An enduring debate about Donald Trump is whether he stands for a clear ideology or just for Donald Trump. The latter was never in doubt. But it has taken Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor and the former US president’s chief rival, to fashion a worldview from Trump’s gut instincts, whether you agree with them or not. The irony is that it is Trump’s likeliest nemesis, other than himself, who is doing the most to build Trumpism into a lasting force. Little wonder that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire now prefers “DeFuture”, as the New York Post recently dubbed DeSantis.
The future is not what it used to be for Trump. Last week he stoked expectations of an impending “major announcement”, which turned out to be the sale of $99 non-fungible tokens (digital images) of Trump as a superhero, cowboy and in various other fantasy poses. The proceeds — $4.45mn — did not even go into his campaign: they went straight into his pocket. It was a timely reminder that the difference between Trumpism and Trump is that the latter is always looking to make a buck.
Even Trump’s loyalists were turned off: “I can’t believe I’m going to jail for an nft salesman,” tweeted the account of Anthime Joseph Gionet, a white supremacist who pleaded guilty to his role in the January 6 storming of Capitol Hill last year. Trump’s bizarre turn came after two polls showing Republican voters favour DeSantis by large margins for the 2024 nomination. It is unlikely the list of criminal referrals that Congress recommended on Monday for Trump’s attempted coup will save his deflating brand.
Yet, thanks to DeSantis, Trumpism is thriving. The two men could hardly be less alike. Trump, 76, is an ageing reality TV star on his third marriage who has only ever won one election — and even then not the popular vote. He was born into great wealth. DeSantis, 44, a former military lawyer and Harvard Law School graduate, has won five elections, three to Congress and two as Florida’s governor, the last time by a landslide. He comes from a blue-collar background and seems happily married.
Trump is charismatic and often funny, sometimes intentionally. He draws energy and ideas from big crowds and hates to read. DeSantis has little patience for the contact sport of retail politics. He is a voracious reader and is comfortable uttering complex sentences. Judged by personality, DeSantis is Trump’s heir unapparent — the two are worlds apart. But Trumpism badly needs DeSantis’s discipline and focus to outlast Trump. That is why many of the right’s biggest donors, including Peter Thiel, the Koch family and Ken Griffin, are backing DeSantis.
Those who hope the Republican party will revert to its pre-Trump character after he has gone are missing the plot. In some ways, DeSantis is even further removed than Trump from the party of Ronald Reagan. The days when Republicans acted as the political arm of big business are gone. DeSantis has shown that he can take on large corporations, such as Disney, the cruise liner industry and the pharmaceutical sector and still rake in campaign contributions. He has also proved that doing battle with Fortune 500 companies — so-called woke capitalism — is a vote winner.
His method is to convert resentment of corporate and educational elites into a governing programme. Unlike Trump, who trolled liberals on Twitter while also craving the establishment’s approval, DeSantis basks in their hatred. Where Trump is capricious, DeSantis is systematic. Last week he urged an investigation into Big Pharma, Pfizer and Moderna, for “wrongdoing” in overstating the efficacy of their vaccines.
His war on what he calls the “biomedical security state” began early in the pandemic. DeSantis is willing to use government’s coercive powers to quash private sector autonomy. Thus, he banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination for customers entering their premises. This included cruise ships that provide such good tourist revenues for Florida and which were early Petri dishes of Covid-19.
His actions horrified the scientific mainstream which pointed to tens of thousands of avoidable Covid deaths in Florida. But they were popular with blue-collar workers in whose name DeSantis said he was acting: unlike the professional classes, they could not do their jobs remotely. He depicts himself as a sword of vengeance against America’s “Faucian dystopia” after Anthony Fauci, the outgoing face of the medical establishment. Ditto in his contempt for supposed corporate virtue signalling on clean energy.
There is nothing libertarian about wielding government powers so casually. DeSantis has also used the state’s reach to deprive school districts of autonomy, which Republicans used reflexively to defend. Parents now have the right to sue schools for breaking Florida’s “don’t say gay” law, which forbids teachers from mentioning sexual orientation with children aged nine or below. He also banned schools from imposing mask or vaccine mandates.
If Trump did not exist, you might describe DeSantis’s philosophy as fossil fuel Christian nationalism. Its enemies are amoral tech oligarchs, Big Pharma, ESG-endorsing finance, the corporate media and elite universities. Since Trump does exist, we call it Trumpism. The difference lies in the competence of its execution.
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