A common refrain in the Trump era was that despite all of Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic ambitions, he was too incompetent to carry out a wholescale remaking of U.S. society. There’s no question his four years in office had a profound, disastrous effect on the people and communities his administration targeted — immigrants, Muslims and trans people, just to name a few. Plus, his openly fascist rhetoric — and sometimes actions — significantly emboldened the far right. However, both his legislative agenda, and to a lesser extent his exercise of executive authority, were likely hampered by his lack of experience in elected office and overall laziness, lack of discipline and inattention to detail.
Many advocates understandably fear that Trump’s eventual Republican presidential successor, whoever they are, could combine the most toxic elements of Trumpism with a greater degree of technocratic skill. A more-competent Trump could do even greater damage to U.S. political infrastructure, like the refugee resettlement system that Trump dismantled, that could take decades to rebuild. A more-competent Trump could also potentially shepherd through a legislative agenda that far exceeded Trump’s, which consisted primarily of a standard-fare Republican tax cut for the wealthy.
Currently, the most likely GOP successor to Trump seems to be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who regularly ranks as Republicans’ top choice in the 2024 presidential primary if Trump declines to run. Trump’s polling lead over DeSantis appears to be narrowing in recent months, though any surveys this far out should be taken with a grain of salt. Everything in DeSantis’s public record suggests that he poses a serious threat to democracy, the working class and marginalized communities. DeSantis recently signed into law some of the nation’s most stringent anti-critical race theory legislation, and ordered a review of the state’s university system to determine if professors were “indoctrinating” students into a “stale ideology,” clearly a reference to ideas ranging from anti-racism to socialism. He’s also pushing a bill that would prevent teachers and private businesses from making white people feel “discomfort” when learning about the history of racist oppression in the United States.
DeSantis has also recently staked out his position as more anti-vaccine, anti-booster than Trump himself. In December, the Florida governor refused to say if he’d gotten a COVID booster when asked by Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo. “I’ve done whatever I did, the normal shot,” DeSantis said. DeSantis got the Johnson & Johnson single dose in April, and stonewalled in October when asked if he would get a booster.
These statements, as well as DeSantis’s rising stature in the national Republican Party, seem to have rankled Trump. In comments that were widely understood to be directed at DeSantis, Trump criticized politicians who wouldn’t say if they had gotten a COVID booster shot. Many Republican politicians had in fact gotten the booster, “but they don’t want to say it. Because they’re gutless,” Trump said on the far right One America News Network. “You gotta say it — whether you had it or not.” (At a rally in December, Trump told the crowd that he’d gotten the booster. They booed him in response.)
Several days later, Axios reported Trump has been calling DeSantis a “dull personality” in private meetings. Also, in that report, Trump aides claimed the former president was angry that DeSantis hasn’t pledged not to challenge Trump in the 2024 GOP primary, should he run again. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman tweeted that she’d heard similar frustrations from those in Trump world, who said Trump thought DeSantis should be showing him more “deference.”
DeSantis, for his part, has taken shots at Trump as well. On the conservative “Ruthless” podcast, the governor said one of his biggest regrets since taking office was not being “much louder” in opposing Trump’s calls for soft lockdowns as COVID initially spread throughout the country and world.
DeSantis also appears to be shoring up support from conservative media stars to build a parallel track of public support, separate from his standing with Trump. On the anniversary of the January 6 storming of the Capitol, the Florida governor gathered “nine prominent social media stars in Tallahassee,” Politico reported. Blaze TV’s Sara Gonzales told Politico it “would be a mistake for DeSantis not to run,” and that many conservatives were “hungry for someone with the guts to speak for them without fear of repercussions, but also without the obvious baggage that Trump carries.”
However, despite the simmering tensions between the two men, neither appears eager to engage in an all-out attack on the other. Last week, Trump told reporters that he has a “very good relationship” with DeSantis. He reminded them of his early support for the Florida politician when he was a relatively unknown congressman making a longshot bid for governor. DeSantis “won the [gubernatorial] election the day I announced that I was going to give him my endorsement,” Trump said on the call. He made similar comments to New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters in a forthcoming book, underscoring the degree to which Trump believes he’s responsible for DeSantis’s success. “Look, I helped Ron DeSantis at a level that nobody’s ever seen before,” Trump told Peters.
Despite the emerging personal rivalry between DeSantis and Trump, the two are ideologically nearly identical, and also govern in a similar manner. DeSantis reportedly rules Florida with an iron fist and demands total fealty and loyalty, just as Trump does. “Ron DeSantis is essentially the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and the chief justice of the Supreme Court right now,” one Republican legislator recently told Politico. Another GOP state legislator said in the same report that it’s “well known you can’t go against him. If you cross him once, you’re dead.”
In another clear echo of Trumpism, DeSantis is pushing for the creation of a new, so-called election police force. The new sub-agency, whose proposed official name is the Office of Election Crimes and Security, would operate under the Department of State, which is controlled by the governor. Voting rights advocates are understandably alarmed, citing the extremely low levels of deliberate voter fraud and arguing that the goal of the new sub-agency is to depress turnout, particularly among Black voters and other groups historically targeted for harassment.
Also worrisome is a new proposed congressional district map released by DeSantis’s office, an incredibly rare phenomenon. “DeSantis’ map would cut in half the number of African American districts from four on current proposed congressional maps to two, while boosting the number of seats Donald Trump would have won in 2020 to 18 from the 16 on the map currently being considered by the GOP-led Florida Senate,” Politico reported.
The 2024 primary will semi-officially start this year, after the November midterms. Trump hasn’t announced whether he’ll run, but all signs suggest that he will. DeSantis is a young, popular, far-right politician who doesn’t command the base of the party like Trump does, but comes closer than any other potential challenger at the moment. Ever since Trump’s upset victory in 2016, those on both the right and the left have wondered what Trumpism without Trump might look like. In DeSantis, we could be seeing an answer.