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If Ron DeSantis is Actually Less Dangerous Than Trump, Maybe He Should Say So

He supported Stop the Steal. Why assume he wouldn’t follow in Trump’s anti-democratic footsteps?
July 15, 2022
If Ron DeSantis is Actually Less Dangerous Than Trump, Maybe He Should Say So
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

There’s a weird proxy debate happening right now in the pundit class regarding the hypothetical Trump vs. DeSantis death match, a contest that is looking more and more likely following the former guy’s reveal about his intentions during an interview with Olivia Nuzzi, published yesterday.

The question at hand is whether Ron DeSantis would be less dangerous, less anti-democratic, and/or less authoritarian than Trump.

On one side of this debate you have the Trump-skeptical conservatives, ranging from good faith Never Trumpers trying to navigate this question, to not-so-good-faith Trump apologists who have spent seven years kicking and subtweeting—but who always seem to find their way back into Trump’s ample embrace. They argue that Trump is clearly more dangerous than DeSantis; some demonstrate disdain over the notion that this is even a question. (In the case of the anti-anti-Trumpers it turns out that some of them are finally willing to admit that Trump was dangerous—but only as a way to own the libs by plumping for DeSantis.)

On the other side you have the TDS-afflicted, the liberals, the people who don’t think it’s a great sign that King Ron is using the power of the state to force gay teachers back in the closet. They worry that DeSantis might be a more effective autocrat than Trump.

Honestly, I think a reasonable case could be made for either view. You can peruse the various links above if you want to decide for yourself. As for me, gun to my head, I’d side with the people saying DeSantis would be less of an existential threat.

To be clear—saying someone is less of an existential threat to democracy than Donald Trump might be the faintest praise ever uttered in American politics. It doesn’t carry with it any rejection of the many legitimate concerns that we small-“l” liberals have about a potential DeSantis administration. It merely acknowledges that Trump’s psychopathy is so extreme as to put him in a category all of his own. And as such, anything that keeps him from darkening the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue again is almost certainly an improvement.

But what has struck me about this debate is less the hypotheticals than what is missing from it: any acknowledgement from Ron DeSantis or his staff that they believe he would be less dangerous than Donald Trump.

If it’s true that DeSantis is not a threat to our democracy, then why is this a proxy debate and not an explicit one?

As recently as eighteen months ago it wouldn’t have seemed like too big of an ask for a politician to be on the record in their opposition to a president fomenting a violent coup attempt that aimed to overthrow the legitimate result of an American election.

In fact throughout my entire [redacted] years on this earth, I don’t believe there was a single politician in either party who was silent on the matter of insurrection.

And yet Ron DeSantis has never even stepped over this lowest of bars. He has condemned the “violence,” but offered nary a word about the rioters’ intent. Here’s a Newsweek roundup of what he has said on the record . . . which ain’t much.

Worse, DeSantis actively stoked Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election by pushing the alternate slate of electors option which was then being promoted by the White House.

Here he is on Fox suggesting that viewers donate to Trump’s preposterous Stop the Steal legal fund and telling residents of Pennsylvania and Michigan to “call your state representatives and your state senators. Under Article II of the Constitution, presidential electors are done by the legislators and the schemes they create . . .I would exhaust every option” [emphasis added].

Not great! In fact, DeSantis sounds much closer to Rudy Giuliani than Bill Barr!

A year later, on the anniversary of the Jan. 6th insurrection, there was Ron DeSantis suggesting that, ackchyually, the FBI might have been behind the riot and then arguing that it wasn’t really that big of a deal.

To this day DeSantis and his staff continue to cavort with convicted insurrectionists and at the same time that they court right-wing media members who have perpetuated the Big Lie narrative.

To my knowledge there have never even been reports that DeSantis admonished Trump privately—you know, like one of those adults in the room trying to land the plane—in the days after a MAGA mob spilled blood on the Capitol. He hasn’t been featured in any of the books about “privately concerned” Republicans acknowledging—when they’re in a safe space—that they understand the truth.

So the argument that DeSantis presents less of a threat to democracy rests on a very thin reed.

We are being asked, without evidence from DeSantis himself, to trust that he won’t support the kind of anti-democratic insurrection that he encouraged last time. We have to just assume he “gets the joke.”

Under this best-case, most-charitable, reading, we are asked to accept that DeSantis privately knows right from wrong, but that either (a) he is too weak and compromised to insist on it publicly; or (b) the Republican electorate is so far gone that they will not accept pro-democracy arguments from anyone and thus there should be no expectation that a candidate speak truth.


I mean . . . if we’re going to trust that DeSantis is better than Trump, couldn’t we at least get him to blink twice to signal that he’s against coups? Is that too much to ask?


And even if DeSantis is on the side of the angels, what does it mean for the country if the reason he stays silent in the face of this unprecedented threat to our democracy is that he feels it is the only way he can win over pro-coup voters in the future?

A hypothetical: Let’s say Ron DeSantis is the GOP nominee in 2024 and he loses a close race. This result is not accepted by the various Stop the Stealers who were swept into power by a 2022 red wave. For example, a hypothetical Pennsylvania Gov. Doug Mastriano sends an alternate slate of electors to a GOP-controlled Congress in 2024—which is exactly the plan DeSantis publicly endorsed on Laura Ingraham’s show in 2020. And let’s pretend that the voters DeSantis is cultivating demand that “he fights” for his rightful presidency.

We are supposed to assume that in such a situation DeSantis will just . . . do the right thing? That tomorrow he’ll stand up to the same voters he’s too scared to tell the truth to today?

And we are being told we must accept this by the very people who were wrong about Trump every step of the way and now condescendingly insist that anyone who is concerned about this potential scenario is deranged.

Their view now seems to be that DeSantis must be supported because our whole democracy rests on trusting that when push comes to shove, Ron will be a very good boy, unlike Don.

Even if you are inclined to buy this pitch, you’ve got to admit that the DeSantis crowd is asking us for a lot of faith on very little evidence.

I’m not sure that they’ve earned it.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.