Many Republicans who were put off by Donald Trump’s peccadillos, ignorance, and outlandish behavior have found their anointed one in Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis offers Trumpism without Trump, promises to Make America Great Again without saying the words, and wallows in the culture-war cruelties that propelled Trump into office in 2016. The betting markets now have DeSantis and former President Trump in a dead heat for the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.
There’s little appetite among either Democrats or Republicans for a Biden v. Trump rematch. Recent polling suggests that Biden loses in a match against DeSantis, even if a third-party candidate (like Trump) is in the race. Given this, and given how DeSantis seems relatively sane and intelligent compared to Trump, the public seems to assume that DeSantis would be a better president than Trump.
This is a horrible mistake.
DeSantis differs from Trump in several ways. While Trump couldn’t care less about “critical race theory” or transgender people, and simply throws stuff into speeches at his rallies that get the biggest reaction, DeSantis is a deeply conservative Catholic and a true believer in the culture wars he engages in. The other key difference is that DeSantis is a Harvard- and Yale-educated lawyer, while Trump skated through a bachelor’s in business where one of his professors called him “the dumbest goddamn student I ever had.”
The damage Trump was able to do was limited by his lack of discipline, ignorance of how the system worked, laziness, and lack of motivation. He is simply a narcissist who likes feeling rich, powerful, and important. DeSantis, however, is none of these things. He is not lazy. He has discipline, motivation, and an intimate knowledge of how to use the system to get what he wants. DeSantis fully intends to remake America the way he believes God would want it to be, and his knowledge of law and governmental structure allows him to do it on a scale, and with a precision, that Trump could only dream about.
We can already see the sorts of strategies DeSantis would employ as president by looking at what he’s done in his role as governor of Florida. DeSantis pursues legislation that he intentionally frames as moderate or commonsense, such as “only” banning abortion after 15 weeks (but without exceptions for rape or incest). His “Don’t Say Gay” law was framed as being about not teaching K–3 students about obscene material.
In reality, DeSantis is pursuing one of the most aggressively authoritarian agendas in the country. He uses two primary strategies: capturing the referees and strategic ambiguity.
Two of the best examples of capturing the referees are how DeSantis quietly packed both the Florida Board of Medicine and the New College Board of Trustees with ideological fellow travelers to bend institutions to their will. The Board of Medicine now includes campaign donors, Catholics who substitute the Vatican’s positions for that of professional medical organizations, and proponents of while the surgeon general of Florida is an anti-vaxxer. As a result, the Florida Board of Medicine is in the process of banning transition-related health care for children and making it much more difficult for adults to obtain. DeSantis moved the decision-making process out of the public spotlight and handed decision-making authority to people who can never be held accountable at the ballot box.
At the New College, DeSantis appointees (who included people with no connections to Florida and ideologues like Christopher Rufo) wasted no time in sacking the president of the institution. Their mandate is to take a liberal arts college and turn it into the “Hillsdale of the South,” a nod to the right-wing Christian school in Michigan that has produced a generation of conservative theologians and lawyers.
This is all in line with DeSantis’s bans on CRT and diversity, equity, and inclusion programs as well as his vow to eliminate “woke ideology” from Florida schools. He has stepped directly into the fray with his ban on A.P. African American Studies. In some ways this resembles how Viktor Orbán of Hungary has channeled state funds into building a university system that serves as a propaganda machine for his autocratic administration. In DeSantis’s case, he has promised to require students to take only GOP-approved courses that teach “actual history and actual philosophy that have shaped Western civilization.” He is also launching an assault on tenure to (presumably) force out professors who cross conservative ideology.
The other central piece of DeSantis’s strategy to destroy institutions is the use of strategic ambiguity to induce these institutions to over-police themselves. The DeSantis administration swore up and down that the “Florida Parental Rights in Education Act” (the “Don’t Say Gay” law) was simply there to protect vulnerable young children from being exposed to dangerous or obscene ideas, images, or writing. In reality, it was deliberately vague and overly broad. When schoolteachers and librarians reached out for guidance on what is allowed, they were met with silence by the DeSantis administration. This left them with the choice: Do we remove everything from school libraries, or do we risk the potential legal consequences of annoying his administration?
They chose to remove all the books. DeSantis has a history of making an example of institutions that cross him on culture-war issues, whether it is the Disney Corporation or the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. An analogy to the DeSantis strategy is a bully who commands his victim to punch themself in the face. “How hard?” they ask. DeSantis’s response is effectively, “If I don’t think you’re hitting yourself hard enough, I’ll hit you harder.” All he has to do after that is watch the people he’s tormenting smash their own faces repeatedly to avoid what they imagine to be coming if they don’t. This potentially inflicts worse damage than if they had just said “no.”
Applying all of this to a DeSantis presidency paints an ugly picture. Imagine a Food and Drug Administration packed with DeSantis appointees who ban abortifacients, birth control, and the use of hormones to treat transgender people. This bypasses the courts and probably stands up to legal challenge in a 6–3 conservative Supreme Court. The FDA could also ban the use of specific drugs for use in surgical abortions, resulting in what amounts to a 50-state ban.
People also forget that commissioned officers of the U.S. military serve at the pleasure of the president. A DeSantis administration, waging war on “wokeness,” would sack any flag officer it suspects of ideological impurity. It’s not hard to foresee a return of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or the institution of a physical fitness test rigged to force a large number of women out of the military.
This isn’t idle speculation either: Regardless of whether Trump or DeSantis wins in 2024, the GOP plans on bringing back Trump’s “Schedule F” play to replace most senior policymakers in civil service with political employees who will go about implementing a complete reshaping of American based on a Christian Nationalist ideology. There are already lists of those to be fired according to Axios, and the GOP is actively vetting and lining up people to replace them should the opportunity present itself.
The strategic ambiguity piece of this comes into play as well. These policymakers can issue overly broad and vague mandates and then use the power of the executive branch to bully states into submission. Potentially “bad” books in California schools? They’ll threaten to block money from the Department of Education. (Trump did this to Connecticut over transgender student athletes.) Or blocking Medicare and Medicaid funding to states that don’t go along with the demands of Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA, and the DeSantis surgeon general, regardless of whether these demands have any basis in science. Or maybe leveraging the attorney general to threaten federal charges against state officials who refuse to comply, the way he did with officials who refused to enforce his new anti-abortion laws.
In the end, most states would go along with such demands. Losing these funding streams would cripple state economies, and state officials are loath to risk themselves over ideological fights. This suggests that should DeSantis become president, we’re likely to see the rest of the country voluntarily becoming indistinguishable, policy-wise, from deep-red Southern states.
This is the way a free and modern society ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.