The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP presidential contenders don’t want to have a beer with you

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a Las Vegas event on Nov. 19. (David Becker for The Washington Post)
5 min

Ron DeSantis does not want to have a beer with you. The Florida governor might like to become your president, but he does not want to be your buddy. People who know him call him “cold-blooded” or “standoffish and uncharismatic.” He excites Fox News producers, but he’s not much for glad-handing and backslapping.

He’s not the only one.

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who might be preparing his own presidential bid, has a new book in which he boasts about giving “the middle finger” to journalists and crows about yukking it up with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after he reportedly ordered the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As a Post review put it, “Hatred animates this book. It’s got more venom than a quiver of cobras.”

There are happier characters among those Republicans looking to replace President Biden in 2024. But the prevailing ethos is one of anger and contempt, as though the potential candidates think jerkiness is now a selling point: Don’t just own the libs, but do it with a sneer rather than a smile.

When it comes to what their party’s primary voters are looking for, these contenders might be right.

For most of the country’s history, we thought likability was almost a prerequisite for a presidential candidate. Candidates such as Richard M. Nixon labored to convince voters that they were warm and personable. In 2000, we spent months debating which candidate “you’d like to have a beer with.”

Al Gore might have been more experienced and competent. But George W. Bush had the easygoing manner of the fraternity president he once was, liberally distributing nicknames and dancing goofily before the cameras. The “beer question” was ubiquitous enough to be mocked by the Onion: “Long-Awaited Beer With Bush Really Awkward, Voter Reports.”

But GOP candidates today have a new understanding of their voters. And it’s largely because of what Donald Trump showed them.

Trump drew attention to the anger he wanted to express on his supporters’ behalf; if nothing else, he always had an unfailing radar for people’s ugliest impulses.

And there’s a good reason they responded. It has to do with something called the Dark Triad, a concept described by psychologists, which is made up of narcissism (an exaggerated self-importance), Machiavellianism (the willingness to deceive and manipulate) and psychopathy (a callousness toward others).

Researchers have found that the politicians often described as “strongmen” or autocrats — Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte — display Dark Triad traits, even more than other right-wing leaders. Those who express these traits more strongly can be politically compelling to some voters even as they repel others. In particular, right-wing populist voters — those most hostile toward “elites” and prone to see the other side as evil — favor candidates who display the Dark Triad.

For many of Trump’s supporters, his cruelty and narcissism weren’t something they learned to live with, but the things that attracted them most. He was “a fighter,” they’d say again and again, meaning he would be ruthless on their behalf, mocking those they scorned and abusing those they loathed.

We shouldn’t forget that the “beer test” was itself a preposterous way to judge potential presidents — and we in the news media were largely to blame. The more we talked about how much more affable one candidate was than the other (or who was more “authentic,” an equally absurd measure), the more we encouraged voters to ignore what the presidency entails and what kind of characteristics might make a person effective in that job.

You will not be having a beer with the president. His decisions will, however, help determine whether the economy grows, children get educated, families get health coverage and the United States goes to war again.

That’s not to say there’s no relationship between personality and policy. Though experience has taught us that a president can be friendly and make disastrous decisions (again, consider Bush), a candidate who displays the Dark Triad will likely be callous in his policy choices as well.

But the best way to predict that is from what they’ve done before. The problem with DeSantis, for instance, is not his lack of interpersonal charm but his eagerness to use government power to punish those he sees as his enemies and create flamboyant displays of cruelty.

Whether he does this out of personal bloodlust or a belief that it’s what the Republican base wants, what matters is that it’s the pattern he has established, and there’s little doubt that as president he would act in the same way. Others might see his popularity with the base and offer their own version.

The saving grace might be that the general electorate is more likely to be repelled by that kind of personality. They did elect friendly “Uncle Joe” in 2020, picking the ice-cream-loving, Corvette-driving candidate over the man who was caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity.

But for Republicans, Trump is still the template. If he’s the kind of candidate they think their voters want, that’s what Republicans will give them.