The DeSantis Doctrine

Column: Ron DeSantis and the battle for the New Right

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R.) / Getty Images
May 26, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R.) announced his presidential candidacy during a Twitter Spaces event Wednesday, but it was Elon Musk’s show. The Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX CEO received co-billing. Moderator David Sacks, an investor and former executive at PayPal, said the technical snafu that botched the conversation was a consequence of Musk’s enormous Twitter audience. DeSantis thanked Musk for buying Twitter and turning it into a platform for free speech. Each of the guests lauded Musk’s ingenuity and courage before asking DeSantis a question. One especially obsequious Republican congressman bragged that he owned a Tesla.

DeSantis would make a point on some issue and then Musk would respond, calmly and commandingly, in his mellow South African accent. It was easy to forget that you were listening to a campaign launch and not the Wall Street Journal’s "Future of Everything Festival." Occasionally DeSantis would fall silent, and Sacks and Musk carried on without him. Musk might as well have been the candidate—and there is reason to think that, but for the Constitution, he would be.

The Twitter glitches got most of the attention, but what fascinated me were the exchanges between DeSantis, Sacks, Musk, and others. The dialogue not only revealed aspects of DeSantis’s primary strategy. It also clarified some of the animating ideas behind DeSantis’s corner of the New Right. For the contest between former president Donald Trump and DeSantis is not just over who will lead the GOP. It is also a struggle between two concepts of the New Right, pitting the former president’s MAGA populism against the Florida governor’s institutional culture war.

No one needs a lesson in Trump’s impulses and grudges. They have been at the center of our public life for six years. What’s important to recognize is that, despite his personal idiosyncrasies, Trump is an archetypal American figure.

Tribunes of the people have sprung up to rail against the Eastern elites for centuries. Jackson, Bryan, Wallace, Buchanan, Perot, Palin—the list is long. All of them have identified scapegoats, indulged in conspiracy theories, and cultivated personal followings. All of them have spoken in straightforward, declarative language. All of them have drawn huge crowds by telling the dispossessed that social status can be reclaimed by throwing out the corrupt elite and replacing it with the leader’s steady hand. Their nationalism and traditionalism have been leavened by a folk libertarianism that distrusts centralized power and is individualistic and entrepreneurial in spirit.

Populists may criticize institutions as dysfunctional and debased, but they don’t really know what to do with them. Populists are rarely put in charge. When they do find themselves in positions of authority, the result is often confusion and disarray. They possess neither the expertise necessary to manage a bureaucracy nor the professional networks where they might find such expertise. Populists must incorporate parts of the establishment into their government just to make it function. The clash of priorities and interests within this populist-elitist coalition would be difficult to harmonize for any chief executive. If the person in charge is ill-tempered, thrives on conflict, and easily persuaded, problems are made worse.

The populist’s main strength is rhetorical. Trump always is on message, and the message is simple. MAGA, build the wall, lock her up, USA, USA, let’s go Brandon, and the nicknames stick with you. Agreeing or disagreeing with them does not require much reflection. There is no jargon. Nothing is obscure. Everything relates to the binary of Trump is good and non-Trump is bad.

DeSantis is more esoteric than Trump. Listening to him on Twitter Spaces was not easy. First you had to figure out what Twitter Spaces is, then how to log on, then how to get back on when the servers kicked you off. The back-and-forth between DeSantis and Musk was no less complicated. They weren’t talking about how the elite has shipped jobs to China or how the war in Ukraine can be resolved in one day. They were talking about how government, tech platforms, and corporate media work together to suppress freedom and entrench progressivism. I hadn’t heard the word "collude" so much since I last tuned into MSNBC. This wasn’t Russian collusion. It was collusion involving Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden, YouTube, and Twitter’s previous owners.

Musk and DeSantis aren’t fighting Democrats so much as they are fighting the media narratives that Democrats promote to stigmatize the Right and push the country to the left. The latest in this string of narratives is the NAACP "travel advisory" warning African Americans to stay away from Florida. DeSantis rightly knocked it down as condescending drivel. He also pummeled the narrative that he's banning books. Shouldn’t parents have a right to remove pornographic material from school libraries, he asked? What about the progressives banning outright classics of American literature such as Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird? DeSantis went after the "medical authoritarianism" that imposed and maintained lockdowns, social distancing, masking in schools, and vaccine mandates long after these public health measures were revealed to be useless or harmful.

DeSantis's attitude isn't the "LOL nothing matters" or "burn it all down" mentality you find among some MAGA devotees. He isn't anti-institutional. He wants to use the institution he controls—government—to rescue or defang other institutions consumed by wokeness. He came across less as a populist than a shrewd technocrat. The choice of topics highlighted his culture war against progressives. Musk and DeSantis delved into the coronavirus pandemic. They talked about DeSantis’s fight with Disney and his educational reforms. (There was a moment of unintentional hilarity when Musk admitted that he thought DeSantis really did ban books.) Christopher Rufo said that DeSantis was an effective fighter against Critical Race Theory. A radio talk show host asked about the border. Another talked about guns and de-banking. Sacks wanted to know DeSantis's opinions on cryptocurrency.

DeSantis went into details. He brought up the intricacies of college accreditation. He focused on culture and the law, at one point mentioning "Chevron Deference," which most people might assume is a premium gasoline. Trump, by contrast, continues to speak on the level of generality. He emphasizes economics and foreign policy. DeSantis avoided both subjects on Twitter Spaces.

For all the oddity and embarrassment of the launch event, I couldn’t help thinking that it might be a sign of the future. This was the post-2020 Right on display. The events of 2020 radicalized a portion of the New Right and sped up its rejection of politics-as-usual and its embrace of state power. The aftermath of 2020 sent Elon Musk on a journey from Biden voter to staunch Republican.

This is a Right shaped by the government response to the pandemic, by the "mostly peaceful protests" over George Floyd, by the tech suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story. It is a Right that distrusts every word it hears from its left, because it believes official narratives are by nature false. For the post-2020 Right, free speech is more than a political principle. It is a way to tick off the wine moms. It's a rallying cry against institutional arrangements dedicated to American decline.

This Right is more willing to use state power than 20th century conservatives, because it believes the state to be its only remaining leverage against decadent institutions. The key media figures in this post-2020 Right are not Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh, but Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson. Indeed, I half expected Carlson to make a cameo appearance because his worldview is so like Musk’s and DeSantis’s. "This moment is too inherently ridiculous to continue," Carlson said in a statement on Twitter after Fox News Channel canceled his show. "And so it won’t."

Ron DeSantis is betting that he will bring this ridiculous moment to a close. He's betting that his institution-based culture war will prove more attractive to GOP voters than MAGA populism. It’s not just a wager on his own talents. It’s a gamble that 2020 changed the Right as much as the Left—and that Donald Trump belongs to a receding past.