Over the past few weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that Donald Trump plans to run for president in 2024. The big question on his mind, it seems, is whether to announce before or after the midterm elections this November. But this time, unlike in 2020 when he had the advantage of incumbency, Trump is likely to face considerable competition from fellow Republicans. Of these potential challengers, the one who poses the greatest threat to Trump’s prospects is Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who over the past four years has become the Republican Party’s foremost culture warrior and a favorite guest of Fox News.
If DeSantis does choose to run for president, his odds of winning the nomination are decidedly uncertain. By some measures, his chances look good: In polls asking Republicans whom they would vote for in the 2024 primary, between 20% and 30% regularly choose DeSantis. A few state-specific polls have even placed him ahead of Trump. Moreover, DeSantis has raised over $100 million for his gubernatorial reelection campaign this year. But other indicators look less auspicious for DeSantis: In most 2024 primary polls, Trump still leads DeSantis by well over 20%.
Still, presidential primaries are unpredictable. Whether or not Trump ultimately decides to pull the trigger for 2024, there are plenty of scenarios in which DeSantis ends up as the Republican nominee. Given that possibility, it’s worth contemplating if DeSantis poses the same kind of existential threat to American democracy as Trump.
Some pundits and politicians have recently argued that DeSantis is just as bad as, if not worse than, the former president. The Democratic governor of Illinois said last week that DeSantis is “really just Donald Trump with a mask on”; Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine argued that DeSantis “would kill democracy slowly and methodically”; and Michael A. Cohen said on MSNBC that he’s “a far more dangerous politician than Donald Trump.”
Those who take this position usually base it on three main assertions. First, DeSantis’ policies and rhetoric are very bad. Second, his policies and rhetoric are similar to Trump’s, which shows that DeSantis shares the former president’s anti-democratic instincts. Third, DeSantis is smarter, more competent and more disciplined than Trump, which actually makes him more dangerous.
The validity of this position ultimately hinges on the second assertion. Even if DeSantis has political or policy intuitions one disagrees with, and even if he’s more strategic than Trump, those alone do not prove that DeSantis is a Trump-level threat to American democracy. To demonstrate that, convincing evidence is needed that DeSantis shares Trump’s basic disregard for liberal democratic institutions.
Ultimately, that evidence doesn’t exist. During his tenure in Congress or as governor, DeSantis has not tried to overturn a fair election, shown disdain for the separation of powers, promised to jail political opponents, threatened nuclear war with North Korea or nodded toward civil war—all actions that Trump has taken. Without heavy and unwarranted extrapolation, there simply isn’t evidence to suggest that DeSantis is an autocrat in waiting.
Degrees of Awfulness
There is, to be clear, plenty to dislike about DeSantis. He’s shown a willingness to wield government power against his political adversaries—like when he punished Disney for its opposition to a bill restricting public-school discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. He’s been a leading soldier in the culture war—like when he issued a government proclamation declaring that Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, was not the “rightful winner” of the NCAA women’s swimming championship.
Further, DeSantis has been enthusiastic about bending political rules to his advantage—like when he led an effort to aggressively gerrymander Florida’s congressional districts. He’s theatrical; he revels in political combat; he can be offensive; he seems driven by a desire to “own the libs.” Perhaps worst of all, DeSantis implied after the 2020 presidential election that state legislatures in Pennsylvania and Michigan could nominate alternative electors to the electoral college if the vote counting was unfair in their states.
All these actions are concerning and, in my mind, make DeSantis a malevolent force in American politics and a terrible candidate for president. Still, DeSantis’ behavior is within the bounds of the law and constitutionality. Even his concerning rhetoric about electors in Pennsylvania and Michigan never went so far as to claim that electors should be overturned. DeSantis stuck to claiming that this was an option if vote tallying was unfair—a statement that edges him closer to anti-democratic territory but does not quite bring him all the way there. Furthermore, his communications director followed up with a statement walking back the worst implications of DeSantis’ original comments.
Ultimately, nothing DeSantis has done approaches the danger of Trump’s behavior surrounding the 2020 election. Trump, it is worth reiterating, refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power, tried to get state legislatures and election officials to overturn their election results or “find votes” and then attempted to prevent Congress from certifying the election on January 6.
Comparing DeSantis and Trump requires one to distinguish between degrees of awfulness. Trump believes the rules of democracy don’t apply to him. DeSantis, while happy to play political hardball, has shown a commitment to following the rules of the game. Trump, given the chance, would do away with democratic institutions if it meant he could stay in power. DeSantis has not shown any such impulse.
Those who are genuinely concerned about the state of American democracy would do well to acknowledge these distinctions. Not every Republican is a historic threat to democracy, and not every populist culture warrior is “Trump with a mask on.” To be sure, there are Republicans who would pose as great a threat as Trump were they to become president. In my mind, this list includes Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who led the effort in the Senate to reject certification of the 2020 Electoral College results; Donald Trump Jr. who worked hard to find ways to keep his father in power after his election loss; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who embraces Christian nationalism; and gubernatorial nominees Doug Mastriano and Dan Cox, who both helped organize buses to take people to the Jan. 6 rally and have pushed for the election results to be overturned. But pundits and politicians risk becoming the boy who cried wolf if they are unable to distinguish between garden-variety populists such as Ron DeSantis and those who harbor fundamental disdain for democratic institutions such as Trump and Hawley.
One doesn’t have to like DeSantis to acknowledge that he’d be better for American democracy than Trump. That may be a depressingly low bar, but it’s also an important one for a president to clear.