If Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the Republican presidential nominee in 2024, it’s already obvious what one of the main Democratic lines of attack will be: He’s just like Donald Trump, only worse.
“He increasingly acts like his role model, the tyrannical Donald Trump,” the Orlando Sun-Sentinel editorialised last year. Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote at CNN’s website that he has a “mini-Trump brand”. Molly Jong-Fast, in a newsletter for The Atlantic, concluded her tour of press clips about the governor with this conclusion: “DeSantis may prove to be the Trojan Trump who finally brings down American democracy.”
What makes DeSantis, or any other Republican, “too Trumpy”? The critics offer a wide variety of answers. Jong-Fast is willing to put the label on anyone who opposes either mask mandates in schools or abortion. Charlie Sykes, in the Bulwark, claims that DeSantis is hostile to civil liberties, quoting a report that he signed a bill that “grants civil immunity to people who decide to drive their cars into protesters who are blocking a road.”
The Guardian quotes an academic likening DeSantis to Trump because both have an “in-your-face style.” Thomas Edsall conducted an informal survey for a New York Times column on DeSantis as “the Man Out-Trumping Trump.” Respondents cited his eagerness to “own the libs” (Democratic strategist Paul Begala), his “right-wing agenda” (Democratic pollster Geoff Garin), and his being “a creature of power” (another academic). An earlier Times article said his combative relations with the press are modelled on Trump’s.
Creatures of power
Many of these criticisms apply to nearly all Republicans, including pre-Trump and anti-Trump ones. Some of them apply to Democrats, too: Aren’t all politicians “creatures of power”?
Other resemblances are real but faint. There’s a difference between calling out a reporter for repeating a slogan of his opponents, as DeSantis recently did, and dismissing critical or inconvenient coverage as “fake news,” which was Trump’s M.O.
Some of the charges are simply false. Floridians who drive into protesters will not have civil immunity even if judges let that DeSantis-signed bill go into effect. They have the ability to raise a defence in court if, for example, they inflicted damage because a violent public disturbance was using the threat of force to impede their safe movement.
Edsall concedes that DeSantis lacks Trump’s “impulsiveness and preference for chaos,” but says that just makes him a more fearsome opponent for liberals. In important respects, though, that means the country should have less to fear from him.
Consider some of the lowlights of Trump’s presidency. DeSantis opposed Trump’s policy of mass family separation. And while DeSantis has not been a profile in courage in calling out Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election, he also has not broadcast that lie himself.
The accusation that DeSantis is an enemy of democracy rests heavily on exaggerated claims about an election law he signed; a “sweeping voter suppression law,” the liberal Brennan Center calls it. It’s true that 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.
Finally, there’s the matter of DeSantis’s lib-owning style. He is obviously happy to annoy liberals for no reason other than pleasing conservatives, as when he smirked his way through a bill-signing in Brandon, Florida. But it’s absurd to take DeSantis to illustrate that Republicans now think smiting the left “matters more than achieving policy objectives,” as one journalist put it.
Even the “culture-war” legislation DeSantis has backed, regulating classroom instruction on sexual orientation and on race relations, has been about more than upsetting his political opponents. Agree or disagree with those bills, they are a response to concerns some parents have about contemporary educational trends.
And his administration has an extensive policy record beyond those issues. He has cut taxes, expanded school choice, spent money on protecting the Everglades and legalised medical marijuana.
It’s not a record that appeals to most Democrats, of course, and they are entitled to make their case against both the substance and the style of DeSantis. They may find, though, that the Trump-clone attack falls flat — and that not every voter who disliked Trump disliked him for the same reasons they do.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist. He is the editor of National Review, a contributor to CNN and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.