A Heavyweight Match for the Populist Crown

Trump and DeSantis are the yin and yang of conservative populism

Shake and come out fighting. Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis during happier days, at a 2018 campaign event in Pensacola, Florida. Image Credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ entry into the race for the Republican presidential nomination offers observers, at long last, the possibility of an interesting political contest. Other Republican hopefuls can be dismissed as background noise. For now, it’s a two-man fight pitting DeSantis, the challenger, against Donald Trump, the grizzled champion—a slugging match between politicians who differ radically in age, background and temperament. While both aim to lead the same party, DeSantis and Trump embody irreconcilable political approaches. They come at populism, as it were, from opposite directions.

For the Democrats, the only suspense is whether Robert Kennedy Jr.’s candidacy will expose a fatal weakness in President Biden’s popularity. The president has polled under 50% for most of his term and at present is drifting into the high 30s: Democratic voters might wish to signal their wish for a change of regime. But Kennedy is an eccentric without a program or a following who has virtually no chance to win the nomination. At most, he could serve as opening act to the candidacy of a serious establishment grandee—someone like California’s Gavin Newsom, who clearly lusts after the presidency. Much will depend on how lucid the doddering Biden can sound during the run-up to the nomination.

DeSantis is the real deal. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he did a six-year stint in the Navy that included deployment to Iraq and served three terms in Congress before being elected governor by a hair in 2018. His reelection by a landslide, which gave his party effective control of Florida’s state government, was the happiest moment for Republicans in their otherwise mediocre 2022 midterms. DeSantis has an intelligent and attractive wife and has sired three photogenic children, as any ambitious politician must. He’s the stuff American presidents are made of.

To earn the nomination, however, DeSantis will have to persuade an angry Republican base of his alienation from the government he is expected to preside over. He must demonstrate that, despite his orthodox trajectory and obvious ease with handling policy, he is not a mere politician or a creature of the institutions. Just as the Democratic Party today is the home of establishment and reaction, Republicans are the party of populism and revolt. By an inner necessity, the Democrats will nominate a safe insider; that happens to be Joe Biden’s sole qualification for the presidency. The inverse process will turn the Republican contest into a scramble for the outside rail.

In a perceptive analysis at National Review, Matthew Continetti contrasts the styles of the two Republican heavyweights. Continetti views Trump as an archetypal American populist in the same line of descent with Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan and Ross Perot. Such figures attract large personal followings by thundering against the elites and pushing sinister conspiracy theories about the way the world works.

The strength of the populists is rhetorical: They fire up the audience with bold, jargon-free tirades. The weakness is a remarkable indifference to government. “Populists may criticize institutions as dysfunctional or debased,” Continetti writes, “but they really don’t know what to do with them … They possess neither the expertise necessary to manage a bureaucracy nor the networks where they might find such expertise.”

That was certainly the case with Trump. There’s a hallucinatory quality to the memory of the post-2016 years, with the entire elite class, from the intelligentsia to every television comic ever, succumbing to the political equivalent of Tourette Syndrome—screaming uncontrollably at odd moments about the president’s proto-Nazi authoritarianism. Thanks to the Durham Report and the Twitter Files—covering Trump-Russia collusion accusations and elite censorship of social media, respectively—we now know that the reverse was true. Trump was a political naif who was hemmed in and ultimately emasculated by the bureaucracy. During his tenure, the institutions stepped in to nullify the will of the voters.

To be sure, this was scandalous and unjust. Whether being bamboozled qualifies Trump for a second shot at the presidency is, of course, a separate question.

Continetti found DeSantis to be more “esoteric” than Trump. He is well versed in the issues, understands how to deploy the machinery of government and at times can come across as “less a populist than a shrewd technocrat.” DeSantis’ approach to government would confound a conservative of the Ronald Reagan variety. He seeks to wield power to dismantle a monolithic culture controlled by the establishment left and subservient to the dogmas of identity. It’s a strategy born of desperation. Republicans are competitive politically but boxed inside a ghetto culturally. The hope is to break up the progressive stranglehold by unleashing government in what might be described as a cultural trust-busting exercise.

The scheme has been tested in Florida and has mostly worked, in a negative way. DeSantis removed critical race theory from public school curriculums and punished Disney for fostering transgenderism. Culture, however, runs on positive production—and no government in history has legislated a cultural boom. Those who doubt this should consult the creative output of communist China and Russia.

The bloodiest battleground of the culture wars has always been the media, and it is here that Trump and DeSantis most visibly diverge. Trump’s success as a politician completely depends on his status as a celebrity. He reads his own reviews and lives to settle scores: In this drama of provocation and response a hybrid following, half surly zealots, half devoted fans, is brought into existence.

By refusing to return to Twitter, Trump has chosen to retreat into the conservative information ghetto. On Truth Social, his own private sandbox, he speaks only to the faithful and hears only applause. The power of provocation is lost—or rather, it’s been ceded to the news media, which can convey his provocative statements to a larger audience. Trump, of course, believes that he owns the media, and with good reason: No other political figure in our history has so thoroughly dominated the information sphere. His recent “town hall” appearance, broadcast by CNN, proved that he retains his mastery over the medium. Nevertheless, Trump has placed his political future in the hands of an institution that loathes him—and that has silenced him before. Even for such a gifted performer, this will be a difficult trick to pull off.

DeSantis lacks Trump’s celebrity appeal and, unlike his opponent, he is unwilling to become a hostage to the nakedly hostile news media. His dilemma, then, is how to break out of the ghetto. The gamble he has evidently settled on is that he can reach the mass of voters directly, through the web. Hence the decision to announce his candidacy on Twitter Spaces, an unconventional format that ended up plagued with technical glitches. The typical ritual would have posed the governor, his wife and their charming children in front of a vociferous crowd of supporters, in a media event wholly devoid of content. From necessity, DeSantis, the orthodox politician, had to attempt something offbeat.

Overwhelming Twitter’s servers may not be much of a disaster: It can be spun either way. What appears certain is DeSantis’ determination to have unmediated access to the voters. The media, spurned, has already begun sniping at the candidate, and how DeSantis deals with this conflict may determine the fate of his campaign. When asked by an AP reporter why he wasn’t taking questions from voters, he looked genuinely surprised. “People are coming up to me, talking to me,” DeSantis responded. “What are you talking about? Are you blind?” But you can’t talk to the electorate one voter at a time, and so far the exploitation of the web by the governor and his people has been unimpressive. Current media sniping is sure to escalate into carpet-bombing. The DeSantis communication strategy, in brief, is an even higher-risk proposition than Trump’s. The difference is this: If he succeeds in bypassing the media, he will alter significantly the practice of American politics.

Trump and DeSantis may be safely labeled populists. We can say this because we know exactly what they stand against but have a fuzzy notion of what they are for. Trump is ostensibly resuming his assault on The Swamp—the Washington, D.C. establishment—but really he’s running against the 2020 election. As always, he’s settling scores. DeSantis is the ultimate anti-“woke” politician. In his ongoing pushback against progressive bullying, he’s picked fights with powerful corporations, entrenched bureaucracies and militant advocacy groups. (The NAACP has issued a “travel advisory” warning Blacks to stay away from Florida.)

Beyond these categorical similarities, the two men could not be more unlike in the way they play the game of politics. Trump is a card-carrying member of the elite class. He was born into money, built huge towers flaunting his name and became a reality TV star. His only claim to being an outsider comes from an immense sense of injury over lack of recognition from his peers—here he synchronizes perfectly with the public’s rolling grievances against the elites. As Continetti observed, he has no interest in government and, in any case, no clue how to operate the levers of power. As a political force, Trump exists strictly in rhetoric and media. He stands outside the system, shouting. He’s the insider, outside, which is the reason the permanent bureaucracy could so easily outmaneuver him.

As his military service and devout Catholicism indicate, DeSantis belongs to an old-fashioned middle-class culture that honors service to God and country and feels threatened with extinction by the left’s dismantling of traditional values. The governor exemplifies the survival instinct of this group. Every skirmish, no matter how insignificant, must be won, because there’s no room left to retreat. All politics is culture war by another name. Progress is measured not in empty gestures but in existential change: in the reconquest of society. DeSantis appears incapable of striking a pose—a serious handicap for a presidential hopeful. He is, however, a relentless warrior, swinging the sword of executive power in Florida against the identitarian hordes. Having penetrated to the heart of the system, he aims to cleanse it from within. He’s the outsider, inside.

Trump, the most famous man on earth, has a passionate following and holds a massive lead in all opinion surveys. The various indictments and trials he faces are likely to rally an anti-elite public behind him; his rise in the polls began after the FBI raided his Mar-a-Lago lair last August, and recent polling indicates that the latest indictment involving the alleged mishandling of classified documents will do nothing to change this dynamic. The conventional wisdom is that the old champ will easily overcome his younger challenger—in my opinion, a near certainty if DeSantis persists in pitching his message to pure negation. (It’s impossible to out-negate Trump.)

All things being equal, Trump looks to have a fairly straight path to the nomination. But that judgment comes with a warning label: Things are never equal in our crazy moment in time.

The ground has shifted considerably since Trump’s heyday in 2016. In fact, most of the issues that now irk Republican primary voters materialized during his watch. These include the racialization and sexualization of society, the aftereffects of the Covid-19 lockdowns and mandates and the anti-conservative censorship of social media by federal agencies like the FBI. Trump was either the cause or the victim of these developments. Neither is a good look. His fixation with past grievances leaves him blind to the new environment. His attempts to defend his Covid policies—an unusual posture for Trump—have been bizarre and unconvincing. Conversely, DeSantis is the paladin of anti-wokeness and the man who kept Florida open during the pandemic. The issues play to his strength.

The reality is that Trump has never encountered an antagonist with the stature and staying power DeSantis brings to the fight. He will be 78 in 2024; the contrast with the 44-year-old DeSantis will be painfully apparent. If he is convicted of a felony in mid-campaign, religious voters, always skittish about Trump’s personal immorality, may finally give up on him since they can pivot to a squeaky-clean alternative.

He’s still favored to win the nomination. Given President Biden’s appalling decline and the psychotic turn of American politics, Trump could well be sauntering back into the White House by 2025. But he’s got to get past the Florida governor first—and, at a minimum, this promises to be the most entertaining political slugfest in recent memory.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter