The Trump clone wars have begun. With Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's extremely online campaign announcement, the 2024 GOP primary just kicked into high gear. In an audio-only conversation on Twitter Spaces with Elon Musk and VC David Sacks, DeSantis officially announced he is running for president. But first, much like some of Musk's rockets, there was a failure to launch that overshadowed everything that followed.
For 20 minutes, there was almost no talking, but there were repeated crashes. The app crashed for me at least 16 times while I tried to listen in to Twitter Space. As the Space hit 680k listeners at 6.20 pm, Musk just ended it after remarking about the servers being strained. Minutes later, Musk started another Twitter Space and DeSantis began reading off a statement attacking "woke ideology" and the "woke mob," but he recited this to an audience that was 1/5 the size of the first Twitter Space – at about 150,000 listeners when he read his announcement and around 300,000 at its peak. President Joe Biden responded by simply tweeting out a donation link with the words: "This link works."
The Twitter Space itself served up nothing new. Questioners praised DeSantis for his handling of Covid and praised Elon Musk for his purchase of Twitter, attacking legacy media. DeSantis reiterated his attacks on Disney and falsely called the book bans in Florida a "hoax." The Space dragged on for an hour after its restart, ending at about 7.30pm. There was nothing of substance in this announcement for the average American who cares about kitchen table issues. Another topic notably missing from this announcement: the frontrunner of the Republican primary, Donald Trump, and why DeSantis thinks he can beat him.
DeSantis instead appeared to subtweet Trump, saying that he will actually get things done, just like he did in Florida. DeSantis's claim that he can do for America what he's done for Florida may read like a promise to his extreme base, but it is perceived as a warning for the majority of Americans who oppose his extremism.
After winning his 2018 gubernatorial campaign by advertising himself as a Trump clone in order to get his endorsement, DeSantis went on to put Trumpism into practice. DeSantis began to get more national attention with his anti-lockdown approach during Covid, reopening schools and businesses earlier than other states. Heading into 2021 and 2022, Ron DeSantis began to focus on culture wars. He signed a bill critics panned as "Don't Say Gay," which restricts how LGBTQ+ issues are taught in schools. DeSantis also signed the "Stop Woke Act" which limits the way race is taught in school. It was built on the 2021 bans of Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools – CRT was never taught in K-12 schools in the first place. Those are among a slew of bills that triggered book bans over the past year and brought even more controversy and attention to DeSantis. In response to the backlash, he's doubled down.
Heading into this year, DeSantis was fresh off a supermajority in his state legislature. He then escalated things, targeting the liberal arts school New College and blocking an advanced placement African-American history class. In recent weeks, DeSantis banned Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs in colleges and ordered a review of college courses that teach about "systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege." Just this week, a Florida county limited access to Amanda Gorman's poem she read at President Joe Biden's inauguration after one parent complained.
DeSantis has clearly been more preoccupied with national culture wars rather than dealing with the real issues Florida residents face. DeSantis implemented a six-week abortion ban and eliminated concealed carry permits. His policies have been widely seen as dangerous. The NAACP recently issued a traveling advisory, claiming Florida "has become hostile to Black Americans." This comes as the League of United Latin American Citizens and Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group, also issued travel advisories. Even some Republican donors have expressed concern over his culture war stances, specifically on abortion and book bans.
DeSantis's recent feud with Disney has also drawn him more negative attention. After Disney opposed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, DeSantis launched a rhetorical and legislative attack on Disney, seeking to place it under the control of a DeSantis-controlled board. This resulted in multiple lawsuits and Disney withdrawing its $1bn project that would've brought 2,000 jobs to Florida. DeSantis will have to explain to already skeptical Americans why he's feuding with one of the most beloved companies in the world.
Poll after poll indicates a majority of Americans oppose book bans and oppose bills like "Don't Say Gay." One poll even found 56% of Americans believe the word "woke" is a positive term." So Ron DeSantis might need to rethink his strategy, and whether he'll reuse his infamous quote, "Florida is where woke goes to die."
It's important to take a moment to note that DeSantis is acting out a broader Republican attack on education. Republican lawmakers have made false claims of "indoctrination" in schools because they know educated young people reject them. This is an ongoing panic reaction to the 2020 racial justice protests and mass national re-education on systemic racism. Instead of changing their unpopular and extremist approach, Republican lawmakers are attempting to prevent the youth from learning real American history, media literacy, and social awareness. This is all an electoral tactic. They're the ones seeking to indoctrinate.
This kind of government overreach is antithetical to the stated limited government ideals of conservatism. It fully embraces the authoritarian impulses that have consumed the modern Republican Party. DeSantis embodies what it looks like when Trumpism has a supermajority with no guardrails, and showcases that Trumpism without Trump could be even more dangerous.
Speaking of Trumpism, we have to address the orange elephant in the room that DeSantis refused to acknowledge. The question on everyone's mind is, can Ron DeSantis beat Donald Trump in the GOP primary? The answer is yet to be known. DeSantis is far from the star he was in the days after the 2022 midterm election when Trump seemed to be on the decline. Trump has since become the frontrunner of the GOP 2024 primary. After being neck and neck, DeSantis has recently been lagging behind Trump in the polls by over 30 points in FiveThirtyEight's polling average.
Recent gaffes, from his underwhelming appearances overseas to his socially anxious trek through New Hampshire, Ron DeSantis has been critiqued as "not ready for prime time" by those covering his on-the-ground efforts to engage in retail politics. DeSantis clearly does not have the charisma of Trump, in spite of his best efforts to emulate him. He also doesn't have Trump's shamelessness. Trump is also capable of going lower than anyone. We'll see if DeSantis can keep up.
DeSantis has yet to make a coherent case against Trump or articulate why Republican voters should pick him over Trump. It seems the moderate contrast is ruled out for DeSantis given how he's governed Florida. So it seems he'll have to squeeze to the right of Trump, which could help in the primary but will pigeonhole him in the general election.
Despite DeSantis's stumbles, it's clear Trump sees DeSantis as his primary threat. Trump has launched attack after attack on DeSantis, branding him "Meatball Ron" or "Ron DeSanctimonious." Trump has actually gone as far as to seek to differentiate himself from DeSantis on policy too. Trump has trolled DeSantis for his feud with Disney and claimed DeSantis's six-week abortion ban is "too harsh." When you're too extreme for even Donald Trump, you know you're extreme.
There's one key thing DeSantis has going for him: Trump's baggage. The mounting legal troubles Donald Trump faces can't be ignored. Trump was just found civilly liable for sexually abusing and defaming E Jean Carroll. Justice Juan Merchan just set Trump's criminal hush money trial for March 25, 2024, right in the middle of the primary season. And as Special Counsel Jack Smith's classified document probe nears its end, reporting indicates Trump's team fears an indictment could be imminent. These developments could hobble Trump during the primary, and bolster the case for an alternative.
We have to keep in mind that we're very far away from 2024, and anything can happen. Maybe someone else in the growing field of candidates will rise to the moment, but right now it seems like the core battle is between the Florida men.
We'll see if Trump's apprentice can defeat his old master or if he'll be laughed off the field by the man who made him.