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The One Thing Trump Has That DeSantis Never Will
Guest EssayCredit...Damon Winter/The New York TimesBy Sam Adler-BellMr. Adler-Bell is a writer and a host of “Know Your Enemy,” a podcast about the conservative movement.Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is in a trap of his own devising. His path to the Republican presidential nomination depends on convincing Donald Trump’s base that he represents a more

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Guest Essay

International News Ron DeSantis in a crowd of people waving books for him to sign.
Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

By Sam Adler-Bell

Mr. Adler-Bell is a writer and a host of “Know Your Enemy,” a podcast about the conservative movement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is in a trap of his own devising. His path to the Republican presidential nomination depends on convincing Donald Trump’s base that he represents a more committed and disciplined version of the former president, that he shares their populist grievances and aims only to execute the Trump agenda with greater forcefulness and skill. But it also depends on convincing a G.O.P. elite grown weary of Mr. Trump’s erratic bombast (not to mention electoral losses and legal jeopardy) that he, Mr. DeSantis, represents a more responsible alternative: shrewd where Mr. Trump is reckless; bookish where Mr. Trump is philistine; scrupulous, cunning and detail-oriented where Mr. Trump is impetuous and easily bored. In short, to the base, Mr. DeSantis must be more Trump than Trump, and to the donors, less.

Thus far, Mr. DeSantis has had greater success with party elites. By pairing aggressive stances on the culture wars with free-market economics and an appeal to his own competence and expertise, Mr. DeSantis has managed to corral key Republican megadonors, Murdoch media empire executives and conservative thought leaders from National Review to the Claremont Institute. He polls considerably higher than Mr. Trump with wealthy, college-educated, city- and suburb-dwelling Republicans. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, retains his grip on blue-collar, less educated and rural conservatives. For the G.O.P., the primary fight has begun to tell an all-too-familiar story: It’s the elites vs. the rabble.

Mr. Trump, for his part, appears to have taken notice of this incipient class divide (and perhaps of the dearth of billionaires rushing to his aid). In the past few weeks, he has skewered Mr. DeSantis as a tool for “globalist” plutocrats and the Republican old guard. Since his indictment by a Manhattan grand jury, Mr. Trump has sought to further solidify his status as the indispensable people’s champion, attacked on all sides by a conspiracy of liberal elites. While donors and operatives may prefer a more housebroken populism, it is Mr. Trump’s surmise that large parts of the base still want the real thing, warts and all.

If his wager pays off, it will be a sign not just of his continued dominance over the Republican Party but also of something deeper: an ongoing revolt against “the best and brightest,” the notion that only certain people, with certain talents, credentials and subject matter expertise, are capable of governing.

During his second inaugural speech in Tallahassee in January, Mr. DeSantis embraced the culture wars pugilism that has made him a Fox News favorite; he railed against “open borders,” “identity essentialism,” the “coddling” of criminals and “attacking” of law enforcement. “Florida,” he reminded his audience, with a favored if clunky applause line, “is where woke goes to die!”

But the real focus — as with his speech at the National Conservatism conference in Miami in September — was on results (a word he repeated). Mr. DeSantis promised competent leadership; “sanity” and “liberty” were his motifs. For most of the speech, the governor sounded very much the Reaganite conservative from central casting. “We said we would ensure that Florida taxed lightly, regulated reasonably and spent conservatively,” he said, “and we delivered.”

In general, Mr. DeSantis’s populism is heavy on cultural grievances and light on economic ones. The maneuvers that tend to endear him to the nationalist crowd — flying a few dozen Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, attempting to ban “critical race theory” at public colleges and retaliating against Disney for criticizing his “Don’t Say Gay” bill — are carefully calibrated to burnish his populist bona fides without unduly provoking G.O.P. elites who long for a return to relative conservative normalcy.

Indeed, Republican megadonors like the Koch family and the hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin appear to admire Mr. DeSantis in spite of the populist firebrand he periodically plays on TV. Mr. Griffin recently told Politico’s Shia Kapos he aims, as Ms. Kapos described it, to “blunt” the populism that has turned some Republican politicians against the corporate world. Mr. Griffin gave $5 million to Mr. DeSantis’s re-election campaign.

Mr. DeSantis’s principal claim to being Mr. Trump’s legitimate heir, perhaps, is his handling of the Covid pandemic in Florida. Mr. DeSantis depicts his decision to reopen the state and ban mask mandates as a bold move against technocrats and scientists, denizens of what he calls the “biomedical security state.”

But his disdain for experts is selective. While deciding how to address the pandemic, Mr. DeSantis collaborated with the Stanford epidemiologist Jay Bhattacharya (“He’d read all the medical literature — all of it, not just the abstracts,” Dr. Bhattacharya told The New Yorker) and followed the recommendations of a group of epidemiologists from Stanford, Harvard and Oxford who pushed for a swifter reopening. Mr. DeSantis’s preference for their recommendations over those of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t signify a rejection of expertise as such, only an embrace of alternative expertise. Mr. DeSantis wanted to save Florida’s tourism economy, and he found experts who would advise him to do so.

In reality, Mr. DeSantis is not against elites, exactly; he aims merely to replace the current elite (in academia, corporations and government) with a more conservative one, with experts who have not been infected, as Mr. DeSantis likes to say, by “the woke mind virus.” The goal is not to do away with the technocratic oligarchy, but to repopulate it — with people like Ron DeSantis.

Earlier generations of American thinkers had higher aspirations. “The reign of specialized expertise,” wrote the historian Christopher Lasch in 1994, “is the antithesis of democracy.” In the 19th century, European visitors were impressed (and unnerved) to find even farmers and laborers devouring periodicals and participating in the debating societies of early America. The defining feature of America’s democratic experiment, Mr. Lasch insisted, was “not the chance to rise in the social scale” but “the complete absence of a scale that clearly distinguished commoners from gentlemen.”

Twentieth-century capitalism, Mr. Lasch thought, had resulted in a perilous maldistribution of intelligence and competence; experts had usurped governance, while the value of practical experience had plummeted.

Mr. Lasch briefly came into vogue among conservatives during the Trump years, but they never grasped his central claim: that generating equality of competence would require economic redistribution.

In his 2011 book, Mr. DeSantis railed against the “‘leveling’ spirit” that threatens to take hold in a republic, especially among the lower orders. His principal target in the book is “redistributive justice,” by which he apparently means any effort at all to share the benefits of economic growth more equitably — whether using government power to provide for the poor or to guarantee health care, higher wages or jobs.

The essential ingredients of his worldview remain the same. Mr. DeSantis has adopted a populist idiom, but he has no more sympathy now than he did 12 years ago for the “‘leveling’ spirit” — the ethos of disdain for expertise that Mr. Trump embodied when he burst onto the national political stage in 2015. In fact, Mr. DeSantis’s posture represents a bulwark against it: an effort to convince G.O.P. voters that their enemies are cultural elites, rather than economic ones; that their liberty is imperiled, not by the existence of an oligarchy but by the oligarchs’ irksome cultural mores.

Mr. DeSantis has honed an agenda that attacks progressive orthodoxies where they are most likely to affect and annoy conservative elites: gay and trans inclusion in suburban schools, diversity and equity in corporate bureaucracies, Black studies in A.P. classes and universities. None of these issues have any appreciable impact on the opportunities afforded to working-class people. And yet conservative elites treat it as an article of faith that these issues will motivate the average Republican voter.

The conservative movement has staked its viability on the belief that Americans resent liberal elites because they’re “woke” and not because they wield so much power over other people’s lives. Their promise to replace the progressive elite with a conservative one — with men like Ron DeSantis — is premised on the idea that Americans are comfortable with the notion that only certain men are fit to rule.

Mr. Trump, despite what he sometimes represents, is no more likely than Mr. DeSantis to disrupt the American oligarchy. (As president, he largely let the plutocrats in his cabinet run the country.)

Few politicians on either side appear eager to unleash — rather than contain — America’s leveling spirit, to give every American the means and not merely the right to rule themselves.

To break through the elite standoff that is our culture war, politicians must resist the urge to designate a single leader or group of leaders, distinguished by their brilliance, to shoulder the hard work of making America great. It would mean taking seriously a proverb frequently quoted by Barack Obama but hardly embodied by his presidency: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It would also mean, to quote a line from the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle favored by Mr. Lasch, that the goal of our republic — of any republic — should be to build “a whole world of heroes.”