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A lot has been made of the rivalry between Governor Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump: The story of a mini-Trump who won Florida’s governorship on a Trumpist platform displacing the real Trump has shades of Macbeth and Richard III (if they were about dismantling American democracy). The fracas started when Trump implied on One America News Network that DeSantis was “gutless” for refusing to confirm if he’d been boosted. “I watched a couple of politicians be interviewed and one of the questions was, ‘Did you get the booster?’ Because they had the vaccine, and they’re answering like—in other words, the answer is ‘yes,’ but they don’t want to say it, because they’re gutless,” Trump told the far-right outlet. “You gotta say it, whether you had it or not, say it.” Trump has in recent months pivoted, according to researchers quoted in Vox, from “likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic’” to freely admitting that he did, in fact, get his booster shot. DeSantis, meanwhile, waved the question away, calling the choice to get a booster a “private matter”—conveniently outflanking the onetime “infodemic” king from the anti-vax right.
The last few months have made clear that the Republican Party has such a pervasive and advanced case of the brain worms that it will never embrace a practical centrist for president now. “There will be no Bourbon Restoration. The challenge to Trump will have to come from the Trump wing—at this point, more like the Trump fuselage, wing and landing gear—of the party,” Rich Lowry wrote in Politico. Lowry is right. Which raises the question: What if Trump himself is not the worst Trumpism has to offer? He struggled to focus long enough to legislate, and most of his “accomplishments”—the three Supreme Court justices and the 2017 tax-reform law—had a lot to do with Mitch McConnell. Most everything else Trump attempted was botched. The same cannot be said of, to name one Republican star, Greg Abbott, the Texas governor who signed into law a six-week abortion ban so extreme (with no exception for rape or incest) that conservatives were shocked it even passed.
Texas has become ground zero for dystopian experiments of the kind Trump promised but was unable to deliver. As the Texan Julián Castro, secretary of housing and urban development under Barack Obama, wrote to me, “Republicans in places like Texas have weaponized Trump’s Big Lie to enact the most sinister voter suppression efforts since Reconstruction. They’ve embraced his lies and misinformation to undermine our elections, our public education system, and our ability to keep people safe from a deadly virus. Trump is the leader of this party—but he’s also a Trojan Horse for a far more dangerous right-wing agenda.”
Whether or not Abbott is worse in his aims and ideals than Trump, he certainly seems more effective. He has functionally overturned Roe and attempted to ban mask mandates, and is floating the idea of a “do not hire” list for public-school teachers who provide minors with “obscene” content. And then there’s DeSantis. He’s governed as an effective autocrat, attempting to ban vaccine passports and taking on the cruise-line industry in the process. DeSantis has also made it harder to vote in Florida. But his coup de grâce may have been invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while introducing his “Stop Woke Act,” a sort of extension of his earlier ban on critical race theory (which doesn’t, by the way, seem to exist in Florida public schools). Yes, the Harvard-and-Yale-educated DeSantis is on a crusade against the “elites,” because he knows that the populist right flank of Trumpism is theoretically available to him if he runs to the populist right of Trump.
These competent mini-Trumps move us closer to a scenario where the red and blue partnership becomes untenable. If Trumpism is, at its heart, a coordinated effort to move state legislatures as far right as possible, we may soon find that the center can no longer hold. Virginia, a battleground state, recently elected a red-fleece-wearing millionaire governor who avoided Trump’s campaign but is now enacting lots of Trumpy legislation, like an email tip line for parents to rat out teachers for “divisive” practices. In his newsletter, Peacefield, my colleague Tom Nichols imagines a future in which America becomes “a patchwork of small democracies agreeing to share a currency and certain other conveniences with a small cluster of half-assed, repressive oligarchies who agree only to help the federal government keep air traffic sorted out and the Wi-Fi strong.” Indeed, our partisan Supreme Court is enabling this very scenario by refusing to protect the American people from laws like S.B. 8.
In my mind, Ron DeSantis playing by Donald Trump’s rules is a much scarier 2024 scenario than orange man back. Republicans who were repulsed by the porn-star payoff and the oddly unnatural orange tuft of “hair” will be charmed by the Ivy-educated southern governor. Just as Glenn Youngkin convinced suburban Virginia that he wasn’t Trump only to go “full Trumpist,” DeSantis may prove to be the Trojan Trump who finally brings down American democracy.