Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump are two similar characters with one critically important distinction: DeSantis is a capable statesman, while the former president is not.
Trump galvanized working-class people like no other Republican in recent memory. His call for the forgotten men and women to be forgotten no longer resonated deeply with the disaffected and dejected in our nation’s heartland. Populist sentiments that had long been brewing, largely ignored by the political class, were finally given an outlet through Trump.
Yet for all his anti-elite saber-rattling, Trump did surprisingly little to depart from conservative economic and civic orthodoxy. As good as that might have been from a conservative perspective, it was not quite what the people had been sold.
Tax reform, an increasingly conservative judiciary, and relative peace in the Middle East are all nice, but they're hardly the issues that convinced voters, many of them not traditional conservatives, to vote for Trump in 2016. Indeed, the deterioration in Trump’s performance in the Rust Belt in the 2020 election hints that those forgotten men and women might have felt forgotten by Trump.
Midwestern, white, working-class voters proved crucial in the last two presidential elections. If Republicans are to win that constituency again, they need someone with a track record of delivering populist policy.
That man is DeSantis, the Florida governor.
DeSantis has proven himself willing to take action. While other Republicans engage in trivial grandstanding only to back down when it really matters, DeSantis appears uniquely capable of actually using the state to the advantage of the public.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made waves in the spring when she announced her refusal to sign a bill barring transgender athletes from school sports, citing concerns that the NCAA could challenge the legislation. Noem was not willing to take on institutional resistance in the name of upholding traditional values.
DeSantis, whose state carries a lot more weight in the world of college athletics, signed his own bill a few weeks back banning transgender athletes from female sports. He made it explicitly clear that he would not allow special interests to influence policy to the detriment of Floridians.
When signing the bill, DeSantis said Florida “will stand up to groups, like the NCAA, who think that they should be able to dictate the policies in different states — not here, not ever.” He refused to dismiss the people's will at the behest of a small group of the wealthy and politically potent.
DeSantis is a textbook and, more importantly, competent populist.
DeSantis even managed to score a blow against Big Tech, Trump’s prime corporate adversary. The former president “monitored the situation” as his supporters were banned en masse from social media and courted technology oligarchs at White House dinners, all while musing about the unfairness of their business practices. Conversely, the gentleman from Florida pulled no punches. DeSantis pushed an aggressive bill, the first of its kind, that would impose heavy fines on social media companies for de-platforming political candidates. If the bill survives legal challenges, it could very well proliferate across the nation and impose actual costs on those who seek to stifle conservative speech.
During his short tenure as governor, DeSantis has maintained an unwavering commitment to keeping Florida open, passed anti-riot legislation bringing order to the streets, instituted mandatory E-Verify to protect workers, brought prayer back into schools, banned critical race theory, and curbed communist China's influence in public education. The man can take hold of controversial issues and come out on top with government action favorable to his voters.
Trump may have started the Republican Party’s populist realignment, but DeSantis deserves credit for actually doing something with it.