DeSantis’s Launch Was Not the Only Thing That Crashed
It was bad when the Twitter Spaces sound was off for the Florida governor. It was worse when the sound came on.
It would have been better for Governor Ron DeSantis if his Twitter Spaces announcement had crashed altogether. As bad as the tech failures were, the really bad part of his presidential launch was the part when the tech worked—and the world could hear a man radically and pathetically unready for national leadership.
DeSantis won the governorship of Florida in 2018 after a campaign in which he proclaimed himself one of Donald Trump’s most zealous and fawning followers. His best-known ad showed him indoctrinating his infant children into the Trump cult: “Then Mr. Trump said, ‘You’re fired.’ I love that part.” That history raised the question: Could DeSantis ever emerge as his own man; could he transition from follower to leader?
Last night’s formal presidential announcement offered him a big-audience opportunity to reveal himself in a new role. Instead, he showed himself to be a beta to the bottom of his soul, one of nature’s henchmen.
After racing through his drab, standard-issue stump speech, DeSantis submitted himself to what felt like an old-time radio call-in show, hosted by Elon Musk and Musk’s business partner, David Sacks, who is also known as one of the most scornful anti-Ukraine trolls on Twitter. The two hosts made it clear that, in their opinion, DeSantis was the third-ranking attraction of the evening. They talked about Twitter, not about DeSantis’s presidential aspirations. They summoned callers from the weirdest corners of the far right. One of them needed to be reminded to unmute himself, like Grandpa on the Zoom call. Another praised DeSantis as a “cold-blooded, ruthless assassin”—this on the first anniversary of the Uvalde school massacre.
In the aftermath of the debacle, declaring a presidential run in a Twitter chat may appear to have been a miscalculation. Yet it started as a calculation entirely in keeping with DeSantis’s style of campaigning.
DeSantis’s ads raise barriers between the candidate and the voters. In his first one, voters again and again encounter the candidate via a screen: They see him on TV, on their phone. In the one scene in which the candidate is inserted among actual people, they look at one another and raise their phones toward him, presumably to video the encounter. In his second ad, DeSantis walks toward a speaker’s platform as somebody else’s voice delivers his message for him. Obviously, the directors of these ads are adopting strategies to cope with an immediate problem: DeSantis looks awkward when he interacts with people, and his voice is grating and uninspiring. But the unintended effect is to send a message that the candidate is a contrivance.
So it was unsurprising that DeSantis would make his announcement on what sounded like an amateur hour. He was literally invisible at his own announcement. He did not interact with voters. He was protected from direct exposure by the interposition of allies and supporters. Or such was the plan.
Only, the plan backfired. This time, DeSantis was not protected by all the layers of mediation around him. He was thoroughly and humiliatingly exposed.
Nobody ever seemed to have given any thought to the question What’s our message to the people we hope to persuade to our cause?
Watch some old announcement speeches on YouTube, and you see a carefully considered plan in every one. The candidates stand among family or supporters; they speak to particular crowds; they focus on biography or policy or some crisis of the day. Somebody has thought hard about why the candidate is there, what the candidate hopes to achieve, what the point of this exercise is.
DeSantis’s corporate sponsors had a plan. They were there to demonstrate the messaging potential of Twitter Spaces for far-right political content. That plan went awry when Twitter Spaces proved glitchy and unreliable, but still, a plan it was. DeSantis, though, had no plan. He just twirled about Elon Musk’s ballroom, dancing to Musk’s tune.
Why should Ron DeSantis be the Republican nominee, then perhaps ultimately the president of the United States? What does he hope to achieve for his country? Those were the questions he should have been seeking to answer, but almost all of his remarks were backwards-looking: about COVID, book bans, his feud with Disney. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his talking points, whether you thought his tone whining and aggrieved or righteous and defiant, everything he had to say was about the past, his past: how he’d been right and his critics had been unfair and wrong (he specifically complained about The Atlantic).
Announcement speeches are occasions for broad visions, reflections on the things that bind and unite Americans. Barack Obama expressed such a vision in 2007:
This campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice to push us forward when we’re doing right, and let us know when we’re not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
George W. Bush hit the same notes in 1999:
We will also tell every American, “The dream is for you.” Tell forgotten children in failed schools, “The dream is for you.” Tell families, from the barrios of L.A. to the Rio Grande Valley: “El sueno americano es para ti.” Tell men and women in our decaying cities, “The dream is for you.” Tell confused young people, starved of ideals, “The dream is for you.” This is the kind of campaign we must run.
There was no such message from DeSantis for Americans in 2023. No dreams, no commonality. It was a message for a faction, not a nation. It was a small message for a big country. DeSantis has gotten this far by identifying enemies rather than building coalitions—but it now seems that “this far” is as far as he’s going to go.
Into the gap where the intentional message should have gone, DeSantis’s true message inserted itself. He’s a divider who seeks a position that usually is won by unifiers. To the question of his potential for the highest office, he showed us once again that he is merely one of nature’s followers hoping to thrust himself into a leadership role that does not suit him.
DeSantis likes to present himself as a man eager for political combat. In a 2022 ad for reelection as governor, he dressed up in a flight suit and pretended to instruct fellow pilots: “Never, ever back down from a fight.” His super PAC is literally named “Never Back Down.” Yet in the fight immediately upon him, the fight against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, DeSantis always backs down. He may deal the occasional side insult in oblique, passive-aggressive language that does not mention Trump by name. He decries a “culture of losing” in the GOP, and maybe that’s supposed to imply that Trump did, in fact, lose the presidential election of 2020. But DeSantis does not dare say so explicitly—and it’s almost unimaginable that he’d ever have the nerve to say so to Trump’s face on a debate stage, assuming he ever had the nerve to share a debate stage with Trump at all.
“Trump specializes in creating dominance-and-submission rituals,” I wrote here a year ago. “Roll over once, and you cannot get back on your feet again.” DeSantis has rolled over so often for Trump that by now he qualifies for a job with Cirque du Soleil. Trump attacks, and DeSantis bleeds; Trump attacks again, and DeSantis bleeds some more. DeSantis is tough on gay school teachers, tough on Disney, but weak on foreign dictators and weak on Trump.
Bill Clinton used to say that “strong and wrong beats weak and right.” DeSantis already bet his political career on the hope that truculence and peevishness might be perceived as strength. That bet was proving a bad one even before his self-abasing announcement event. It looks even worse afterward.
Those of us who identify as Never Trump Republicans are sometimes challenged: Why don’t we back DeSantis, the poll-leading alternative to Trump? One answer was to doubt that DeSantis ever presented much of an alternative. Back in 2021, a wealthy Floridian who had donated to DeSantis’s campaigns for governor cautioned me, “There are two kinds of people in politics: those who think DeSantis is a viable national candidate, and those who have met Ron DeSantis.”
Yet even assuming his viability, the question remains for us: What kind of alternative would DeSantis be? We did not want Trump’s abuse of power for selfish advantage replicated by a president who differed from Trump only by arriving at the office on time instead of watching television until 11 a.m. We did not want a more efficient use of nontransparency to conceal financial corruption. We did not want more strenuous disdain for allies—Ukraine today, who knows who else tomorrow? We did not want a more systematic and shrewd exploitation of tensions in American society, more deft manipulation of resentments along lines of race, faith, sex, region, and educational attainment.
Never Trump Republicans want a free-trade, free-market economic conservative. We want a Republican who upholds the rule of law, defends free institutions, and supports democracies under fire. We want honor, character, and largeness of spirit. Is that too much to ask from our former political home? And if so, why would we return to it?