Desperate Republicans turn to smug and charmless DeSantis as they struggle to ditch Trump
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis visits 2019 Miami Open at the Hard Rock Stadium in 2019. (Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com)

Don't look now, but the GOP elite are once again trying to find a way to get off the Donald Trump Express. This is roughly the 50th time that Beltway Republicans, tired of being tied to a half-literate and criminal reality TV host, have looked for a disembarking opportunity. This time, they're eyeballing Ron DeSantis Station, hoping the Yale and Harvard-educated Florida governor is cruel enough to win over Trump voters without bringing along all that Trump criminality baggage.

Hey, anything is possible, especially if the Department of Justice actually sucks it up and does the right thing in charging Trump for one or more of his many crimes. January 6, in particular, was a unique event in American history and it's still not entirely certain what the ramifications will be when Trump invariably runs for president again. But if what GOP elites are looking for is someone who can excite the lizard brains of the GOP base without all that pesky criminal baggage, well, DeSantis just isn't their guy.

Sure, DeSantis is performing fairly well in some polling match-ups against Trump right now, but that doesn't really mean much. It's common for there to be flare-ups of interest in primary challengers this far out from an election. Most voters aren't really paying attention and, likely, don't really know much about DeSantis or have even heard him talk. Once people start tuning in, however, these kinds of polling wrinkles tend to be ironed out.

Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, in a recent newsletter, took a shot at explaining why feels like DeSantis-mentum is more fantasy than reality. DeSantis, Cohen argues, is "a smug and charmless jerk" who "struggles to keep his inner hater under wraps." DeSantis, Cohen argues, has cultivated "an image as the country's angriest, pettiest, and most vindictive cultural warrior."

Trump speaks to people who like their white privilege, but also like Disney movies, having sex, and don't really care if their gay neighbors get married.

Of course, all that is also true of Trump. Cohen tries to square that circle by arguing that Trump, unlike DeSantis, "is charming and charismatic" to many Americans, "as crazy as it might seem."

Cohen is right that Trump has an appeal that DeSantis doesn't have. The Trump "charisma" is that of a schoolyard bully. His fans love his ease with insults and the total lack of shame Trump brings to sneering at people for being disabled, female, queer or people of color. His "shock jock" persona is aspirational, drawing in people who wish they, too, could just be shitty to people's faces without having to pay social consequences like losing their job or being banned from their wife's family gatherings.

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DeSantis, meanwhile, has serial killer energy. His sadism has appeal to the hardcore fundamentalist Christian base of the GOP, but it has an intensity that is likely off-putting to a huge chunk of Trump voters. The key to understanding Trump's popularity comes down to this: Trump has fooled huge numbers of people into believing he's not a radical right-winger.

That may sound nuts to political junkies who follow Trump's every move and know, for instance, that Roe v. Wade wouldn't have been overturned if not for Trump's commitment to nominating anti-choice judges. But it's worth remembering that a lot of Trump voters are people who don't really follow politics very closely and have no idea how in tune Trump is with the religious right's radical agenda.

On the contrary, what they know about Trump is that he's been married three times, has kids with all his wives, and is a chronic adulterer who has probably caused an abortion or ten in his lifetime. Trump's hilariously fake "Christianity," perversely, is reassuring to the segment of Republican-leaning voters who are racist and sexist, but also like having sex and aren't keen on having the Jesus police stationing themselves in American bedrooms.

The "I'm a Republican, but not a fundie" crowd is bigger than is generally acknowledged in American political discourse. A new poll from CNN shows that a full 29% of Republicans oppose the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. What Trump offers those voters — call them Dirtbag-Americans — is a way to feel like they can both be a Republican without having to "agree" with the religious right's stifling anti-sex attitudes.

Sure, it's an irrational stance. You may not "personally" agree with abortion bans, but if you keep voting for politicians who ban abortion, it doesn't really matter what's in your heart. But, in America at least, voting is often not treated as rational decision-making based on policy preferences. Instead, it's understood through a consumerist lens, as if it's an expression of personal identity. Trump's aesthetic is "oversexed sleaze" and, for the Joe Rogan/Barstool Sports voters that make up the Dirtbag vote, that matters more than Trump's material support for anti-sex policies. They can feel that Trump doesn't really mean it when he says he wants to ban abortion, so they ignore the fact that he is the one who actually made abortion bans happen.

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DeSantis, on the other hand, has made being a censorious fundamentalist his political identity, especially by enthusiastically backing the "don't say gay" law in Florida and declaring war on Disney for resisting him. There's nothing to hang onto for people looking for a reason to vote Republican, but who don't want to see themselves as the book-banning sex police. Picking on Disney, in particular, doesn't win you fans with people who rely on the company for their many fine products that keep kids entertained while you knock back brews with friends in the backyard.

Trump's death grip on the Republican Party really comes down to one thing: He turns out voters the party struggles to attract otherwise. The reason Trump's power over the GOP only grew after he lost the 2020 election is that he managed to pull in over 74 million voters, which was 7 million fewer than Joe Biden got, but 15 million more than, say, Mitt Romney got in 2012. That comes down to Trump's ability to pull in people who share the GOP's bigotry, but also don't want to be seen as prudes or killjoys. Trump speaks to people who like their white privilege, but also like Disney movies, having sex, and don't really care if their gay neighbors get married.

The January 6 insurrection may make it hard to ignore that Trump is a fascist, which could hurt him with the pro-choice/pro-Disney Republican voters. Interestingly, Rogan himself has turned on Trump, which is not good for keeping up goodwill with the dirtbag base. Still, focus group testing suggests Trump voters have found the rationalizations they need to disregard the Capitol riot.

But if Trump is going to be challenged in any meaningful way, Republicans need someone who has his ability to appeal to the Christian fundamentalists without scaring off that 29% of Republican voters that find all the anti-sex stuff off-putting. DeSantis, with his "don't say gay" law and pro-censorship stance, just tips too far into the prudery camp to keep those voters from fading away. As with every other attempt the Republican elites have mounted to take Trump out, dangling DeSantis as an alternative looks like a failure.

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