WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sure, Ron DeSantis is co-opting Donald Trump’s style and voter base with his combative, always-on-offense approach, but would the Florida governor, if it came to it, also attempt a coup to hang on to power?
As the Republican cruises toward a second term with at least one eye toward the 2024 presidential race, worried Democrats see a more focused, more capable, more ruthless version of the former president and already have their answer: Yes, without a doubt.
“He is an authoritarian,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “If he were to become president, Katie bar the door on the continuation of our democracy.”
After Trump’s failed attempt to use violence and the threat of violence to remain in office despite losing his 2020 reelection bid, authoritarian experts warned that it would happen again and that the next one to try could not be counted on to be as inept as Trump.
DeSantis, Floridians like Carolina Camps argue, embodies that warning precisely.
“He’s smarter. He’s ideological. He’s better educated. And he’s competent,” said Camps, the president of the nonpartisan group Cuban American Women Supporting Democracy. “That scares us to death.”
Neither DeSantis’ campaign nor his governor’s office staff responded to HuffPost queries on this topic.
DeSantis, like most politicians of both parties, criticized Trump’s mob on Jan. 6, 2021. “Violence or rioting of any kind is unacceptable and the perpetrators must face the full weight of the law. The Capitol Police do an admirable job and I thank them for their hard work,” he said in a statement at the time.
Yet DeSantis has never criticized Trump’s repeated lies about a “stolen” election that led to that day, nor Trump’s active encouragement on Jan. 6 itself, including a social media post chastising his own vice president for refusing to join Trump’s effort to overturn the election that was followed within minutes by his followers surging past police lines and into the Capitol building.
On the one-year anniversary of the attack, DeSantis instead rebuked the news media and Democrats for focusing on investigations into Trump’s central role in efforts to overturn the election and remain in office.
“They are going to take this and milk this for anything they could to try to be able to smear anyone who ever supported Donald Trump,” DeSantis said at a January news conference. “And it’s an insult to people when you say it’s an ‘insurrection’ and then, a year later, nobody has been charged with that.”
Still, Republicans in Florida who have been vocal critics of DeSantis say that the Harvard-trained lawyer appears to have some respect for the law that Trump lacks.
“Before around 2021 he was still a pretty basic-issue GOPer. Conservative, to be sure, but not an edge-case loon,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican consultant who broke with the party when it fell under Trump’s sway. “The fashionability of election denialism has skyrocketed since then.”
Unlike Trump, who famously avoided going to Vietnam because of bone spurs and who had never taken an oath to anything until the day he stood on the Capitol steps at his inauguration, DeSantis swore to defend the Constitution as a judge advocate general Navy officer when he deployed to Iraq for a year.
David Jolly, a former GOP congressman from Tampa, said progressives too often conflate policy positions they oppose — on abortion, for example — with a disregard for democracy itself. And DeSantis, while pushing the boundaries of laws, appears to still abide by them.
“Donald Trump is uniquely dangerous with his penchant to ignore any constitutional guardrails, to violate his oath. DeSantis, on the other hand, governs by legally testing those guardrails … but ultimately respects the institutions the Constitution has given us,” Jolly said. “I don’t see him calling a secretary of state and telling him to ‘find’ votes or creating a strategy to prevent Senate certification without merit.”
Winning Over The Trump Base
DeSantis, who turned 44 last month, was a political novice in 2012 when he ran for Congress in a safe GOP district in the wealthy suburbs of Jacksonville. He soon became a Fox News favorite, attacking the Barack Obama White House and Democrats generally, before parlaying that into a run for governor in 2018.
A timely endorsement from then-President Trump let him romp to the GOP nomination but was likely a drag that November, when he barely squeaked past Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum, who was under FBI investigation for corruption.
After winning office, DeSantis for the first year moderated both his tone and his policies. He backed a pardon for the Groveland Four, the African American men who in 1949 were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman and whose families have been seeking to clear their names ever since. He followed through on a commitment to increase funding to restore the Everglades. He even vetoed a bill that prevented counties and cities from banning plastic straws, back when the Trump base was obsessed with that issue.
But a year into his term came COVID-19, and with the virus came a snap back to his old Fox News self. As Trump began to downplay the disease, so did DeSantis, and he — using the exact opposite justification as he had with the plastic straw bans — fought cities and counties that were trying to impose restrictions on indoor businesses to slow down transmission.
Then, when COVID-19 vaccines first became available, DeSantis aggressively pushed them among those eligible — at the start, just first responders and the elderly. He set up immunization clinics around the state and made numerous personal visits. But as anti-vaccine voices began dominating the Trump voter base, DeSantis backed off his efforts, largely shutting down the newly created vaccination infrastructure as the shots became generally available to more age groups.
The result? More than 29,000 potentially preventable deaths in Florida through April 2022 — three times as many as in New York state, which today has a lower number of COVID-19 deaths per capita despite being an outbreak hot spot in the first months of the pandemic.
Ironically, those tens of thousands of deaths do not appear to have hurt DeSantis’ standing in his state, with voters appearing to have accepted that trade-off for reopening businesses and schools quickly. He continues to brag about his administration’s choice and calls the disease expert who led the country through the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a “little elf” who should be chucked “across the Potomac” River.
“We were right, and they were wrong,” he likes to claim.
With the COVID-19 battles largely behind him this year, DeSantis then moved to push through base-pleasing bills. One bans teachers from mentioning sexual orientation in grades K-3. Another punishes The Walt Disney Co. for criticizing legislation commonly known as the “don’t say gay” law by eliminating the company’s ability to tax itself for capital improvement projects — even though the legislation will, as passed, raise property tax bills in the two affected counties by as much as thousands of dollars per year.
More recently, DeSantis suspended the independently elected state attorney of Hillsborough County for saying he would not prosecute people under Florida’s recently imposed 15-week abortion law. The governor directed his newly created election police to arrest 20 ex-felons for voting, three quarters of whom are Black, even though local officials had allowed them to register. And he spent taxpayer money to charter planes and trick Venezuelan asylum-seekers with false offers of housing and jobs into traveling to Martha’s Vineyard, while also alerting Fox News so it could exclusively film their arrival in the Massachusetts vacation enclave.
And over the past year, he has adopted the lexicon of Trump’s followers who continue lying about the 2020 election results, calling President Joe Biden administration’s a “regime” to suggest it is illegitimate while gleefully joining in with the “Let’s Go Brandon” insult — a euphemism for “fuck Joe Biden.”
All the while, DeSantis boasts about building up a multibillion-dollar budget surplus but neglects to mention that much of those riches are thanks to federal relief money, which he consistently has criticized. Indeed, the $1,000 bonuses he has been handing out to the state’s first responders were paid entirely through the American Rescue Plan — Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill, which DeSantis has called wasteful and “Washington at its worst.”
“The level of hypocrisy is phenomenal,” said Andrew Warren, the Hillsborough County prosecutor who is now suing in federal court to get his job back. He pointed out that a number of laws DeSantis continues to brag about — criminalizing protests, regulating social media companies and banning critical race theory in schools and businesses — have already been blocked by courts as unconstitutional.
“It’s like watching a coach brag about how well he did in the first half, but not point out that he lost the game,” Warren said.
Yet despite all the maneuvering to “out-Trump” the man who helped make him governor, it is not clear that DeSantis can become the GOP nominee for president in 2024.
In his favor, at the moment, is star power within the dominant Trump wing of the party as well as a staggering pile of cash in his Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee that he has been aggressively building up since taking office, with a price list of $100,000 for a golf outing and $250,000 for a dinner appearance.
DeSantis could well start the new year with $100 million on hand — possibly more than even Trump.
Working against him, though, are the all-but-certain negative consequences coming due for his various base-play tactics over the past two years.
Warren could easily prevail in his federal lawsuit to get his job back in Tampa. Similarly, those arrested by DeSantis’ election police are in good position for exoneration, given that elections officials permitted them to vote by letting them register and issuing them voter ID cards.
In the case of his law to punish Disney, the 2 million residents and business owners in Orange and Osceola counties will see their property taxes and rents increase substantially — unless DeSantis and the GOP legislature back down and either modify or repeal the measure by June.
His Martha’s Vineyard stunt, paid for using interest generated from federal COVID-19 relief money, is meanwhile under criminal investigation in Texas and facing an audit by the U.S. Treasury’s inspector general.
And DeSantis’ biggest headache of all is likely to be an acute worsening of the state’s property insurance crisis following the tens of billions of dollars of damage left by Hurricane Ian. His 2022 legislation that gave insurers access to another $2 billion in taxpayer-funded reinsurance did nothing to solve the structural problems of underwriting against tropical storms in a state vulnerable to climate change, and premiums are certain to rise dramatically.
Yet even if GOP primary voters outside of Florida never learn any of this or care so long as DeSantis continues attacking the news media and “owning the libs,” he still faces the man who dominates his party, despite facing multiple criminal investigations into his coup attempt.
Outside a Hilton hotel ballroom at the Palm Beach International Airport, where the county Republican executive committee scheduled its final gathering before the November midterms, DeSantis is wildly popular — in his current job.
“I don’t think he’s ready for the presidency,” said Mary Kelly, a 77-year-old retiree and committeewoman from Lake Worth who attended wearing a denim jacket adorned with every manner of Trump paraphernalia imaginable. She said she believes that DeSantis and Trump will work out some arrangement between them so that DeSantis can run after another Trump term. If they don’t, and DeSantis runs against Trump: “I’ll vote against him.”
Maria Korynsel, a committeewoman from North Palm Beach, said DeSantis isn’t thinking about running and that she would absolutely vote for Trump if the two ran against each other, regardless of whether Trump has been arrested by then.
“Even if he was wearing orange, locked up in jail over here or up in D.C., I’ll still vote for him,” she said, pointing to a nearby county detention center.
And that willingness to continue backing Trump no matter his behavior, and DeSantis’ willingness to aggressively court those same supporters, make some observers worry that traditional Republicans have too much faith that DeSantis’ military background and education will prevent him from mimicking Trump’s post-election behavior.
“The fact that we’re even asking that question shows how dysfunctional and dangerous our politics have become,” Warren said. “The idea that because he went to Harvard and Yale, that he knows better? Well, he certainly should know better.”
Mac Stipanovich, who served as chief of staff to former GOP Gov. Bob Martinez and later advised Jeb Bush’s political campaigns in Florida, said Trump has set a scary precedent, which has been made all the more frightening by the failure of the party to punish him for it.
“He certainly has no qualms about undermining public confidence in the integrity of the election process, which is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, in furtherance of his personal ambition,” Stipanovich said, adding that he fears that DeSantis has seen what Trump did and so far has gotten away with and will try the same thing.
“To do what Trump did de novo requires a special kind of malignant chutzpah that I am not sure DeSantis would have had at that time, which was … before he went totally off the rails,” Stipanovich said, referring to 2020. “Bottom line: Then? Probably not. Now? Absolutely.”