The worst presidential campaign in recent history has come to a completely predictable end.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ended his quixotic run for the White House two days before the New Hampshire primary and just a week after failing to win any of the 99 counties in Iowa, losing to Donald Trump by over 30 points. He announced it on social media and quickly endorsed Trump. An ABC news story characterized his exit from the race as due to his failure to “overtake rival Donald Trump,” which is like saying miniature golf is still golf.
“We don’t have a path to victory. We don’t have a clear path to victory,” DeSantis said in a video posted on X (formerly known as Twitter). “A majority of Republican primary voters want to give Donald Trump another chance. While I’ve had disagreements with Donald Trump, such as on the coronavirus pandemic and his elevation of Anthony Fauci, Trump is superior to the incumbent, Joe Biden. That is clear. I signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee and I will honor that pledge.” The speech was ridiculed for misattributing quotes to Winston Churchill.
To some degree, this is bad news for some of us DeSantis haters, and there are a whole lot of us in Florida, whether you are a Democrat, Republican or Independent. We wanted this to keep going, all the way into Super Tuesday and if possible but improbable, beyond that date. The public display of humiliation, which was becoming almost ritualistic to all of those paying attention to the increasingly low-stakes GOP primary, and the content, the discourse and the dialectic it produced, was bizarre yet rewarding to witness.
Now Floridians have this sorry excuse for a governor back in the state. A nasty, mean, vindictive, petty man who had his lifelong ambition – which he believes was preordained by god – stripped from him, and guess who he’s going to take it out on? The rest of us, and if you think the sycophantic lawmakers who make up the Florida legislature will suddenly find the courage to stand up to DeSantis, you’re dreaming. We are a long way gone from the days in which Floridians saw independent-minded state lawmakers clash against former Gov. Rick Scott.
It was always clear to me that DeSantis and the rest of his Tallahassee cronies would line up behind Trump in the end. That is exactly what we saw on Sunday, when the Florida lawmakers who turned the state legislature into a senseless outrage machine that only served to give DeSantis red meat for his campaign, finally pressed send on the draft posts they had written days ago, prostrating themselves for DeSantis by claiming he ran a good campaign (when he didn’t), and following that up by endorsing Trump.
DeSantis himself bent the knee and endorsed Trump despite the constant humiliation he experienced throughout the primary at the hands of the former president. There were the nicknames, DeSanctimonious, DeSanctus, Tiny D, Deep State Ron, Meatball Ron and Rob — so weirdly disrespectful in its simplicity by dismissively getting his name slightly wrong.
Most of the Republican Party is lining up behind Trump at a rapid pace, cementing what anyone paying attention knew a year ago. Americans will most likely see a rematch of the 2020 election, forced to vote between two unpopular candidates that most people do not like or have confidence in their ability to serve as president.
The chickens are coming home to roost for DeSantis. For years he has been on a warpath against anyone whom he even so much as perceives to have slighted him or shown any degree of disloyalty towards him. He has waged proxy battles within the Republican Party of Florida over bylaws, obsessed over no-name Florida House and Senate members’ endorsements and threatened lobbyists with vetoing their projects if they don’t contribute to him, amounting to years and years of acrimony, and a lack of goodwill to say the least.
The best example of how DeSantis discards anyone who he thinks is no longer useful to him is his treatment of Susie Wiles, a long-time Republican operative who was instrumental in Trump’s 2016 Florida operation. People might not remember this, but when Ron DeSantis became the GOP nominee for governor in 2018 against Andrew Gillum, he was caught completely flat-footed.
DeSantis started his gubernatorial campaign by telling voters to not “monkey this up” by electing Gillum, who was running to be Florida’s first Black governor. Following rightful indignation at what was a pretty racist comment – the DeSantis campaign brought in Wiles to fix the PR crisis, build the necessary infrastructure, and set him on a path to win, which he did – narrowly. How did DeSantis repay the favor? He immediately sidelined Wiles due to his perception that she was more loyal to Trump, going so far as to get her fired from her cushy consultant gig at Ballard Partners and attempting to blackball her with the rest of the Tallahassee corrupt, swampy consultancy firms. They even got the Trump people to turn against her, back when the Trump and DeSantis honeymoon was still a thing.
Things changed when Trump and DeSantis began clashing due to the Florida governor’s obvious interest in running for president. Wiles was brought back into the Trump sphere, becoming an operative in his presidential campaign, and on Sunday she tweeted “bye-bye” as DeSantis dropped out. What this sorry episode shows is that though DeSantis and Trump are both conniving, backstabbing politicians who will not hesitate to step on anyone’s head to get just a little bit higher, Trump has a bizarre charisma that DeSantis lacks.
For all of the sharp-elbowed positions that DeSantis would take and all of his claims to “never back down,” everything DeSantis did was intended to ingratiate himself to Trump voters by trying to make himself seem like a Trump. He would even imitate Trump’s mannerisms during his speeches. It never seemed fun. It was just sad to watch.
DeSantis was blessed in Florida by lackluster opposition. He skated into the GOP nomination for governor in 2018 because of a Trump endorsement and barely won the general election with just 30,000 votes or half of a percentage point. From there his main opponent in the state was the Florida Democratic Party, which was underfunded, unorganized, undisciplined and lacking serious candidates. But the moment DeSantis stepped onto the national stage he instantly crumbled under the spotlight, whether it was chastising a child for drinking a sugary Icee or fighting with a fourth-grade teacher and telling her “m’am it’s not your show” at one of his events.
His campaign was staffed by incompetent hyper-online operatives who lived in a digital right-wing bubble. Jeremy Redfern, Christina Pushaw and Bryan Griffin were all staffers who spent most of their time fighting on social media and bullying journalists. The campaign had to constantly clean up after themselves, like the time they posted a video containing a Nazi symbol or the homophobic video that compared DeSantis to Patrick Bateman from the movie American Psycho.
In another truly inexplicable move, DeSantis surrendered the main thrust of his operations to a Super PAC ironically named Never Back Down. This was to skirt campaign finance laws but ultimately it created chaos, since Super PACs are not allowed to directly coordinate with candidate campaigns, something they still tried to do but ultimately just generated more bad headlines for the campaign. Never Back Down hired Jeff Roe, who is touted as a celebrity consultant but is mostly just another self-absorbed hyper-online guy who also spent most of his time feuding on social media. Roe has racked up a losing streak that seems to defy even the statistical probability of eventually scoring a win by sheer luck and has run the unsuccessful campaigns of Adam Laxalt (Nevada), Carla Sands (Pennsylvania), Dave McCormick (Pennsylvania), Jim Lamon (Arizona), Josh Mandel (Ohio) and Martha McSally (Arizona, twice). He is like King Midas if everything he touched turned to crap instead of gold. All of these consultants made a lot of money by losing DeSantis the primary in a humiliating fashion but ultimately, it was the candidate who was unsalvageable. It was always destined to fail and to fail quickly. How else can you explain a guy losing this badly when he had $200 million in his campaign coffers, the backing of billionaires like Elon Musk and Ken Griffin, the Fox News machine completely behind him, and his main opponent facing 91 criminal charges?
People have ridiculed DeSantis for running a campaign as bad as Jeb Bush’s in 2016, but at least the latter made it to South Carolina. I’m not trying to make a case for Bush’s disastrous presidential bid, but Jeb also didn’t make the perplexing choice to launch his campaign bid on Twitter, an event plagued with technical failures, long uncomfortable silences, going down a rabbit warren of obscure right-wing policy obsessions, crappy audio quality, and a lack of any visuals for his team to clip, which are standard for today’s digital and media ecosystem.
The campaign website that DeSantis’s team unveiled on the night of his announcement was mobile only and when you refreshed it, a little avatar of his head on the browser would bobble ridiculously, just like DeSantis’s head infamously did when asked on a trip to Japan if he was running for president. It was almost like his staff hated him.
Despite having lost the opportunity to inflict pain on a national scale, DeSantis has done a lot of damage to Florida, a state already suffering from an acute cost-of-living crisis that exacerbated under his tenure. He has negatively impacted a lot of people’s lives, whether they’re migrant workers, LGBTQ youth and families, educators facing increasing censorship, people who were arrested after being told their voting rights were restored, or students who saw their college being hijacked by right-wingers and politicians who turned it into a well-paid nepotism program. Some things have been irrevocably broken in Florida and they may take a long time to be put back together again.
DeSantis’s legacy will ultimately be the destruction of the right’s pretense to fight for small government, which conservatives have traditionally held in the United States since the Reagan era. George W. Bush inflated the federal bureaucracy to historic levels after 9/11 with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, along with the curtailing of civil liberties through the Patriot Act, something that has not been rectified by following administrations, whether Republican or Democratic.
It was DeSantis who finally made it clear: We believe that the government is an instrument for us to bludgeon and force our ideas on the populace, whether it’s through intimidating the media or using the bureaucracy to impose our ideology on a public that might not agree with us. It’s old-school European fascism, a descent into Viktor Orbán-style illiberalism, right here in the Sunshine State. After all, DeSantis sabotaged a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions, gerrymandered congressional districts to dilute Black voting power, signed into law measures to limit access to the ballot box, tried to criminalize free speech and the right to protest, pushed legislation targeting immigrants, and employed messianic evangelical language to rally a fundamentalist vision of society that’s completely out of step with modernity and progress.
But DeSantis being remembered as a bad footnote in history is an assumption based on him and his ilk not coming to power and writing the history books 30 years from now. In an era in which political options seem to be between rapid and managed decline, it’s difficult to tell.
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