On Friday the NY Times assigned a top political reporter, Michael Bender, to cover Ron DeSantis’ visit to Iowa, billed as a stop on his book tour, but actually a trip to work on his still unannounced presidential campaign. Bender found his interactions with people as uncomfortable and stilted as has been previously reported. “His preference for policy over personality can make him seem awkward and arrogant… As DeSantis decides whether to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, one of the biggest questions facing the 44-year-old Floridian is his ability to connect with voters who have had little exposure to him outside his home state… DeSantis seems determined to keep an arm’s-length distance as he introduces himself to voters.”
On Thursday, Peggy Noonan, once Ronald Reagan’s top speechwriter, used her Wall Street Journal column to paint a very positive picture of DeSantis. After going through his bona fides, she noted that “it isn’t just Trump trying to take him down. A prospective competitor called recently to share his thoughts: ‘DeSantis is a cheap imitation of Trump, it’s Fox News soundbites and cowboy boots with 2-inch heels.’ Others retail the gossip that he’s ‘on the spectrum.’”
I don’t think normal people have more than an impression: a blank face sitting behind a square desk signing bills. Often he is surrounded, sometimes oddly, by grade-school children. You imagine one of the 8-year-olds announcing somberly to the press, “We agwee— we’re too young to hear about gender fwooidity.”
He’s tough, unadorned, and carries a vibe, as I’ve said, that he might unplug your life support to re-charge his cellphone. His supporters shrug: “He’s not warm and cuddly.” I don’t think voters are looking for warm and cuddly, but they do want even-keeled— a normal man or woman who’s a leader, who has guts and a vision of where the country needs to go.
As I watched the Reagan Library speech I thought: This candidacy is going to have power. He wasn’t inspired or eloquent but plain-spoken and brisk; his address was workmanlike, from notes, but all together it packed a punch.
…I don’t think he’s running as Trump without the psychopathology, I think he’s running as a serious, forward-leaning, pro-business, antiwoke conservative with populist inflections.
His strategy now: Draw as much from the Trump quadrant as possible, slowly try to leach him of support. One thing about Trump supporters is you win their respect if you speak of things in a “no going back” way. When Trump, in his 2015 announcement, spoke of illegal immigrants as rapists and drug smugglers, those giving him a hearing didn’t roar because they literally think all illegal immigrants are rapists and drug smugglers. They roared because they knew there was no going back from language like that. It meant he really would try to control the border.
The focus on wokeness is DeSantis’s illegal immigration. He wants to own the issue in the Republican field and, as the year gets deeper, move on from there.
A political veteran present before and after the library speech found DeSantis impressive but saw a weakness: “He’s on ‘broadcast’ almost all of the time, not ‘receive.’ ” He likes to talk. He makes eye contact, there’s back-and-forth. “But my sense is that he’s thinking about what he’s next going to tell you, not what you’re going to ask.” Still, in the end the veteran sensed something electric. “You know that feeling you get when you’re in a room and it’s obvious to every person in that room, from 10 people to 5,000, that ‘No kidding, this guy really could be a president’? He’s got it.”
Noonan is still an unrepentant right-winger. Tom Nichols describes himself as a #NeverTrump conservative. He said he hated Clinton but voted for her because Trump was “too mentally unstable.” He’s not a Democrat but he quit the GOP entirely in 2018. He’s nothing like Peggy Noonan. Thursday he used his Atlantic column to castigate elitists, but the people Noonan and DeSantis decry as elitists. “No one,” he wrote, “hates ordinary people like the Republicans and their media enablers do”— The Ugly Elitism Of The American Right. The Fox personalities, “for all their populist bloviation, are actually titanic elitists. This is not the elitism of those who think they are smarter or more capable than others— I’ll get to that in a moment— but a new and gruesome elitism of the American right, a kind of hatred and disgust on the part of right-wing media and political leaders for the people they claim to love and defend. Greed and cynicism and moral poverty can explain only so much of what we’ve learned about Fox; what the Dominion filings show is a staggering, dehumanizing version of elitism among people who have made a living by presenting themselves as the only truth-tellers who can be trusted by ordinary Americans.”
He explained that the American right “now uses elitist to mean ‘people who think they’re better than me because they live and work and play differently than I do.’ They rage that people— myself included— look down upon them. And again, truth be told, I do look down on Trump voters, not because I am an elitist but because I am an American citizen and I believe that they, as my fellow citizens, have made political choices that have inflicted the greatest harm on our system of government since the Civil War. I refuse to treat their views as just part of the normal left-right axis of American politics… In 2016, I believed that good people were making a mistake. In 2023, I cannot dismiss their choices as mere mistakes. Instead, I accept and respect the human agency that has led Trump supporters to their current choices. Indeed, I insist on recognizing that agency: I have never agreed with the people who dismiss Trump voters as robotic simpletons who were mesmerized by Russian memes. I believe that today’s Trump supporters are people who are making a conscious, knowing, and morally flawed choice to continue supporting a sociopath and a party chock-full of seditionists.”
But… he wrote, this is very different from right-wing elitism. He singled out Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham for “lying on a grand scale, done with a snide loathing for the audience and a cool indifference to the damage being done to the nation. Fox, and the Republican Party it serves, for years has relentlessly patronized its audience, cooing to viewers about how right they are not to trust anyone else, banging the desk about the corruption of American institutions, and shouting into the camera about how the liars and betrayers must pay. Fox’s stars did all of this while privately communicating with one another and rolling their eyes with contempt, admitting without a shred of shame that they were lying through their teeth. From Rupert Murdoch on down, top Fox personalities have admitted that they fed the rubes all of this red, rotting meat to keep them out of the way of the Fox limos headed to Long Island and Connecticut.”
You can see this same kind of contemptuous elitism in Republicans such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Elise Stefanik. They couldn’t care less about the voters— those hoopleheads back home who have to be placated with idiotic speeches against trans people and “critical race theory.” These politicians were bred to be leaders, you see, and having to gouge some votes out of the hayseeds back home requires a bit of performance art now and then, a small price to pay so that the sons and daughters of Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Stanford, can live in the imperial capital and rule as is their due and their right.