DeSantis Disaster: Why a wannabe dictator's campaign fails
Florida man violates major rule of 'strict father' Trump Republican politics
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis broke a major rule of authoritarian politics at the very moment he launched his 2024 presidential campaign. Now his campaign is going broke, stalling in the polls and laying off staff. His most enthusiastic supporters, like the Fox channel’s Rupert Murdoch, are abandoning him. The political press, having served to build DeSantis up over the past few months, is now deconstructing his failures.
DeSantis certainly did his best to emulate — and, in some cases, exceed — Trump’s use of deliberately cruel strongman politics to attract media attention. But DeSantis was only an imitation Trump — a cheap facsimile of the man who now exerts cultish control over the Republican Party.
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By trying to run against Trump, he broke a cardinal rule: He betrayed Trump. This violated a central tenet of the moral system underlying Republican politics.
The ‘strict father’ rule
In the authoritarian cult politics of Trump’s Republican party, the leader is like a strict father who sets the rules and doles out discipline and exerts total control over the family. To question his authority, or to make an effort to displace him, is to fundamentally violate the sacred order of the conservative moral system. The strict father must be obeyed, not betrayed.
DeSantis had pragmatic reasons for launching a campaign. On a rational level, the Republican Party should not pin all of its hopes on a candidate facing dozens of federal indictments for serious crimes. But the rationality train left the GOP station the moment Trump caught fire with the Republican base in 2016.
Those remaining in the Republican Party now find themselves riding the Trump train. It will chug along at full speed in any direction Trump decides. DeSantis and Murdoch apparently failed to understand this. Efforts to launch an alternative to Trump — a Republican candidate who embraces vicious authoritarian policy while trying to undermine Trump’s support — won’t work.
A super salesman
Remember: Trump is not a politician. Trump is a super salesman who has successfully sold the Republican base on his status as a “strict father” authoritarian leader. As such, this nomination contest will not center on policy or strategy differences.
For the Republican base, there is only one element that matters: Trump – his voice, his personality, his cruelty, his authority. Those under his spell have accepted his dominance as permanent. Their allegiance to him overrules their allegiance to anything else. Many believe his lies about the 2020 election. Trump’s supporters, the Republican base, also view his criminal cases as a kind of martyrdom that only increases their quasi-religious veneration of him.
So DeSantis committed an act of heresy by launching his campaign. He violated the central myth of the party, the lie about the 2020 election. Trump’s lies about the election are crucial because they uphold his authority. A strongman “strict father” figure can never admit weakness or defeat. Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in 2020 means Biden was stronger than Trump, but such an admission would obliterate Trump’s entire premise. Trump must deny reality in order to cling to his authority. His followers must see him as a winner even when he is clearly a loser.
For the Republican base, DeSantis’ candidacy could only have legitimacy if Trump’s election claims were false (which they are). Otherwise, why would DeSantis run against Trump instead of working to put the “deposed” leader back in the White House? It was a clear betrayal of Trump, who helped DeSantis win the office he currently holds. To make matters worse, DeSantis tried to go directly at Trump, depicting him as weak, tarnished and, possibly, liberal on LGBT issues.
But those facts don’t fit the Trumpian strongman frame already set in the brains of his supporters. When the facts don’t fit the frame, they bounce right off.
DeSantis’ effort to outdo Trump also has another big problem. By overdoing the authoritarian schtick for the press — banning books, tormenting immigrants and LBGT people, stripping away women’s reproductive freedom — he turned off swing voters. In a study of swing voters in Minnesota, some respondents referred to DeSantis as a “wannabe dictator.” One dismissed his candidacy by saying: “We saw what happened in Germany 80 years ago.” Even if DeSantis could manage to out-dictator Trump, he would face a serious challenge winning swing voters … as a consequence of his success in convincing voters he’s worse than Trump.
The only surefire way for a Republican to supplant Trump’s leadership of the party is to do so with Trump’s blessing. He would have to deputize a “mini me” politician to serve as a lapdog and defend his interests. He would have to put the best interests of the Republican Party ahead of his own interests. Unlikely.
Trump desperately needs to get back into the White House to escape accountability. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes at Lucid:
“…Trump is in the middle of the strongman's worst nightmare —an indictment that could lead to a conviction and jail sentence— and his rhetoric has accordingly escalated. Everything he is doing and saying right now has one goal: getting him back into the White House so that he can realize the strongman's dream of committing crimes with impunity and neutralize anyone and anything that can harm him.”
DeSantis’ effort to block Trump’s escape route by campaigning to position himself as the better “wannabe dictator” option poses an existential threat to the defeated former president.
The Republican infighting is great for the Biden campaign, but the GOP will get its bearings soon enough. If Trump’s popularity continues to surge in proportion to the number of indictments against him, the party will unite to rally around their strict father figure — and no one will sing his praises more loudly than Ron DeSantis.
“The Left, the Right and the Family View of Government,” George Lakoff, via YouTube.
“When it comes to our politics, family matters,” Hidden Brain, NPR
“DeSantis’ Fascist-Style Macho Video; GOP 2024 as a Race to the Bottom,” Ruth-Ben-Ghiat, Lucid
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