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Off to the Races

Osita Nwanevu
6 min read
Ron DeSantis smiling and standing in behind a podium in front of an American crowd facing an audience.
Ron DeSantis

Hey all. Let's hop to it.

Recent Work

I wrote about how I see the 2024 Republican presidential field shaping up for The Guardian. It begins with a reminder that Trump never actually needed the support of most Republican voters during the 2016 primary and that he's going into this race with more resources and starting popularity than he had the last time around:

Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 for a very simple reason: he built and kept a large minority of incredibly loyal supporters within the party, while the majority of Republican voters, who would have preferred another candidate, split their votes among too many alternatives.
[...] The non-Trump field has already split. Although Nikki Haley’s campaign announcement two weeks ago was seemingly forgotten by the political press almost as soon as it was made, she’ll do everything she can as the year wears on to eat into the support of likely candidate Ron DeSantis, who drew some rather inauspicious praise from former anti-Trump frontrunner and fellow Floridian Jeb Bush last week, and whoever else wants to grab a spot in the clown car next to her and also-rans-to-be Vivek Ramaswamy and Corey Stapleton.
That’s likely to include South Carolina senator Tim Scott, who made a major address in Iowa last week, and perhaps former vice-president Mike Pence, who’s been publicly mulling a bid despite his popularity within the party taking a predictable and significant hit after his refusal to assist Trump’s coup plot on January 6.
Though it might consolidate earlier than it did in 2016, Trump really ought to feel good about how crowded the field is already beginning to feel. It suggests two possibilities: either the Republican powers-that-be are inept enough to believe the field can bear another sizable slate of non-Trump candidates; or they’re ambivalent enough about Trump winning the nomination again that they don’t think lining up behind a single alternative to stop him is worth their while. Those alternatives, after all, are actively working to close the substantive gap between Trump and themselves anyhow.


That last point is why I think the no-shows at last week’s CPAC might be misleading. But there’s been a genuine stampede of many Republican elites to DeSantis, of course. As Laura Jedeed writes for The New Republic, that shift was rendered in physical space at the convention hall:

Two years ago, Fox Nation was a major sponsor of the conference; attendees received a free year-long streaming service membership and a tote bag full of branded swag. This year, the cable news giant is nowhere to be found: It’s not on sponsorship signs, not in CPAC Central, not even in Broadcast Row where Newsmax and Real America’s Voice now dominate. Other, more esoteric outlets include Proverbs Media Group, Lindell TV, and a telegram channel called Frontline Flash. The “L” in “Flash” is a lightning bolt that looks nothing like an L, and the resulting visual—”Frontline F🗲ash—elicited an enormous double take from me.
Also missing in action: Ron DeSantis, who has instead opted to attend a closed donor event in his home state of Florida with the Club for Growth. This 800-pound fundraising gorilla scheduled their event over the exact four days as CPAC itself; shots fired. Participation in one does not preclude participation in the other—presidential hopefuls Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy plan to attend both events. Nonetheless, the Club for Growth has thrown down the gauntlet against both the American Conservative Union (ACU) and Trump himself, who was not invited to their party. It’s the end of an era. After six years of lock-step unity behind the Golden-Haired One, a war has begun for the future of the party.

As Jedeed notes though, Republican politicos, even on Trump’s side, don’t seem especially gung-ho about fighting that war at the moment. The sniping thus far has been pretty low energy, as Trump might say – a state Jedeed attributes to the perceived stasis, on the right, of the Biden administration. “The Republicans barely gained control of the house and, worse, the predicted apocalypse never really arrived,” she writes. “Prices are still high, but stabilizing. The border is no worse, the fentanyl epidemic is no worse. The federal debt is still high. The world feels as gray as the DC weather. For the people in love with Trump’s adrenaline-fueled politics, that might be worse than fire and brimstone.”

Trump, for his part, is trying to kick things into higher gear with, of all things, a policy agenda. It’s possible now that some of the looming Trump-DeSantis brawl will be about flying cars, so I suppose we have that to look forward to.

I might as well make something my piece above might have left ambiguous clear here: I think Ron DeSantis could very well win the Republican nomination. But I also think that the odds are stacked against him at the moment ⁠— which isn’t to say he won’t remain a central and influential force in the GOP even if he loses. I think he will. DeSantis is precisely what I and many other folks on the left have been expecting from the beginning of Trump's rise ⁠— a Republican politician who draws more respect and deference from the center and political elites than Trump even as he offers a more durable and policy-literate version of Trumpism, trimmed of fat and all muscle. Look at what Trump’s bloviating about political correctness has turned into in DeSantis’ hands with Disney, for instance. Florida’s government has taken control of development and services in Disney’s special district in the state ⁠— which, to be clear, the state should absolutely control. A private firm should not have a 25,000 acre fiefdom in central Florida. But this is a culture war battle for DeSantis, not an anti-corporate crusade. And as such, he’s essentially admitted that he’s taken control of the district in order to gain influence over the content Disney produces. From The Daily Beast:

The new law doesn’t eliminate Disney’s special district. It renames it, and it takes authority to appoint the district’s five-member board of directors away from Disney—and gives it to Ron DeSantis.
Predictably, DeSantis promptly populated the board with political allies, and though their legal purview is mundane local services stuff, he openly envisioned them using the power they now wield over Disney to coerce the company into culture war concessions. “When you lose your way, you’ve got to have people that are going to tell you the truth,” DeSantis said. “I think all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate.”
He emphasized that political logic in his op-ed, too. The “woke ascendancy” in American corporations is what forced him to reject the old GOP corporatism, DeSantis explained. “When corporations try to use their economic power to advance a woke agenda, they become political” actors, he said, and must be fought with political weapons.

Here, from The New Republic’s Tori Otten, is a look at the some of the people who will be wielding those political and policy weapons on the district’s oversight board:

One of those members is Ron Peri, a former pastor and the head of The Gathering—a Christian ministry focused on outreach to men—with a long history of making homophobic and untrue comments, CNN reported.
During a Zoom discussion in January 2022, Peri shared his conspiracy theory about the tap water.
“So why are there homosexuals today? There are any number of reasons, you know, that are given. Some would say the increase in estrogen in our societies. You know, there’s estrogen in the water from birth control pills. They can’t get it out,” he said. “The level of testosterone in men broadly in America has declined by 50 points in the past 10 years. You know, and so, maybe that’s a part of it.”
[...] Another member of the new Disney World oversight board is Martin Garcia, a lawyer in Tampa Bay whose private investment firm donated $50,000 to DeSantis’s 2022 reelection campaign. DeSantis also appointed Bridget Ziegler, the co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which has led the charge in banning books in schools, and the wife of the Florida Republican Party chairman.

I’ve said for years now that Republicans can’t really win the culture war in the way that they’d like ⁠— we live in a diverse and still-diversifying society where new cultural ideas spread to new places faster than ever before. There’s no law the right can enact to reverse that. But there’s plenty the conservative movement hasn’t tried yet ⁠— partially out of respect for our constitutional order and free-market capitalism. The Disney gambit is more evidence that those commitments are now being tested ⁠— more seriously on the constitutional front, I think, than as far as capitalism is concerned. I think Republicans are going to be challenging the First Amendment more openly from here on out; we’ll see how much the conservatives who now run the judiciary play along. It’s likely that quite a few agree with the respectable and responsible Nikki Haley’s remarks at CPAC. “Wokeness,” she said, “ is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”

A Song

“And the Melody Still Lingers On (Night in Tunisia)” ⁠— Chaka Khan (1981)