The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion DeSantis is smarter than Trump. That may make him more of a threat.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando on Feb. 24. (Octavio Jones/Reuters/File Photo)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is having a moment. Pundits are suggesting that the Jan. 6 hearings, by exposing former president Donald Trump’s complicity in a coup attempt, will redound to DeSantis’s benefit in 2024. Already, a poll in New Hampshire shows DeSantis topping Trump. The question, from the standpoint of those of us who have a sentimental attachment to American democracy, is which man is a bigger threat to the republic? I found myself grappling with that issue as I read a long and enlightening profile of DeSantis by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker.

Filkins notes that, “while Trump, with his lazy, Barnumesque persona, projects a fundamental lack of seriousness, DeSantis has an intense work ethic, a formidable intelligence, and a granular understanding of policy. Articulate and fast on his feet, he has been described as Trump with a brain.” But do we really want a president who will work harder and more intelligently to implement a Trumpian agenda? Is it really better to have a president who is relentlessly focused on right-wing bugaboos such as critical race theory, transgender athletes, undocumented immigrants and “woke corporations” rather than one who is easily distracted into braggadocio about his golf game or his flooring?

Actually, the more I read about DeSantis, the more he reminds me not of Trump but of another disgraced Republican president. One of DeSantis’s Yale baseball teammates told Filkins he is really “smart” but deficient in interpersonal skills: “He has always loved embarrassing and humiliating people. I’m speaking for others — he was the biggest d---k we knew.” A former House colleague said of DeSantis: “He’s a little reclusive, a bit of an odd duck … but he’s just incredibly disciplined.”

Smart and disciplined but reclusive and unpleasant: Who does that remind you of? That’s right: Richard M. Nixon. And I don’t mean the Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, implemented affirmative action, went to China and took other surprisingly liberal steps. DeSantis has never shown any similar willingness to challenge his base. I’m thinking of the Nixon who smeared his opponents (he accused Adlai Stevenson of having a “Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment”) and warred with the press (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he said in 1962, “because gentlemen, this is my last press conference”). I’m thinking of the Nixon who employed the government against his “enemies list,” catered to White bigotry (the Southern strategy) and exacerbated social divisions in an attempt to mobilize the Silent Majority against liberal elites.

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DeSantis seems hellbent on carrying on the disreputable legacy of Tricky Dick, and with even less respect for democratic norms than Nixon displayed. Indeed, he wages culture war with a ruthlessness that recalls Nixon during the bombing of Cambodia.

DeSantis signed legislation severely curtailing mask and vaccine mandates for businesses and local governments, thereby running roughshod over private property rights even while denouncing Democrats as socialists. The University of Florida — controlled by DeSantis appointees — has forbidden professors from testifying against DeSantis plans to restrict mask-wearing and voting rights. A pediatrician was removed from a state board overseeing children’s health insurance after criticizing DeSantis’s outrageous reluctance to provide covid vaccines for children under five.

DeSantis refuses to say whether President Biden was legitimately elected and criticizes the Jan. 6 committee hearings. He created a special task force to police voter fraud even though there is no evidence of widespread fraud. In the name of election security, he also pushed through a bill restricting voting rights that was largely struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional. A DeSantis-backed “anti-riot” bill, passed in response to Black Lives Matter rallies, was blocked by another federal judge for infringing on the First Amendment.

DeSantis signed a “don’t say gay” law restricting discussion of gender and sexuality issues in public schools — and then took away tax breaks from Disney for criticizing the legislation. In a similarly vindictive vein, he vetoed state funding for a Tampa Bay Rays training facility after the baseball team had the temerity to call for gun-safety legislation to stop mass shootings.

DeSantis signed legislation to limit what schools, colleges and workplaces can teach about race and identity, while promulgating teacher training wrongly claiming that the Founders didn’t really want separation of church and state. He also signed legislation that would give the state greater control over what is taught in universities under the guise of promoting viewpoint “diversity.” He is even threatening to investigate parents who take their kids to drag shows.

In short, DeSantis is engaged in one of the most alarming assaults on free speech and academic freedom since the dark days of McCarthyism in the 1950s, when Nixon rose to power. His actions may not be as blatant as inciting a mob to attack Congress, but his record reveals a troubling pattern of authoritarianism and vindictiveness that would be extremely dangerous in the Oval Office.

Just because DeSantis is smarter than Trump doesn’t mean that he is any less dangerous. In fact, he might be an even bigger threat for that very reason.

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