Andrew G. Bjelland: Utah may be a pro-DeSantis bellwether

DeSantis would launch an all-out assault on democracy.

(Rebecca Blackwell | AP) Incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrives to speak to supporters at an election night party after winning his race for reelection in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Three months ago Donald J. Trump announced his third run for the presidency. Thus far his campaign has proven unimpressive. Funding has fallen far short of expectations. Individual mega-donors are abandoning him. Archly conservative organizations such as Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth oppose his nomination. National polls indicate many Republican voters are ready to move on, with Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis likely to be Trump’s strongest primary challenger.

Utah is emerging as a pro-DeSantis bellwether. Even before Trump’s announcement, nearly 100 Utah Republican officials signed a statement urging DeSantis to enter the race. Recent Utah polls indicate DeSantis would be Trump’s most formidable challenger. A January 23, 2023, Utah Public Opinion Pulse poll indicated 42% of voters favored Trump, but DeSantis, at 29%, came in a strong second. Respondents to a December 3, 2022, Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll preferred DeSantis over Trump, 24.2% to 14.6%, placing DeSantis first within a field of five.

If Trump fails to secure the GOP nomination, the Republican candidate will bear the taint of the former president’s election denialism, his resentments, his assaults on democratic institutions and his divisiveness.

DeSantis would prove no exception. He, like Trump, is an effective practitioner of the paranoid style in politics — the style delineated by Richard Hofstadter in 1964. Hofstadter cited the heated exaggerations, unfounded suspicions, and conspiratorial fantasies whereby demagogues leverage “the animosities and passions of a small minority” to their own political advantage.

DeSantis divisiveness is evident in his rigid anti-abortion stance; his cynical employment of asylum seekers as political pawns; his attacks on a largely fabricated “wokeness;” his anti-LGBTQ extremism — the extremism displayed in his ongoing feud with the gay-friendly Mickey Mouse; his whitewashing of our nation’s history; his book banning and opposition to academic freedom; his anti-scientific and anti-vaccination posturing; his Big-Lie-inspired “justification” of voter suppression; his depiction of himself as God’s chosen fighter in the culture wars.

The Florida governor employs populist tactics, but is at heart an elitist libertarian. In his 2011 book “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers,” DeSantis stated his guiding thesis: Our nation’s founders “strived to construct a system … that prevented government-mandated wealth redistribution.” He described the Affordable Care Act and the federal bureaucracy as despotic “constraints on the whole of society.” Although he did not directly oppose Social Security and Medicare, such opposition is consistent with his extreme anti-redistributionism.

DeSantis also endorses the demeaning meme often misattributed to Benjamin Franklin: “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

Franklin in fact explicitly endorsed the classic liberal position: Individuals have the “natural right” to the property that is necessary for survival and “the propagation of the species.” No one can justly deprive any individual of that basic property. Property beyond that required to meet fundamental needs, however, belongs to “the public, who by their laws have created it.” When “the welfare of the public” demands it, this superfluous property can be lawfully appropriated and redistributed to promote the common good.

Franklin concluded: “He that does not like civil society on these terms…can have no right to society’s benefits…[for he does] not pay [his just dues] towards the support of it.”

A number of “moderate” Republican politicians and conservative pundits have already jumped onto the DeSantis bandwagon. They recognize that DeSantis, if elected president, would be the solid anti-redistributionist of their dreams. They know he, more effectively than Trump, would pursue the conservative agenda: lower taxes, promote deregulation, privatize government services, further shred America’s social safety-net and increase the gush of wealth into plutocrats’ already overflowing coffers.

DeSantis, like Trump, is a populist demagogue — a divider, not a uniter. Unlike Trump, he is a highly educated, politically experienced and focused libertarian ideologue. If DeSantis were to be elected president, his ideological commitments would ensure America’s income, wealth, healthcare, education and housing gaps would widen and deepen. He would ignore the considered preferences of the moderate majority and further undermine representative democracy.

Andrew G. Bjelland

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University. He resides in Salt Lake City.