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How Do You Solve A Problem Like DeSantis?
The question isn't whether you mock or fear the corny, vainglorious authoritarians; it's what alternative we offer
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Also: I don’t normally do bonus Thursday afternoon/evening posts, but this week there was a topic I couldn’t get out of my mind, so I thought I’d share a few words before it fully disappeared from the news cycle. And yes, for those regular readers who are wondering “hey, if you had the energy to write this, that means recovery from Tuesday’s surgery went all right?” thanks for asking: Yes!
You know what I can’t stop thinking about, in regards to last night’s botched Ron DeSantis campaign launch? That one that appeared to be brought to you by Twitter Spaces and a single 2005 Dell Computer?
I can’t stop thinking about all the back stage fuming. Can’t you just imagine the directionless rage, the petulant flailing of helium-filled egos temporarily deflated? Can’t you just picture all of the junior level staffers pretending be captivated by untouched deli trays, desperately trying to avoid notice? Can’t you just feel the thickness of the air in whatever powerfully charmless office suite was unlucky enough to host the man that would be President? I mean, there’s no way that Ron DeSantis kept himself composed. Here is a man— unique even among politicians for his megalomania and belief in his own personal manifest destiny— and his official campaign launch was a dial-up Internet tech disaster. There is absolutely zero chance that he didn’t spend the entire evening behaving like an emasculated toddler.
I haven’t been imagining DeSantis’ backstage tantrums with any sense of schaudenfraude. I don’t wish abusive boss behavior upon anybody, even those who choose to work for authoritarians. If anybody reading this has ever had to deal with an enfant terrible male authority figure, you know full well that the fewer rooms presided over by men who make their foibles your problem, the better.
I’m assuming Ron DeSantis fumed when his Twitter Spaces broke because, like most of us, I have experienced Ron DeSantis’ public presentation of himself: smug, cruel, careerist, bullying. I have seen him attack women, trans, and queer people. I have seem him take over colleges and trick migrants into getting onto airplanes simply because doing so might advance his dead-eyed political aspirations. I have even seen him pull the most annoying bullying move of all— prodding you and then denying he did anything. “Nuh uh,” says his sign “I didn’t ban your books…. why can’t you take a joke?”
I also assume that DeSantis fumed last night because I recently read his biography, The Courage To Be Free. I have read multiple biographies of either declared or potential Republican Presidential candidates. No, I don’t have great reasons for doing so, but once you’re down the rabbit hole it’s hard to come out. The Courage To Be Free is notable even in this cursed, deliberately-sanded-down genre for a simple reason: It is by far the most uninteresting book I’ve ever read. It’s impressive actually, because it’s clear that it desperately wants to be uninteresting, that banality is its goal. To be interesting, you see, would be to be human.
I mean, consider, for a second, the shape of your life. Think of all the twists and turns it’s taken— the moments of transcendence and regret, the valleys of self-conscious doubt and isolation and the peaks of acceptance and love. It’s a messy story, of course, but a deeply fascinating one. Now, imagine if all of that texture was wiped away. What if all the key characters in your life— your own parents, for example— were also largely removed from the narrative? In fact, what if you eliminated every element of your story except for the details you thought were most likely to (a). make you sound extremely smart, successful and competent and (b). most endear you to a micro-targeted group of Republican primary voters?
It is only after marching your life story through that particular set of life-and-humanity-denying erasures that you’d arrive at something resembling The Courage To Be Free.
I can’t quite describe the experience of reading Ron DeSantis’ book. Is it funny, in an unintentionally self-parodic way? I suppose. There is something comedically impressive about the lengths to which lifelong-striver DeSantis goes in order to explain why his matriculation to Yale was evidence not that he is a striving apple polisher but instead that he, The People’s Floridian, can walk into the elite belly of the beast and come out unscathed.
Thank God they didn’t wokify him on his very first day. And to think that he was wearing shorts and flip-flops. The elites no doubt attacked him mercilessly for being a real American, whom they hate. I bet they were wearing, um… whatever shoes elites wear. Pronoun-requesting loafers? Critical Race Sneakers? Regardless, Ron, God speed.
That summer electrician’s assistant gig, by the way, which by all accounts is the only working class-adjacent job DeSantis ever held, receives more attention in Courage To Be Free than any actual facts about DeSantis’ family other than that he has relatives in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Again, this book exists for one reason and one reason only. The Courage To Only Tell You Precisely The Facts About Myself That I Believe Will Most Appeal To Older, Rust-Belt White Republicans Who My Campaign Team Assures Me Will Be Particularly Well-Represented In Early Primary States.
The main impression that I got from reading Courage To Be Free, though, is that this is a man who wants you to believe that he has never truly experienced any real human sentiment or vulnerability. His description of first meeting his wife Casey— who by all accounts is a communications and political mastermind whose ambition for the broader DeSantis project equals his— has all the spark and warmth of a mergers and acquisitions report.
Some day, my hope for you is that somebody loves you enough to describe your classy golf attire and your clubhead speed. If you’re truly lucky, they’ll also immediately pivot to complimenting themselves for having the bravery to speak to you.
Here’s what else Ron loved about Casey:
I too am impressed by a potential partner who possesses specific biographical details that may, if deployed on the campaign trail, counteract my opponent’s appeal to his core base.
There’s no mystery to Ron DeSantis’ presentation of himself, because he doesn't want there to be any mystery. His pitch is that the world is indeed scary and imperfect but that he is not. He speaks to his supporters— disproportionally but not completely White, definitely not solely male— and promises them a pure, perfect protector. He pretends to have never failed, to have never doubted, to have never felt fear.
This is not a new appeal, of course. And the fact that he is an awkward, literally pudding-fingered messenger doesn’t make it any less dangerous. It is the classic strongman pitch. It’s Mussolini and Orbán. It’s Trump if Trump knew how to conceal his obvious ocean-deep need for validation. And we are about to hear a whole lot of it. Make no mistake about it, thanks both to Trump and DeSantis, the American rhetorical landscape is about to be carved up into haves (those for whom DeSantis and Trump purport to be fighting) and have nots (the elites, who are defined primarily as trans people who need to use an airport restroom, K-12 librarians, public health officials, and anybody who might ever require OB-GYN services).
Trump won in 2016 even though he, like DeSantis now, launched his campaign by stepping on a million rakes. He won for the reason why the strongman often wins— not just because of racism or patriarchy or heterosexism, though of course that’s the omnipresent table-setting that allows authoritarianism to prosper. He won because the world is extremely alienating and scary and all of us have deep insecurities about whether we’re doing well enough to survive. Some of that is material. Some of that is psychological. Some of that is part of being human, period. Some of it is unique to being alive in a precarious, inequitable, ecologically unsustainable 2023 America. But it’s all real. And we can tsk tsk whether or not it’s allowed to be true for folks with relative privilege— White people, men, the wealthy— but that tsk tsking doesn’t make it less so.
There will be a lot of talk about whether DeSantis or Trump are to be mocked or feared by the left. The side that argues for mocking them both will point to, well, how easy it is to do so. Just look at that campaign launch! Look at how easily even dumb old Donald Trump is able to slice through the DeSantis facade. The side that argues for fearing them, meanwhile, will point to the mistakes of 2016 and some version of “not taking Trump seriously.” They will point out that DeSantis and Trump shouldn’t be mocked because of the collateral damage of their rhetoric and policies.
I see both sides, but I also think that the debate misses the point.
I don’t actually care all that much how the left “responds” to Trump or DeSantis. What I care about much more is whether we understand why people turn to hollow cries of “I am perfect and I will protect you.” And by “people” I don’t mean merely whomever I might imagine to be the Trump or DeSantis’ base. I mean all of us. I mean a nation that has never benefited from a full social safety net, whose lives and livelihoods are at the whim of corporations, who have recently experienced an intensely destabilizing public health emergency that we are too traumatized to even fully acknowledge, whose bridges and roads are crumbling, whose summers have grown hotter and whose winters have grown more dangerous.
I recognize that this election will eventually come down to a Republican vs. Joe Biden. I honestly don’t know how well the Biden-Harris wing of the Democratic Party will perform at the crucial task of this moment. I don’t know whether they’re capable of acknowledging our shared isolation and vulnerability and offering better solutions than the authoritarians. I truly hope they do so. Of course I do.
But what I also know is that in the meantime, stopping authoritarianism starts at home. It’s not about how closely you follow every single twist and turn of the Republican primary. It’s in how many of your neighbors you know. It’s in whether or not you’re helping your community become a place where more people’s needs are met. It’s about whether your life is becoming more rather than less connected to those around you. And of course, it’s about whether we are especially prepared to stand by and with those who are most targeted and impacted by authoritarian attacks.
Last night’s launch didn't go well for DeSantis. He likely fumed. He definitely didn’t look cool or impressive. But that means nothing moving forward. He and Trump will continue to make the same appeal. Regardless of how clumsily it continues to be delivered, it will be deeply resonant for millions of Americans. In response, we have a choice. Will we merely be distracted by the side-show of our two would-be Emperors battling it out with one another? Or will we understand that strongman appeals only work in a lonely society, and that we always have the choice to make it a little less lonely?