The Florida governor, who won a blowout victory in his reelection bid last week, is not a Republican cut from the Bush-Cheney-Romney cloth. He represents an evolution of Trumpism, a new way of channeling the illiberal populist forces unleashed by the former president’s rise to power in 2016.
His ascendancy as Trump’s principal challenger represents not the return of the GOP establishment, but its adaptation to the insurgency that defeated it six years ago. His model is less John McCain or Mitt Romney, the last two GOP nominees before Trump, than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a leader who, after being elected in 2010, proceeded to use his right-wing populist ideology as a cover for authoritarian power grabs.This is not to say that Trump and DeSantis are identical. In fact, they represent two related but distinct versions of American right-wing populism: Trump its wild id, DeSantis its more calculating and intellectualized ego. If one looks closely at which prominent conservatives and media voices are backing which candidate, these subtle distinctions become clearer — pointing to the different ways that these two figures threaten liberal-democratic norms. These distinctions are real, important, and, as an intellectual matter, quite interesting. But they should not obscure what this matchup really represents. DeSantis versus Trump is not normalcy versus radicalism. It’s American Orbánism versus the berserk.
DeSantis became Trump’s chief rival because of their similarities, not differencesTuesday’s election results, where DeSantis and fellow Florida Republicans won handily while Trump-backed candidates floundered across the country, created the conditions for a clash between the two men. Somewhat ironically, DeSantis owes his current prominence to a Trump endorsement in the last midterm elections. Back then, Ron DeSantis was a Congress member with little national profile, fresh off the heels of an abortive primary challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) . Running for governor in 2018, DeSantis positioned himself as the Trumpy choice in the race — an insurgent challenger aiming to unseat the GOP establishment’s choice, then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. He sought, and received, loud public backing from the president. “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader ... He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!,” Trump tweeted in December 2017. At campaign rallies, DeSantis would . When DeSantis triumphed, despite being , national media covered it as one of several examples of the Trumpian wave sweeping the Republican Party. “Trump strengthens grip on the GOP as Ron DeSantis triumphs in Florida governor primary,” went . It was obvious to most that DeSantis was Trump’s disciple: one of many mini-Trumps around the country, attempting to ride the populist energy that had propelled Trump to the GOP’s commanding heights. DeSantis’s facility for playing the Trumpist game — his seemingly unique ability to be almost more Trumpy than Trump himself — is a key part of why he’s emerged as the former president’s chief rival today. At the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, the Florida governor capitalized on Republican rage against masking, school closures, and restrictions on gathering — keeping Florida as open as he could, positioning the state as what he would later describe as “.” The wisdom of these policies is , even in hindsight: Florida’s approach may indeed have produced a swifter economic recovery, but at the cost of more Covid-19 deaths (particularly among young people). The data on whether the decision to reopen schools earlier helped keep down appears mixed. DeSantis’s stance on vaccination is both more radical and less substantively defensible. After the rollout, he evolved into the highest-profile Republican official — saying that “” when it comes to vaccinating kids under 5, and appointing men under 40 from getting MRNA vaccines. In this, he outflanked even Trump, who has long for vaccine development via Operation Warp Speed. That DeSantis’s Covid approach prompted howls of outrage from liberals and public health officials was a feature, not a bug. The Florida governor, like no other politician, understood a key element of Trump’s success: that Republican voters wanted someone who would “own the libs” as hard and as publicly as possible. The more angry they got, the more Republicans would come to adore him. And his lib-owning was accomplished through , ones as opposed to Trump’s diatribes and angry tweets. In April 2021, one anonymous DeSantis ally described the governor’s approach as “competent Trumpism” in an interview with . DeSantis’s Trumpism, like the original flavor, contained a healthy dose of hostility to basic liberal-democratic norms. After Florida voters passed a ballot initiative in 2018 that would end felon disenfranchisement, DeSantis signed a bill that would in order to vote — a poll tax, in effect, linked to debts that many could not feasibly pay them. In 2020, the that his law would functionally disenfranchise “hundreds of thousands” Floridians. While not explicitly declaring the 2020 election stolen, DeSantis will not condemn “stop the steal” conspiracy theories . He and, on the anniversary of the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack, downplayed its severity and . In advance of the 2022 elections, he allocated over a million dollars in state funds to a dedicated to investigating “voter fraud,” including violations of his pay-to-vote bill. The squad found but may have from showing up at the polls.
When Florida’s state legislature drew fairer election maps for the House in 2022, DeSantis vetoed them — demanding more Republican-tilted maps. He got , delivering a multi-seat rightward swing that could yet make the difference in the exceptionally tight battle for the speaker’s gavel.But nowhere is the Trumpian cast of DeSantis’s politics clearer than in his war on “wokeness,” which has replaced Covid skepticism as his political raison d’etre.
In early 2022, the governor and his allies pushed through that empowers both the state and private citizens to go after schools that teach about LGBTQ identity. This “Don’t Say Gay” law prompted criticism from many sectors of the country, including a high-profile objection from Disney — prompting DeSantis to . He signed a bill to strip the corporation of its special tax status in a 40-square-mile area around Disney World, an explicit act of punishment against the company exercising its speech rights.
The Disney incident, one of many examples of DeSantis’s culture warfare veering , echoed some of Trump’s actions as president. The most notable is Trump’s to block AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner because he hated CNN’s coverage of his campaign and administration.But Trump failed to follow through on such corporate punishment, whereas DeSantis actually made good on his threats (). This is the essence of what DeSantis boosters mean when they talk about “competent Trumpism”: that the governor is equally committed to owning the libs as the former president, but better at actually using power to hurt them. DeSantis, in short, does not represent a sharp break with Trumpian illiberalism. If anything, his rise proves that the GOP has fully internalized its basic premises.
Orbánism versus the berserkBut while DeSantis’s ideology may be an offshoot of the Trump phenomenon, that does not make the two equivalent. In fact, the two men represent different species of right-wing illiberalism.
Trump’s political career has been characterized by what Philip Roth memorably termed “the indigenous American berserk.” Trumpism was less an ideology, replete with doctrines and policy positions, than a political messiah complex: a belief that once given sufficient power to destroy his many enemies. On the basis of this appeal, the former president built up a fanatical group of supporters — including a very literal cult of personality — that the Republican establishment has proven unable to pry from his hands. He had the juice to convince thousands to charge the barricades on January 6, a level of violent devotion without compare in the modern history of American politics.Trumpism’s berserk nature rendered it ineffectual as a governing doctrine, a reflection of its namesake’s well-known disinterest in policy details and implementation. But it also made Trumpism unpredictable, capable of threatening the norms of American politics in ways few thought possible. The January 6 insurrection is of course the most vivid example, as is the entire election-denying project that underpinned it: both were frontal assaults on the way of doing things in American politics. Trump’s value proposition in 2024 is that only he can harness the energy of the berserk for the Republican Party. He promises not only a continued fixation on the 2020 election, but a continued war on the legitimacy of any important election won by a Democrat. Trump’s behavior in the past week — where he has claimed that Democrats elections in Nevada and Arizona — shows that past is prologue. A Trump candidacy in 2024 means more chaos: a crisis of election legitimacy if he loses, a if he wins. While DeSantis has shown no interest in confronting Trump’s most chaotic outbursts, he doesn’t really seem to mimic them either. His style is less warfare than lawfare: destroying his enemies not through violence and public humiliation but by wielding policy as a weapon in culture wars.
In this, DeSantis resembles no one more than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán, a lawyer by training, has developed a model of authoritarianism as subtle as it is effective. He has managed to politicize virtually every element of governance to tighten his hold on power, creating a political environment where the opposition is on such an uneven playing field that he has no need to abolish elections or even stuff ballot boxes. Orbán’s power grabs are often justified in culture-war terms: necessary steps to control the cultural and financial hegemony of the international left. This cultural appeal helps him to retain genuine popularity among a significant segment of the Hungarian electorate, something that DeSantis can also claim of the Florida voting public.
The Florida governor has also demonstrated a strikingly similar interest in using culture-war policy fights to assail the sources of his opponents’ political strength, on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to higher education to social media policy. In fact, there’s some evidence that DeSantis’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill was modeled, at least in part, on a Hungarian policy limiting LGBTQ free expression rights.In Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth warned that DeSantis’s governing record in Florida resembles some steps that “electoral authoritarians” like Orbán use to consolidate power. Chenoweth is most concerned by the efforts to disenfranchise felons and crack down on “voter fraud,” but notes a number of other troubling examples:
DeSantis also signed a law that aggressively restricts the ability of people to submit others’ absentee ballots, which upended long-standing community organizations’ efforts to make it easier for working people and people with disabilities to vote. Along with partisan redistricting that dramatically reduces competition and representation, limits on expression in public schools, harsh penalties for various forms of protest, and trafficking immigrants as a political stunt with impunity, for example, we can see the hallmarks of electoral authoritarianism.The comparison to Hungary is not mere liberal slander. Rod Dreher, a prominent conservative pundit and one of Orbán’s biggest stateside fans, has “maybe Florida is becoming our American Hungary.” Not coincidentally, Dreher that “DeSantis’s smashing Florida victory last night makes him the head of the conservative movement.” In this, Dreher is speaking for a broad swath of so-called “national conservative” or “New Right” intellectuals: the pundits and academics who have dedicated themselves to theorizing a new kind of American conservatism compatible with the populist sentiment unleashed by Trump. This corner of the right, where the culture war is paramount and Orbán is seen as a model, believes DeSantis better embodies the qualities they admired in Trump. “DeSantis knows how to fight the culture war as media combat, but more importantly, he knows how to fight the culture war as public policy,” , the New Right’s leading activist, wrote last Wednesday. “He lays out the agenda, passes the legislation, and governs the state. Substance is ultimately more important than style.” Others took less subtle digs at the Donald after the election. “I would vastly prefer unity right now over in-fighting and sniping. But that’s up to Trump. If he continues his ego-driven meltdown, he’ll drag the whole movement into this shit and nobody comes out better for it,” , referring to Trump’s tirade against DeSantis in the wake of his midterm victory. The contrast with Trump’s post-midterm defenders is instructive. One of the most notable has been Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Congress member who became famous for controversial statements and a . Gaetz is a showman who revels in the Trumpian berserk; chaos is where he thrives. His case for Trump, laid out in a November 9 , implicitly argues that elevating his state’s governor over Trump would be a concession to the Washington elite:
Just look at who is lined up against Trump already in the 2024 primary. It’s folks like Paul Ryan or billionaire mega-donor Ken Griffin, who is planning to back a Trump challenge. Politico Griffin “wants to … blunt the vein of populism that has complicated the party’s relationship with the corporate world.” This is why a Trump 2024 run is so necessary. We know that he will continue to disrupt and serve the people against the Swamp. ... We would be giving up by not having Trump as the Republican nominee in 2024. It would be a reward to the scumbags on the January 6 Committee and all of those who are aligned against our movement.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), an even more authentically berserk figure, argued that “losing a strong Republican governor early [because] consultants who make a fortune from campaigns are urging them to run for president, hurts our country overall.” In her thread, she specifically name-checks Florida as “keeping [the governor] in place.”The substance of the arguments for Trump or DeSantis is in some ways less revealing than the identity of the advocates themselves. On the one hand, you have those on the right who dream of Budapest on the Potomac; on the other, congressional bomb-throwers who enjoy nothing more than battling the left under the ring lights. Each represents a different vision of how to challenge the American political status quo, to pull it in a more illiberal and less democratic direction.
Elements of this radicalism have always been a part of the conservative movement. Prior to Trump, there was a sense among many that the “responsible” elite could prevent things from going too far.That they are now backing a figure as illiberal as DeSantis proves that this guardrail has completely fallen off — if it was ever in place to begin with.