DeSantis v. Trump: More Polish, Less Bombast, Same Threat to Democracy?

tags: conservatism, Florida, democracy, voting rights, Ron DeSantis

Annika Brockschmidt is a freelance journalist, author, a podcast-producer who currently writes for the Tagesspiegel, ZEIT Online and elsewhere. Her second non-fiction book America's Holy Warriors: How the Religious Right endangers Democracy was published in German in October 2021 and was an immediate bestseller. She co-hosts the podcast "Kreuz und Flagge" ("Cross and Flag") with visiting professor at Georgetown University, Thomas Zimmer, which explores the history of the Religious Right.

The midterms proved an abysmal disappointment for the Republican Party. Instead of the promised red tsunami, it was more of what many are calling a red ripple. Instead of winning the House by a large margin, they appear to have just scraped by—and have failed to gain control of the senate. However, there is one person who has emerged as the triumphant winner from this otherwise extremely underwhelming election night for Republicans: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.  

And while the Democrats’ surprisingly strong performance has bought American democracy some time, it doesn’t mean that the Right’s attack on democracy is over just because Republicans have become—at least privately—increasingly disgruntled with Trump. And herein lies the danger of DeSantis becoming Trump’s successor, or even being lauded by Never Trumpers and some media outlets as a less authoritarian version of Trump whose rise indicates a return to normal, a return to the “real” Republican Party. 

This view is based on the assumption that Trump was a bug, not a feature of American conservatism; that he’s a freakish aberration and not the result of a decades-long fostering of an increasingly anti-democratic and aggressive base. It fails to account for the fact that the American Right is, at its core, a project of minority rule, and has been for a long time. 

The views within the movement of how this minority rule should look might differ—with some, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, dreaming of executing her political enemies, and others supporting a heavily restricted form of something that looks like democracy on the surface, but keeps marginalized people in check and old power hierarchies in place through voter suppression and gerrymandering.

DeSantis is a chance for the GOP to win back people like Conor Friedersdorf, the right-leaning libertarian writer at the Atlantic, who already seems quite comfortable with the idea of DeSantis:  

“DeSantis frustrates and disappoints me within normal parameters. He hasn’t yet frightened me, as Trump does, as being superlatively incompetent, divisive, morally degenerate, or authoritarian.”

The reasoning is often completely untethered from reality. Friedersdorf wrote in October 2021: 

“(DeSantis) remains a plausibly acceptable candidate for anti-Trump conservatives, in part because winning narrowly in a purple state has all but forced him to moderate his populism.” 

I’m not sure in which world DeSantis threatening companies with state sanctions, should they take a stand against his discriminatory policies, passing anti-LGBTQ legislation and policing what universities and schools teach—again, threatening repercussions through use of state power—is a “moderate” form of “populism.” 

Read entire article at Religion Dispatches