Republican voters have been bashed over the head repeatedly with the message that Ron DeSantis is the more “electable,” new and improved version of Donald Trump. This was always a ridiculous talking point, as if an enigmatic figure such as Trump could be replicated, with all peculiar virtues retained and vices purged. But this shtick for DeSantis had life only so long as it remained an untested hypothesis. Under the pressure of a head-on collision with Trump, the careful ruse of “Trump without the baggage” is collapsing like a cardboard cutout.
DeSantis’ disastrous Twitter launch, rationalized as bold and forward thinking by his supporters, is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem is DeSantis is lacking quite a bit more than Trump’s “baggage.” Without his rival’s authenticity or charisma, DeSantis has relied on an annoyingly overbearing political operation to stay afloat. But sly maneuvering is precisely what Republican voters despise most in a politician today. Oddly enough, DeSantis appears to have even changed how he says his last name. One can imagine Trump having a field day with his understudy’s prevarications on the debate stage: “Tell us, Ron, Is it Duh-santis or DEE-santis?”
DeSantis’ surrogates want to talk about nothing but “policy,” perhaps as a distraction from the fact that he’s such an uninteresting character. It’s hard to trust a man who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. One could hardly lay such a charge against Trump. His supporters know that the chaos is part of a package deal that comes with a forceful and uncontrollable personality. With DeSantis, they get a boring, vacillating careerist pretending to be his more popular rival. The premise here was bound to end in failure once the rubber hit the road.
Although his crudely obvious shadow campaign has reached a merciful conclusion, now that it’s “official,” DeSantis’ candidacy feels like old news. The only difference is that the talking points voters have heard countless times already from Twitter pundits and Fox News and the editorial pages of the New York Post are coming from the governor’s own mouth. He ended his astroturfed Twitter launch by thanking apparently handpicked interlocutors for a “robust debate.” It was a strange way to summarize what had just transpired: listeners heard DeSantis read stale talking points for an hour as allies teed up softball questions on his favorite topics. Then he hopped over to Murdoch-owned Fox News to be flattered some more by the weirdly affected Trey Gowdy. Asked how he would handle the war in Ukraine, DeSantis appeared to blow a circuit and started talking about transgenders in the military. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he declared. This is the serious, substantial candidate we’ve heard so much about?
DeSantis has thrived in isolation, and it shows. His rather holier than thou surrogates and sympathizers are in denial about his increasingly apparent weaknesses. They hector Trump “cultists” for failing to be awed by “Trump without the baggage” (who’s in a cult, again?) and disparage Trump supporters as rubes who just want to be entertained. But personality matters a lot in politics, not just for winning elections, but governing too.
America is in deep trouble. Rebuilding a declining country, if it is possible, will require leaders who can actually inspire people. Trump is the creator and leader of a historic popular movement. Not many people have that capability. DeSantis obviously doesn’t, which is why he has tried to co-opt MAGA for his own personal ambitions.
It is one thing to stab a man in the front, and quite another to borrow his personality and then stab him in the back. Being Trump’s shadow, “Ron DeSantis” could not delay forever a Shakespearean leap of hubris. Will his ambitions survive it? The polls suggest not. Intuition gives the same reply: “Trump without the baggage” is not equipped to replace his model and benefactor.