A Most Powerful Adversary

Across the political spectrum, there is a prevailing sentiment that no one can out-Trump Trump. This is both painfully obvious and conspicuously dubious. After all, what is Trumpism at the end of the day? Post presidency, the movement feels like a mischievous toddler who has hurled their dinner against the wall. Most see it as an aggravating mess. Others claim that if you look closely, you can see beautiful art. At the end of the day, what’s the difference between my kid’s spaghetti splatter and the shit they have hanging in the Louvre? 

Florida’s current Governor Ron Desantis has no interest in becoming an art savant. He also appears to be the only Trumpist who does not suffer from either selective amnesia or poor math. The former president lost the election in 2020. Spending one’s time exclusively attempting to replicate Donald Trump the person thus becomes a fool’s errand; he can’t be mimicked, and he didn’t win. Desantis, however, has a different idea. What if it was Trumpism rather than Trump that could win elections? After all, Jesus Christ didn’t spread Christianity around the world. The apostle Paul did.

Using an impressive concoction of electoral data and political intuition, Ron Desantis has formed what he believes to be the foundation for Trumpism. As do most of us, he knows that white people in 2016 made Trump. What the former President drunkenly stumbled into, Desantis has become keenly aware of:

White voters, en masse, expect American politicians and policy to follow their expertise and not the other way around. 

Most white Americans believe racism is profoundly wrong, insofar as the public uses white America’s definition of racism. As Trump began to straddle the line on racially charged messaging, he received public feedback that there was more to it than not using the N-word and dressing up in pillowcases. Despite growing concern, Trump never once capitulated on his choice of rhetoric, turning the backlash into a moment of empowerment for white voters. As the criticism grew, his message became more consistent: You know what is and is not racist. I am here as a mouthpiece for you, and I won’t back down from what we know to be the truth. There is no denying a large portion of white American’s went to the ballot box because they saw in Trump an opportunity to engage in overt racism. What put Trump over the top in 2016, however, was his singular focus on flirting with covert and overt racism to oversaturate the media’s use of the term and to then insist that racism:

1) Can be identified by whites already and had now been redefined without their consent

2) Was being used as a crux to ignore having an “honest” debate about the issues

3) And if you’re into that sort of thing, I am your man

What Trump did not realize is that the inverse is also true. A supermajority of white Americans saw George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020 and immediately connected the tragedy to fitting inside their definition of racism. Here, Donald Trump swallowed a poisonous pill from his own medicine cabinet. He, this time, was the one moving the goalpost- denying and downplaying Mr. Floyd’s murder. Trump’s mishandling lost nearly 6% of the white vote in swing states six months later, playing a significant (but not singular) role in his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Ron Desantis, ultimately, wants to win. He has seen the pandemic as his great revival platform and employs the core of Trumpism that Trump himself inevitably veered away from. His premise is simple:

Everyone has internalized that a supermajority of COVID deaths are from the elderly. Why then would all of us have to suffer?

Unlike the former President, he has never pretended that COVID didn’t exist or would disappear one day. That approach would question the intelligence of white voters who could see that the virus was real. While Trump ended his daily press conferences attempting to communicate the virus’s eventual evaporation, Desantis has stayed the course- acknowledging the seriousness of the virus for the elderly while refusing mask mandates and ending “stay at home orders” for everyone else. Governor Desantis has committed the entirety of his tenure to the three-headed monster of dog-whistle-white-elevation politics Trump could never quite consistently master:

  1. The voices of “experts” are not to be trusted because you are the real expert.
  2. I follow your expertise. Not my own and certainly not the elite class intentionally misleading the public.  

There are, however, many aspects of Trump the personality that DeSantis still believes is politically viable. While Ted Cruz and Matt Gatez emphasize extracting the outlandish and absurd, DeSantis has mined solely for the hyper-masculine qualities. Insistence on claiming victory early and often, publicly engaging in angry-shout-you-down discourse, and never apologizing under any circumstances has resonated with male voters, particularly as more and more men see themselves as under false attack from others. Increases nationally in vote share for Republicans have happened for black men and Latino men. Of course, going from 10% of the African American male vote in 2016 to 14% in 2020 is not the same as garnering 62% of white men in both elections. As DeSantis continues to work through the kinks of this new political identity, he faces the ultimate battle ahead; will the new approach by Desantis be seen as Trump Lite or Trump 2.0? In the former, he will be quickly crushed. If Desantis can keep the name brand while communicating a reinvention of the original formula, his White House chances will significantly increase. Should Desantis fail, the Trump movement will die with the former President. Should Desantis succeed, Trumpism may become a mainstay in American electoral politics in a form impossible if even Trump himself were to win in 2024. Who knows. What is discussed as Trumpism today may even be remembered in the future as Desantivism instead. 

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