland Four (four Black men who had been accused of rape in 1949 but are now believed to have been innocent). He pushed to raise teacher salaries. He appointed some Democrats to his administration.
It’s not that he fully abandoned the right. He still, for instance, signed a bill letting teachers carry guns in school and banned Florida cities from protecting some unauthorized immigrants from deportation. But he stayed off Fox News, in what the Tampa Bay Times reported was a concerted strategy “to avoid questions that could suck him into polarizing partisan battles.”
His approval rating soared. “Where did this Ron DeSantis come from?” the Tampa Bay Times editorialized, writing that he “has shattered assumptions that he would govern exclusively from the right.”
“Ron DeSantis is showing the GOP a different path forward,” Reihan Salam wrote in the Atlantic. “Though campaigning as a Trumpist was enough to secure him a razor-thin margin of victory, Florida voters seem to want a pragmatic problem-solver who can deliver better public services at a lower cost, all while preserving the wonders of Florida’s natural environment.”
Salam continued: “Rather than simply react to new political currents, as he did when he embraced the Tea Party moment and, later, when he climbed aboard the #TrumpTrain, DeSantis is now trying to anticipate what will come next.”
What came next turned out to be the Covid-19 pandemic and soaring conservative interest in culture-war issues, and these spurred DeSantis to abandon his conciliatory style and adopt his current persona.
The anti-expert: DeSantis flat-out rejected the expert consensus on how to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Initially, he was hesitant to shut Florida down, and when he acquiesced on that after harsh criticism, he did so for just a month before beginning a phased reopening plan in May 2020. Cases then surged in the summer, leading critics on Twitter to dub him “#DeathSantis,” but he pressed onward.
By September 2020, he had lifted all pandemic-related restrictions on restaurants and businesses in the state, and he reopened in-person schooling that fall. And in early 2021, despite him being “pilloried as a reckless executive driven more by ideology than science,” Politico’s Michael Kruse wrote, “Florida has fared no worse, and in some ways better, than many other states.” Florida subsequently struggled with the delta and omicron variants, but so did the rest of the country, and overall, Florida’s death rate hasn’t been wildly out of line with what was seen in other states with very different policies.
Meanwhile, once the variants arrived, DeSantis took on the experts even more aggressively, battling anyone — the president, local officials, or corporations — who wanted to impose mask or vaccine mandates. He also began cozying up to vaccine skeptics, despite his early enthusiastic promotion of vaccines, making this one of the rare issues where he’s more in sync with GOP base voters than Trump.
Here DeSantis was cultivating two audiences. He tapped into many conservatives’ resentment of experts and elites who in their view were too eager to impose restrictions on freedom. But he also tapped into many Floridians’ desire to return to normal — a desire that went beyond the conservative base. Indeed, he made his reopening of the state a major theme of his 2022 reelection campaign, and he won in a landslide.
Warrior against wokeness: The memory of DeSantis being a middle-of-the-road governor who avoided hot-button cultural issues seems like a distant dream because, in the past couple of years, he’s deliberately leaned into one national controversy after another, focusing particularly on denouncing “wokeness.”
“The woke is the new religion of the left,” DeSantis said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. “And the problem that we face as conservatives is a lot of major institutions in our country have become infected with this woke virus.”
The idea was hardly original on DeSantis’s part. Rather, he again seemed to accurately assess what the right was most passionate about in these years: panicking about “groomers,” pushing back against trans acceptance, denouncing critical race theory, and complaining about the alleged liberal tilt of big tech and big corporations.
So he signed legislation or took executive action on all these topics. He banned trans athletes from playing girls’ or women’s sports. He signed a bill, denounced as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, to ban classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in third grade and below, and then took aim at business benefits for Disney when the company objected.
He signed an “anti-rioting” law that critics said could chill peaceful protest. He had migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He required all books in Florida school libraries be checked for inappropriate content. He signed a law that would fine social media companies for banning candidates for office from their platforms. He appointed conservative ideologues to overhaul a small, progressive state college, and ordered the end of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at others.
His critics denounced much of this as demagoguery and pandering to bigots. Several of these policies were blocked by courts, at least temporarily, while their legality was contested. Some, like the migrant flights, were effectively callow stunts. Some, like his election fraud and voting rights efforts, had very real consequences, including wrecking lives.
One might think that DeSantis has so effectively entrenched his new persona as a culture warrior that he’ll be bound to follow through with all that once in office.
Yet if you look at the campaign ads DeSantis aired in his 2022 reelection race, this culture war pugnacity is scarcely present. Occasionally an ad praises him for fighting “woke liberals,” but the ads are sunny and positive, praising him for reopening Florida and saving jobs. Florida voters may have seen a very different DeSantis from the one portrayed in the culture war-focused national media.
The culture warring is aimed at a different national audience — for instance, at viewers of Fox News, which has heavily featured DeSantis in recent years, in part because he’s picked these specific fights that national conservatives care about. Those are the voters he’ll need to win over if he forges ahead with that next electoral challenge, his toughest yet: dislodging Donald Trump’s hold over the GOP electorate.
If past is prologue, then we would see a different DeSantis if he makes it to the general election. Yet if DeSantis does manage to wrest the nomination away from Trump, he’ll still need to try and convince enough Trump die-hards to turn out in the fall, and that may well mean more pandering to those die-hards. Should he manage to win office, he’ll face pressures to keep his base coalition happy and to live up to the many campaign promises he’ll no doubt have made during the primaries.
All politicians face these incentives and pressures to some extent, but DeSantis stands out both because of how enthusiastically he’s made these shifts and because of how successful they’ve been in advancing his career.
Political pragmatism and opportunism can be good traits if they align the politician’s incentives with simply doing a good job for the country. But they can also be quite dangerous if the politician is willing to throw anyone under the bus to advance himself politically — for instance, by demagoguing marginalized groups.
DeSantis’s views may be less authentic than other politicians’, but that doesn’t necessarily make them less menacing to liberals. The Trumpist right remains powerful and influential, and if DeSantis continues to view their support as crucial to his success, he’ll likely do whatever it takes to get and keep them on his side.