Conservative NY Times columnist Ross Douthat reassured right-wing populists that although Putin's savagery in Ukraine has hurt their cause, it isn't a fatal blow. After all, he wrote, "The Ukrainian fighters everyone so admires are clearly fighting more for nationalism than for liberalism, and some aren’t fighting for liberal ideals at all. The European country arguably doing the most to assist them is Poland, until yesterday the bête noire of Western liberalism for its nationalist and socially conservative government."
But sure, He acknowledges that "there is the embarrassment involved for every populist leader, European or American, who has either offered kind words for Putin or at least held him up as an adversary whose statecraft runs circles around our own incompetent elites. Such flirtations have now largely ended in backpedaling and reversal, forcing populists to choose between self-marginalization and a shameless pivot. Which is to say: Don’t be surprised if Donald Trump somehow evolves into the biggest Russia hawk you’ve ever seen come 2024.The more damaging blow, though, is the indirect one, the way the Ukraine invasion has revealed how uncertain and at sea the populist instinct becomes when it’s confronted with an adversary that doesn’t fit easily into its focus on internal Western corruption, its narratives of elite perfidy and folly."
Amid all this flailing, the Republican Party, the main vehicle for populism, seems to be returning to its pre-Trump instincts. Throughout Trump’s presidency there was a basic uncertainty about what populism stands for in foreign policy. Retrenchment and isolationism or a new cold war with China? Leaving NATO entirely versus strengthening the alliance by forcing its members to pay up? Fighting fewer wars or taking the gloves off? Pat Buchanan or John Bolton?
Now, though, if you look at polls of Republican voters or listen to GOP politicians, what you see is mostly a reversion to straightforward hawkishness, to a view that the Biden White House probably isn’t being confrontational enough-- which is to say, to where the party stood before the Trump rebellion happened.
...[I]t’s reckless for liberals to declare victory based on shifts in the international order while simply waving domestic discontents away. Populism’s poor fit for this particular moment has given an opportunity to its enemies and critics. But they will squander the opportunity if they convince themselves that the external challenge has somehow made the internal crisis go away.
And that brings us to another Times columnist, Thomas Edsall, who decided to take a look at a populist politician who is pretty general seen as Trump-but-with-a-brain. Edsall noted that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has no core beliefs and is entirely driven by the politics of naked ambition, "is giving Donald Trump a run for his money as the most divisive politician in America. 'We want people that are going to fight the left, and that’s what we need to do in this country,' DeSantis declared in an interview with Fox News on Feb. 8. 'That’s what we’re doing in Florida, standing up for people’s freedoms. We’re opposing wokeness. We’re opposing all these things.'"
Richard Lowry, the editor of the far right National Review considers DeSantis "the voice of the new Republican Party," [a politician who] "opens up a vista offering an important element of Trumpism without the baggage or selfishness of Trump." Most polling I've seen shows that without Trump on the primary ballot-- which is likely-- DeSantis will be the 2024 Republican nominee. Edsall asked a handful of Democratic strategists which 2024 Republican potential candidate worried them most, Trump, DeSantis or Tom Cotton.
Paul Begala, a national Democratic strategist, argued by email that
DeSantis seems to be the furthest down the track on replicating Trump’s politics of grievance and bullying. For a great many Republicans, politics is no longer about allocating resources in the wisest, most equitable way. It is instead about “owning the libs.”
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, compares DeSantis to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and finds both men disturbing. “DeSantis and Cotton are dangerous because they are both true-believer ideologues who would be smarter and more disciplined than Trump about using the levers of power to push their right-wing agendas,” Garin wrote by email, before adding:
Each of them are lacking in personal charm and I don’t think voters would find either one to be particularly likable or relatable over the course of a long presidential campaign. DeSantis’s meanness in particular could come back to haunt him in a national campaign.
DeSantis relishes using the state to enforce his aggressive social agenda and has consistently plotted a hard-right course on issues from critical race theory to transgender rights.
For example, DeSantis sponsored and pushed through the legislature the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act”-- or the Stop Woke Act for short-- which now awaits his signature.
The legislation, Florida HB 7, bans teaching critical race theory that suggests that
A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.
A second bill, the Parental Rights in Education Act, HB 1557, which opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” is also on DeSantis’s desk for his signature. The measure reads:
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
...DeSantis has capitalized on Florida’s outdoor culture to become the nation’s leading opponent of mask mandates and lockdowns of schools and businesses, including a May 3, 2021, executive order declaring:
In order to protect the rights and liberties of individuals in this State and to accelerate the State’s recovery from the Covid-19 emergency, any emergency order issued by a political subdivision due to the Covid-19 emergency which restricts the rights or liberties of individuals or their businesses is invalidated.
For DeSantis, the pandemic offered the opportunity to distinguish himself from Trump. In January, Jonathan Chait described his strategy in New York magazine:
Where Trump was tiptoeing around vaccine skepticism, DeSantis jumped in with both feet, banning private companies like cruise lines from requiring vaccination, appointing a vaccine skeptic to his state’s highest office, and refusing to say if he’s gotten his booster dose.
DeSantis “may or may not actually be more delusional on Covid than Donald Trump,” Chait wrote, “but it is a revealing commentary on the state of their party that he sees his best chance to supplant Trump as positioning himself as even crazier.”
Michael Tomasky, editor of the New Republic, has a similar take on the Trump-DeSantis Covid feud, writing on Jan. 18:
What’s suddenly intriguing is that DeSantis has decided to try to outflank Trump, to out-Trump Trump, in terms of his hard-trolling of the libs on the vaccine question. And it’s Trump —Donald Trump!-- who is playing the role of civilizing, normalizing truth teller.
Politically speaking, however, DeSantis’s stance on Covid policy, together with his culture war agenda, has been a success. His favorability ratings have soared and in the third quarter of 2021, the most recent data available, Florida’s gross domestic product grew by 3.8 percent, third fastest in the nation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, behind Hawaii and Delaware.
DeSantis’s aggressive posture and threats to bring legal action have created anxiety about retribution in some quarters. In January, for example, Dr. Raul Pino, the administrator for the Florida Department of Health’s office in Orange County, wrote his staff to say that only 77 of 558 staff members had received a Covid-19 booster, 219 had two doses of the vaccine and 34 had only one dose, according to reporting by my colleague Patricia Mazzei in The Times. “I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated,” Dr. Pino added. He went on: “We have been at this for two years, we were the first to give vaccines to the masses, we have done more than 300,000 and we are not even at 50 percent. Pathetic.”
Shortly afterward, Pino was put on administrative leave for a month. Jeremy T. Redfern, the press secretary for the Department of Health, said when the leave of absence was announced that the department was “conducting an inquiry to determine if any laws were broken in this case.” Redfern said in a statement that the decision to get vaccinated “is a personal medical choice that should be made free from coercion and mandates from employers.”
This and other similar developments have certainly not hurt DeSantis’s poll numbers. The latest survey released on Feb. 24 by Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida found not only that “of the elected officials on this survey, Governor Ron DeSantis had the highest job approval rating at 58 percent, with 37 percent disapproval,” but also that Florida Republicans preferred DeSantis over Trump 44-41 as their presidential nominee.
John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist who previously worked for the party’s House leaders, argues that DeSantis is
attuned to the libertarian impulses of an electorate that simply doesn’t trust the conventional wisdom coming out of Washington. DeSantis also seems willing to court cultural conservatives in ways that most Washington politicians don’t, like with the sex education bill that he signed. DeSantis also seems willing to take on big corporations for their wokeness, a potent issue among the GOP base.
...In one fund-raising solicitation, DeSantis warns of “cultural Marxism,” according to the website Florida Politics, telling prospective donors: “We delivered on a promise to the people of Florida by banning critical race theory. This ‘curriculum’ of hate and divisiveness has no place in society, let alone our schools. Critical race theory indoctrinates our children and teaches them to judge each other as ‘oppressors,’ ‘inherent racists’ and ‘victims.’”
A second DeSantis fund-raising letter reads: “Joe Biden might want Governor DeSantis to get out of the way so he can impose his radical agenda, but Governor DeSantis will not kowtow to authoritarian bullying from Joe Biden or anyone else.”
Not only do these themes stand ready for use in a presidential bid, but their very pugnacity suggests that Trump may want to reconsider his provocative bullying strategy when it comes to DeSantis.
DeSantis has a wide range of options. He has positioned himself as a leading 2024 presidential candidate if Trump falters. If Trump does run and looks unbeatable in the race for the nomination, DeSantis can hold back and wait until 2028, when he will be 50-- the prime of life for a presidential candidate.
For National Review's Charles Cooke, the very idea of nominating Trump again is "absurd, risible, farcical, outré. It should be a punchline, a mania, the preserve of the demented fringe." That sounds accurate. He adds that "Trump is an extraordinarily selfish man, and he is only too happy to subordinate your interests to his own. Why let him? It is one thing to say, 'Well, he may have been a fickle boor, but I liked some of what he did once he was in office'; it’s quite another to put yourself through four more years of the man when you don’t have to. Whatever justification there may have been for picking the 'lesser of two evils' in the 2016 or 2020 general election-- a justification that was a great deal stronger before Trump refused to accept, and then tried to overturn, the results of the latter-- it cannot obtain in 2022... The man lost. He’s a loser. It’s time we picked a winner for a change."
He went on to write favorably of a whole handful of fascists, from governors DeSantis, Kim Reynolds and Greg Abbott to godawful senators Tim Scott and Marco Rubio. At least he didn't mention Ted Cruz, Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Traitor Greene or Kristi Noem!