If you thought Donald Trump represented a unique danger to the American system of government, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to the growing menace from Tallahassee.
Some of the same commentators whose hair has been on fire about Trump are now warning that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is “more of a threat” and “far more dangerous.”
This is an extraordinary level of hysteria over a competent, popular Sunbelt governor who has never schemed to reverse the outcome of an election.
The DeSantis-hating opponents of Trump are effectively saying, “Sure, Donald Trump led an insurrection and represents an ongoing threat to American democracy, but hey, that other guy refused to let schools impose mask mandates on kids — he’s much worse.”
Progressives need to decide if they consider a possible repeat of a Trump-led efforts to undermine a presidential election the chief danger to our system, or whether they consider populist-inflected conservatism itself the real peril.
If it is the former, DeSantis is the way out of the purported crisis. If it is the latter, DeSantis is indeed a bigger threat than Trump, since he’d have a better chance of winning a 2024 race and a better chance of governing effectively.
By any reasonable standard, DeSantis’ supposed sins are peccadilloes compared to Trump’s failings.
Trump tried to bully his vice president into changing or blocking the counting of the electoral votes and then watched as a braying mob targeted him; DeSantis ended COVID strictures much earlier than his blue state counterparts.
Trump may or may not have lunged at the steering wheel of his SUV as it took him back to the White House on Jan. 6 instead of to the Capitol; DeSantis signed a bill to prevent kids from being taught gender ideology in grades K-3.
Trump has continued to promote conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and endorse candidates who believe in them; DeSantis criticized Anthony Fauci.
There is no doubt that DeSantis reflects a new more Trumpian Republican Party. Still, there is nothing aberrant about him. His state-of-the-state address this year, with freedom as its central theme, could have been delivered by any conservative Republican governor of the past three decades.
Even if you take the dimmest view of all that DeSantis has done — from battling COVID mandates to trying to keep woke instruction out of schools to pushing new congressional lines favorable to Republicans — it makes him a sharp-elbowed partisan with mistaken priorities, not a clear and present danger to American democracy. None of it is remotely comparable to Trump’s post-election conduct.
DeSantis may be “Trumpy” in notable respects, but he doesn’t exhibit any of Trump’s character flaws.
He is tough on reporters, but he hasn’t engaged in any taunting or gratuitous insults.
He is a sharp political player, which isn’t unusual of powerful governors, but isn’t fundamentally driven by personal vendettas.
He hasn’t governed via tweet, with seat-of-the-pants edicts quickly reversed or forgotten when he’s talked out of them.
He is a voracious consumer of information and isn’t prone to ill-informed riffs.
He hasn’t shown a chronic inability to distinguish between his personal interest and the public interest.
He pays close attention to his voters but is willing to pursue policies that aren’t driven by his base, such as higher teacher pay and robust environmental protection.
And, of course, he has never once lost an election to Joe Biden, and cast about for any reason to deny the result out of ego and pique.
In all the ways that should matter, in short, DeSantis is better than Trump, and compared to the former president, he is reassuringly normal. In a better world, this would win him some grudging praise from unexpected quarters. Instead, because he’s a conservative Republican with some chance to be his party’s presidential nominee, he is ipso facto considered a threat to the republic.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.