America is spiraling toward a “Florida Man” primary, and we’re not ready. With Ron DeSantis not yet an official candidate and Donald Trump still flipping through the index cards of potential nicknames for his just-up-the-road opponent, what we’ve seen of the coming storm makes one thing clear: The most extreme right-wing authoritarian candidates ever to hold office in the United States intend to run their primary by finding new ground on the right of their opponents.
Both men might hold a finger to the political wind and determine that the center-right, a space now so abandoned that ghost towns feel sorry for it, offers plenty of room to construct a candidacy. A Republican shift to the middle might even give that party the thing that is currently a fading memory—a shot at winning the popular vote.
They’re not going to go there. DeSantis is trying to run to the right of Trump. Trump is trying to run to the right of DeSantis. Both may momentarily agree, but only on issues where they can’t think of a more extreme position. But these two guys have a real instinct for the awful, so they won’t be pinned down for long.
If America is lucky, the result will destroy the Republican Party for a generation. But no matter what, everyone is going to get hurt.
A lot of what’s ahead can be neatly summed up in this tweet from American historian Kevin Kruse.
“Bone-crushingly stupid” is a good descriptor for much of what’s to come. DeSantis absolutely will go there when it comes to jokes about Melania being reluctant to participate in Trump’s campaign. Trump will never tire of picking on DeSantis’ height and his booster boots. (“Why does Ron DeSantis hate Disney? Because they won’t let him ride Space Mountain.” This stuff writes itself.)
It’s going to be like every “conservative comedian” who Fox News tried to package into a late-night show. Except this program is going to be on every outlet for a lot longer than it took any of those Fox shows to tank. If you believe the level of national discourse could not be lower, prepare to be surprised.
He who gets in the most revolting dig may score points on the Republican debate stage, but unfortunately, that’s not the only way these two are going to compete. As CNN reports, DeSantis has already made his strategy clear. He’s looking for every point on which Trump can be seen as less than fully committed to a hard right line, and then he’s positioning himself to the right of Trump. And if the line has to be moved to give him room, DeSantis will move it.
Trump is packaging himself as the guy who was “able to kill Roe v. Wade,” but that still leaves room for DeSantis to sign ever more onerous bills drafted by the subservient Florida legislature. DeSantis just scored a huge victory with the most extreme elements of the Republican Party by signing a bill so onerous to reproductive rights that Trump called it “too harsh.” That’s a dream response for DeSantis. Harsh? You think that’s harsh? He will show you harsh, wimpy Donald.
DeSantis is working hard to show that he’s more pro-gun than Trump. More anti-immigrant than Trump. More anti-education. More anti-science. Much more anti-science.
DeSantis sees the fact that Trump was there when the COVID-19 vaccine was developed as one of his big openings, and step number one is eradicating the restrictive hold of evidence, facts, and centuries of learning on medical practices. It’s not enough just to appoint a surgeon general who alters the results of scientific papers. If it means signing a bill that will let doctors who have such loopy ideas that they aren’t allowed near a scalpel in any other state practice in Florida, DeSantis will go there proudly. He’s calling it “medical freedom,” and if it means your new physician doesn’t believe in the germ theory of disease, why, that’s just fine.
DeSantis’ bill forces hospitals to provide patients with treatments that do not work, despite what they’ve heard on Twitter. It prevents the use of whole swaths of coming vaccines, including some that prevent various forms of cancer. And it prevents medical boards from removing the license from doctors for trivial things like massive and continued malpractice. It’s a bill that sets medical standards back to the point when most surgery was done by barbers.
But then, Florida does have a lot of leeches in need of work.
That’s just one bill. DeSantis signed it last week with one real goal, and that goal has nothing to do with medical treatment in Florida. He signed it because it positions him way to the right of both Trump and sanity.
That bill isn’t a destination, it’s a signpost. DeSantis is moving in this direction on every issue. More restrictions that force schools to teach only a prescribed right-wing version of history. Making it easier to ban award-winning books. More efforts to destroy teaching as a profession and turn classrooms into combinations of indoctrination centers and holding pens.
And when it comes to immigration, DeSantis is already setting Florida up as the state of hardliner’s humid dreams. That the restrictions he’s already signed are crippling Florida’s core industries of construction, agriculture, and tourism doesn’t even register on the Republican dial. Because none of these policies are about making things better. Or even claiming to make things better. The Republican Party has moved on from that place.
And, of course, DeSantis is checking every box on the guns over people list. Bills and executive orders have doubled down on protecting the rights of gun makers and gun dealers. At the same time, DeSantis hasn’t just demanded a bill to remove training requirements from the state’s concealed carry permits; he wants to eliminate those permits entirely. He also wants to eliminate the “concealed” part. After all, what modern Republican can safely pick up a six-pack at Publix without waving an AR-15 around the aisles?
New York Magazine may have called DeSantis the “lesser evil,” but that’s not true. And if there is an issue where it may be true, DeSantis only sees that as a challenge.
So far, much of Trump’s response–when not pondering that crucial nickname selection—has been simply in the form of mimicking DeSantis’ positions. DeSantis bans books? Trump says he would ban books. DeSantis declares that he will gut education at universities so that no one is ever again offended by the specter of diversity or history outside the definition of the Heritage Foundation, Trump is right there with a plan to “reclaim our once great educational institutions from the radical Left” using the “secret weapon” of “the college accreditation system.” Which is really something when you consider Donald Trump’s own Trump University was fined $25 million for defrauding students.
What Trump actually means by this is that his plan would actually outlaw any training in diversity, equality, or inclusion. Don’t drop those classes, and every degree your university offers will no longer be considered real. It doesn’t stop at just ending courses in these areas. It would require anyone who had been involved in such training to be fired because, according to Trump, diversity and equality are “Marxist” plots.
What students would get from this new, universal Trump University is a degree which honors “the American tradition and Western civilization.” Stonewall Jackson? Hero. Harriet Tubman? Wait … who is that?
It might seem like these blunt, undisguised indoctrination plans from both DeSantis and Trump would be the most extreme positions. But no position is ever the most extreme. Six months from now, both will be decrying this position as so liberal that it might as well be taught by Antifa and sponsored by George Soros.
DeSantis' every move is to position himself further right. Trump’s only counter is to either match, or exceed DeSantis. Remember all those stories in the past about “the Overton window” and the steps by which the Republican Party worked to make radical ideas more acceptable to the public? Forget them. Overton was defenestrated years ago. Trump and DeSantis will simply stake out new positions that are more and more (and more, and more, and more) awful. Then they’ll turn around and sneer at the other one for failing to be sufficiently horrific.
Maybe this game of authoritarian leapfrog will lead the GOP off a cliff. It seems a likely conclusion. But it’s just as likely to leave behind a long list of positions, and millions of Americans to support them, that are so much worse than anything already expressed, that we can’t imagine them from our warm, comfy place here in the oh-so-stable and reasonable 2023.
This “Florida Man” primary is going to hurt. Pray that the ones it hurts most are Trump and DeSantis.
Jennifer Fernandez Ancona from Way to Win joins Markos and Kerry to talk about the new messaging the Democratic Party’s national candidates are employing going into 2024. Ancona was right about the messaging needed to win the midterms, and we think she’s right about 2024.