Ron DeSantis thinks he can troll his way to the White House — but there's a big flaw in his strategy
Ron DeSantis (Screen Grab)

Wednesday in Philadelphia bore witness to one of those moments in politics where it's hard to avoid succumbing to pure cynicism. Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis made his way to the City of Brotherly Love to receive an "award" from a group called the Union League, a once-venerable institution that has turned itself into a right-wing country club. Unsurprisingly, he was most definitely not welcome in the very liberal, racially diverse city, especially after recent reports that DeSantis had banned African-American history courses on the grounds that they have no "educational value." Sure enough, his appearance was met with a robust protest that featured Black community leaders giving speeches denouncing racism and a crowd of people waving queer inclusivity flags and holding up Black Lives Matter signs.

Watching this spectacle on social media, I was torn.

Part of me was proud to see so many people braving the cold to stand up for democracy and against the authoritarian politics DeSantis peddles. But I also have no doubt that DeSantis was thrilled by this display, which was no doubt exactly what he hoped he'd get coming to Philly. The whole thing was an obvious troll, meant to "trigger the liberals" and get this angry reaction. The crowd heckled people going in and took their photos in hopes of "outing" them, but rather than react with shame, the attendees gloated, smiled, and laughed. As with the January 6 insurrectionists who filmed themselves, the face of modern fascism is proud and defiant. I will not be surprised if DeSantis uses footage from the protest in a campaign ad.

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Trolling, after all, is the entirety of the DeSantis campaign strategy. It's how he won Florida and how he clearly intends to win the White House, by dunking on one "triggered" liberal at a time. It's why DeSantis does stupid stuff like pretend to believe President Joe Biden is taking away a gas stove he likely has no idea how to operate. It's why he embraced the spectacle of showing up in Philadelphia, a city he has never lived in and has no real relationship to. Being seen protested by "the libs," especially if they are predominantly people of color, is the most surefire way to gain popularity with the MAGA base. It's pure tribalist warfare.

As Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times pointed out Tuesday, DeSantis doesn't just troll for attention, but also to distract Republican voters from the array of policies he supports that they very much do not want. "By leaning into high-profile battles as a culture warrior par excellence," Bouie writes, "DeSantis has made himself the hero of conservative elites and the bête noire of liberals and Democrats without so much as mentioning his radical and unpopular views on social insurance and the welfare state."

For instance, as Bouie points out, DeSantis has been a fierce opponent not just of the Affordable Care Act, but Social Security and Medicare, having voted in Congress to strip a quarter trillion dollars from programs that allow retired Americans to survive. Democrats would be wise "to spend less time on cultural conflict and more time making the clear case that if given the chance, he would slash what's left of the safety net and use the proceeds to help the rich stay rich," Bouie writes.

Being seen protested by "the libs," especially if they are predominantly people of color, is the most surefire way to gain popularity with the MAGA base.

Bouie, as always, makes a strong point. The reason DeSantis won Florida is because he successfully appealed to the state's influx of white retirees, by using racist and sexist stunts to appeal to their bigotries while distracting from the fact that he wants to steal their nest eggs from under them. But, despite all the trolls cackling with delight at "triggering" the residents of Philadelphia, I must admit I'm not as worried as Bouie that Democrats are making a mistake by reminding voters on the regular that DeSantis is a book-burning, queerphobic, racist authoritarian.

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For one thing, there's no tension in voters' minds between "he's a bigot" and "he wants to take away Social Security." On the contrary, as with the attacks on democracy and attacks on abortion rights being seen as tandem issues by voters in the 2022 midterms, the bigotry and anti-safety net fanaticism can be tied together to make a case that DeSantis is a MAGA nut. Democrats should surely highlight DeSantis' desire to destroy our retirement system, but that can be done while also drawing attention to how he's hateful in all sorts of ways.

There's no doubt, of course, that there are still a ton of voters that are being tricked with the culture war antics into ignoring the economic threat of Republicanism. We see this every time Democrats lose a state or local election while Democratic policies — such as legal abortion or minimum wage hikes or the Medicaid expansion — win on ballot initiatives. But, as the last few elections have shown, the "big government bigots" voter bloc is shrinking, while the "fed up with MAGA B.S." bloc is growing.

DeSantis is going to find there is not much of a constituency for people who want Trump, but with less charisma.

In the 2022 midterms, Republicans across the country ran the DeSantis playbook of using election denialism, COVID-19 conspiracy theories, race-baiting over crime and the border and other such antics to distract from their plans to gut the economic fortunes of Americans. As a result, the predicted red wave never materialized.

After all, the master at the use of trolling and bigotry as a distraction is Trump. He successfully concealed plans to end Obamacare, for instance, with his loud racism and relentless Twitter buffoonery. But, in the end, all that just made most Americans hate him more. Trump isn't a uniquely loathed politician because of his bog standard GOP hostility to fair taxes and health care spending. His skill at provocation is also what makes most people dismiss him, correctly, as a terminal asshole. Only MAGA blowhards think all the trolling is cute. Everyone else is increasingly grossed out by it.

Yes, DeSantis won in 2022, unlike a lot of Republicans in the midterms. But that was in Florida, where the retired Fox News addict demographic is overrepresented. Those folks are still sadly way too likely to be bamboozled with dumb culture war stunts into voting for people who want to cut them off from their Social Security checks and Medicare coverage. The rest of the country, however, doesn't look like Florida. Instead, there's an anti-MAGA majority that is sick of the clown show, sick of the conspiracy theories, and sick of hate for its own sake.

His hatefulness might make him a contender in the GOP primary, but if he makes it to a general election I suspect DeSantis is going to find there is not much of a constituency for people who want Trump, but with less charisma.