Can Ron DeSantis Out-Populist Donald Trump to Win the White House?
Can Ron DeSantis Out-Populist Donald Trump to Win the GOP Nomination?
BU populism scholar Rachel Meade says the Florida governor is “less populist than Trump, but more so than the typical Republican,” and may struggle to woo MAGA voters
In an announcement as surprising as sunshine in Florida, the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, unveiled his long-teased candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday. The only unforeseen aspect came from technical glitches at the start of a Twitter conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk.
The question now obsessing pundits is whether DeSantis’ stream of Florida legislative victories can overcome the GOP’s allegiance to a certain former president and his disdain for the man he calls “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
In his first term as governor, and especially in the months since his landslide reelection last November, DeSantis has tried to position himself as the Republican who will most aggressively insert himself into the nation’s culture wars. Assisted by a Republican supermajority, he enacted laws banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, allowing permit-less concealed carrying of guns, and outlawing education about sexual orientation and gender identity through the fourth grade. He has prohibited diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state colleges and requirements that teachers and students use pronouns that don’t correspond with a person’s birth sex. And he even punched Mickey Mouse, by tightening state regulation of Walt Disney World in Orlando after the company criticized his sexuality instruction ban, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics.
DeSantis is offering this record as rationale for Republicans to nominate him to take on President Biden, over GOP front-runner Donald Trump. But can DeSantis win, when polls have shown that majorities or pluralities of Americans disagree with him on many of these issues? Does he comfortably fit into Trump’s populist, MAGA movement? Hours after DeSantis launched his campaign, BU Today spoke with Rachel Meade, a lecturer in political science at the College of Arts & Sciences who studies populism in politics, about where DeSantis fits in the political and cultural landscape.
BU Today: How does DeSantis fit into populism?
Rachel Meade: DeSantis is not particularly populist, according to many common understandings of populism. He is not very charismatic, nor does he use the kind of everyday or politically incorrect language that is often associated with populist appeals to the people. Populists also usually have strong relationships with grassroots social movements, who they communicate with in direct and informal ways, as Trump does in his rally appearances.
I think he is less populist than Trump, but more so than the typical Republican. And he is clearly trying to present as populist. I just think he is mostly, though not entirely, unsuccessful. His rhetoric on woke corporations, schools, and media strikes a populist tone. He is attempting, with some level of success, to pick up the mantle of preexisting populist social movements, like the anti-lockdown, parental rights/anti-critical race theory movement, and the broader sentiments and frustrations with a perception of anti-free speech censorship. Still, I think the arguments against him being truly populist and picking up that MAGA base are stronger.
Fully populist appeals clearly designate an elite and institutional target, and usually have an economic component, whereas his anti-woke narrative remains mostly a cultural critique and doesn’t clearly connect to people’s broader economic concerns. In addition, his style often sounds very technocratic and jargon-y, which was very notable in his campaign launch speech on Twitter.
BU Today: Critics say DeSantis embodies a slicker form of Trump’s authoritarianism. Would a DeSantis presidency threaten democracy?
The harms of a Trump presidency are clear, most notably in 2020 election denialism and the “Stop the Steal” movement. While DeSantis seems less likely to embrace election denialism and has steered clear of those aspects of Trumpism, it’s still hard to say whether DeSantis would be better or worse when it comes to concerns about authoritarianism. He has proved a much more effective policymaker and navigator of bureaucracy when you look at the many anti-[critical race theory] and anti-trans policies passed across a range of Florida institutions, and how he coordinates with conservative activists across the states. This could potentially mean that he might be more effective in following through with policies to match his promises, which is something Trump often failed to do. Where those promises would seek to undermine democratic institutions or erode checks and balances, this could pose a threat.
BU Today: Political pundits—who, as we know, are often wrong—suggest that DeSantis makes a formidable contender for the GOP nomination, but a likely loser in November 2024, given a general electorate that’s queasy with his book bans, abortion stance, and assault on Disney.
I hesitate to make any kind of prediction, since Americans are so surprising—which is what makes studying public opinion so interesting! But I would tentatively say that with Trump in the race, it does seem like a long shot for him, as he faces attacks from die-hard MAGAs, “Never Trumpers,” and fired-up opposition from liberals and identity groups based on his anti-woke policies. His position in the race is also complicated in that he is trying to present himself as a more grown-up or responsible version of MAGA populism, even though part of the appeal of Trump is actually his transgressive nature and feeling of authenticity.
“I think he is less populist than Trump, but more so than the typical Republican. And he is clearly trying to present as populist.”
BU Today: He has secured passage of a wide range of culturally conservative bills in Florida. Is he the most successful populist governor in the United States?
I’m not convinced he is a fully populist governor, but he may well be the most successful and notable current Republican governor. I do think he’s made an impact in Florida policy, which has resonated with a portion of the Republican electorate. In particular, many conservatives and others became more politicized during COVID-19 out of opposition to federal and local COVID policies, public health communications, media rhetoric, and social media platform policies—all of which were seen to be silencing the voices of those who disagreed with COVID orthodoxy. DeSantis very effectively presented Florida as a beacon for COVID freedom, by advertising that schools and businesses were open there. He capitalized on the growing discontent with COVID policy and the anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and reopen social movements, whose roots can now be seen in the parental rights school movements that DeSantis has also taken up.
BU Today: Does his choice of a Twitter livestream to announce his candidacy suggest a tactical savvy about campaigning in the 21st century? Or rather his appeal to an audience that is unlike the general electorate?
Direct, unmediated communication with the people, through social media platforms, livestreaming, or rallies, is a major feature of populist leadership style, so I would say this was at least an attempt to present himself as a populist champion of the people. Elon Musk has been trying to rebrand Twitter as an adversary of ideologically liberal norms of speech and a defender of free speech and political correctness, all of which fits with DeSantis’ anti-woke brand. Yet truly populist communications involve more than a politician just delivering information on a social media platform. In my view, populist communication in the digital realm has to include some level of reciprocity and interaction with constituents that goes beyond top-down communication.
With this higher bar, I would judge this to be an unsuccessful attempt at populist communication. Twitter itself is not the platform one might go to in order to present as a real man of the people, being mostly full of journalists, politicians, and highly engaged and educated news junkies. Even with Elon’s attempted rebranding of the platform as a free speech haven for censored conservatives and others, this can’t make up for the splintering of conservative social media, with Trump’s die-hard supporters with him on Truth Social, as well as competition from other conservative and free speech–branded platforms like Rumble.
I am very uncomfortable with the use of the term populist for Trump, DeSantis, or the rest of the Republican party. Populism has ambiguous connotations, some of which can be seen as positive.
Populism also usually has an anti-corporate component, which is not at all a part of the MAGA-ist agenda. This group of politicians strike me as an updated version of the segregationists of the 50s and 60s in the face of the civil rights movement, though their targets now also extend to LGBTQ persons and immigrants.
This is much more about authoritarianism than populism. I realize there is an overlap between the two, but I think it’s misleading and inappropiately normalizing to refer to these politicians as populist.
Questions like “Would a DeSantis presidency threaten democracy?” are the traditional “loaded question” (the other favorite being “when did you stop beating your wife?”).
DeSantis is a strong, reasonable and well-considered candidate who appeals the across the political spectrum, even if he has taken some more traditionally right-wing stances on hot-button issues like abortion.
Why not let the public judge him by his record?