DeSantis Isn’t Trump. That Matters

Democracy Examined

One glass of wine.

A salad.

A second glass of wine and here it comes: 

“It’s that DeSantis down in Florida. Forget about Trump––he’s the greatest threat. He’s Trump but smart. He’d actually get things done.”

If dinner parties are accurate reflections of political trends, then the idea that DeSantis is a more dangerous version of Trump is rapidly becoming left-of-center gospel. 

The pundit class isn’t spared. Over the summer, versions of that talking point bounced through centrist and left-wing opinion sections, provoking rebuttals from commentators like David French and Seth Moskowitz. This past month, perhaps spurred by DeSantis’s thrashing of Charlie Crist in the Florida governor’s race and the widely publicized Club for Growth polls which had DeSantis leading Trump in key states, the idea is appearing again in publications like the Washington Post and MSNBC. DeSantis isn’t going anywhere, and this claim doesn’t appear to be either. But does the Republican party’s only clear alternative to Trump really pose the same risk to our democracy as the man behind January 6th?

The simple answer is no. Trump is the single most threatening individual to American democracy, and the pro-democracy community must not lose sight of that fact going into 2024. 

The long answer is more complicated, because DeSantis’s record isn’t clean and his critics have a point. As they claim, he very well may be more “effective” and more ideologically motivated than Trump. Neither of those things make him more dangerous. 

The Case Against DeSantis

I’m no fan of DeSantis. I’ve criticized him in this newsletter for creating the Office of Election Crimes and Security and for promoting expensive, less effective treatments for COVID-19 rather than vaccination. 

Overall, his record on democracy is worrying. He created the Office of Election Crimes and Security in order to draw attention to almost-non-existent cases of voter fraud, likely damaging public confidence in elections. He won’t say if the 2020 presidential election was fair or if it was stolen. In the immediate aftermath of the election, he said that Republican state legislatures should consider getting involved to overturn their state’s electoral votes for Biden if they determine that election law had been broken. He signed a law to require released felons to pay off any fines they’ve accrued before they can exercise their right to vote, which critics have labeled as a modern poll tax. While these policies deserve all the criticism they’ve received, none are as menacing as Donald Trump’s actions. 

Meanwhile, many of the other policies that critics point to as evidence of how DeSantis is dangerous are less consequential to the functioning of our government. Withholding subsidies for corporations like the Tampa Bay Rays for supporting Democratic positions, shipping migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as a political stunt, and leaning into the LGBT-groomers panic are reprehensible, but do not pose a direct and immediate threat to elections and our democratic processes. 

Trump is Exceptional

What separates Trump from DeSantis is his proven interest in destroying American institutions and the inability for later presidents to reverse his disastrous policies. Most of DeSantis’s policies can be undone. If he overreaches, he would suffer the consequences at the ballot box. Trump, on the other hand, would strive to ensure that a reckoning is impossible.

If Trump secures the Republican nomination in 2024, one of two things is likely to happen. If he loses the general election, he’ll cry foul and immediately attempt to overturn the result. Conspiracy theories will spread like wildfire. Violence could be widespread. Loyalists in Congress, state government, and election boards will conspire with him to ensure our democratic system fails. If his supporters stand by him like they did in 2020, our nation will plunge into an immediate and widespread crisis. 2020 will look like a trial run, and there is little that anyone other than Donald Trump can do to stop this.  

If he manages to win the general election, we’ll suffer four long years of attacks on our democracy from the inside. His plans are terrifying. He could weaponize the federal government to investigate rivals. He could follow through with the Schedule F purges of tens of thousands of career civil servants to cripple our bureaucracy and install loyalists. He could withdraw from NATO and rewrite our alliances. If his dinner with white nationalist Nick Fuentes is any indication, extremists will have a literal seat at the table.  

Would DeSantis dispute an election result if he lost or fundamentally remake our government if he won? I don’t know, but I suspect he wouldn’t. Compare that to the certainty that Trump would careen the US into untold crises after consistently demonstrating his contempt for democracy, and DeSantis seems like the safer alternative to Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination. 

A More Effective Trump?

DeSantis critics often claim that while Trump is more conspiratorial, DeSantis is smarter, more palatable for the average voter, and more ideologically motivated. This makes DeSantis a more effective party leader, so more of his policies could be signed into law. Since he and Donald Trump share policy aspirations, this effectiveness makes DeSantis the more dangerous option.

If you’re having a bit of déjà vu, that’s because we’ve heard this story before, except with Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Pence, the pundits said, was the more dangerous alternative for precisely the same reasons. Salon called Pence “More dangerous than Trump.” The New Yorker published “The Danger of President Pence.” Vanity Fair had “Why President Pence could be more terrifying than Trump.” Just this past May, a year and a half into Biden’s presidency, New York Magazine resurrected the old line in its piece “President Mike Pence Would Be Worse Than Trump.” Yet despite fear mongering over the prospect of a President Pence, he has proven that he isn’t even in the same league as Trump.

Pence stood by Trump through a lot––much more than any respectable individual ever should have. He signed on for a second term, campaigned to have Trump reelected, and then went along as Trump pursued his campaign to overturn the result in November and December 2020. What separates him is that when it came time to decide if he would actually try to overturn the election on January 6th, despite weeks of lobbying from Trump and his associates, Pence refused. 

Pence picked a red line and stuck to it. Even as rioters surrounded the Capitol chanting to hang him, he remained committed to certifying the election results. When the Secret Service, in suspicious circumstances, tried to whisk Pence away from the Capitol as rioters drew closer, Pence refused to go with them. After Congress members were forced to flee the chamber, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer called Pence so they could coordinate on restarting the election certification process to ensure Trump’s fall from power. 

None of this makes Pence a hero, but it should demonstrate Donald Trump’s unmatched disdain for American democracy. Debates about political effectiveness aside, Pence is less dangerous simply because he isn’t interested in killing American democracy. Meanwhile, killing American democracy is more or less Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign promise. 

The case for Ron DeSantis to be the Republican nominee in 2024 has much less to do with why he is good for the country than it does acknowledging all the ways that Donald Trump is uniquely threatening. Trump poses the greatest risk to the future of the United States of any likely candidate. Even him winning the Republican nomination should be terrifying, as it’s hard to see how his candidacy ends with anything other than a constitutional crisis or four years of destructive chaos. 

At the moment, Ron DeSantis is the only person that seems capable of preventing Donald Trump from breezing through to a third nomination. You might not like DeSantis, but he may well be the most pro-democracy option there is for Republican nominee.