Will DeSantis Destroy Conservatism as We Know It?
Ron DeSantis’s botched, awkward entry into the G.O.P. presidential primary highlights that there are two important internecine Republican conflicts unfolding at once. First, there is the obvious argument about Donald Trump’s suitability for the presidency. But there’s a second, less obvious question that is closely related to the first and often mistaken for it: What is the nature of contemporary conservatism? Or to put it another way, if Trump loses, what will take his place? And when viewed through that prism, DeSantis is particularly significant. More than anyone else in the race, he has the potential both to defeat Trump and to end conservatism as we have known it.
But first, let’s define terms. What is a conservative? It’s a hard question to answer, and it gets harder each day. Since the second half of the 20th century, conservatism as an ideology has been largely synonymous with something called “fusionism,” an alliance between social conservatives and economic libertarians. In the Cold War era, the additional commitment to a strong national defense resulted in what was often called the “three-legged stool” of the Republican Party.
Under this formulation, the G.O.P. perceived itself as a party united more by ideology than by identity. That’s certainly how I perceived it before Trump, and it’s why I mistakenly believed it would reject him as a standard-bearer. Though he pledged to be socially conservative as president, he was a thrice-married libertine who kept a framed photo of himself on the cover of Playboy in his office. His economic program was more populist than libertarian, and his foreign policy was far more isolationist than those of previous G.O.P. presidents and presidential nominees.
In other words, I looked at him and thought, “He’s not a real Republican.” Trump, by contrast, correctly perceived that the party was not — or was no longer — primarily an ideological party. It was more clearly defined by what it was against than what it was for. While Trump’s vision of Trumpism was primarily an extension of his personal ambition, the ideological definition of Trumpism became something else entirely: a full-spectrum political and cultural opposition to the left, however it might be defined.
This transformation was also tied to a change in the way that Republicans perceive government. Fusionists such as me read the Declaration of Independence and reaffirm that governments are instituted for the purpose of securing our “unalienable rights.” Thus, the protection of liberty is an indispensable aspect of American government.
By contrast, the nationalist conservative movement that Trump has helped bring center stage has different priorities. In its view, the right should — to cite the words of David Azerrad, a professor at Hillsdale College — use the power of government to “reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law).” In an excellent 2022 piece, Philip Klein, the editor of National Review Online, called this “fight club” conservatism and raised the obvious alarm. Any government strong enough to reward friends and punish enemies is also strong enough to do the reverse, to wield the same power to punish you and to reward your opponents. The legal instruments you create to combat your foes can just as easily be turned to attack you.
Which brings me back to DeSantis, a keynote speaker at the 2022 National Conservatism Conference and the ultimate example of fight club conservatism. His primary victory would signal that the transformation of conservatism since 2016 wasn’t a mere interruption of Republican ideology — one in which Republicans would return to fusionism once Trump leaves the scene — but rather the harbinger of more permanent change.
That does not mean that Trump and DeSantis are the same. There’s at least one key difference. Trump fights for himself above all else. His political impulses are selfish, sub-ideological and subject to revision at a moment’s notice. He is equally content attacking Democrats and any Republicans who get in his way.
DeSantis is likewise ambitious, but his political commitments have an underlying consistency that extends beyond that ambition: He fights the left. When you understand that distinction between the two men, you understand the course of the race so far and its likely shape going forward.
Trump, fighting for himself, relentlessly attacks DeSantis, including with gross and unsubstantiated rumors. DeSantis, hoping to fight the left and not Trump, largely ignores his competitor and instead doubles down on attacking his progressive enemies, including “woke” universities and “woke” companies such as Disney.
But whom DeSantis attacks is ultimately less important than how he does it. Republicans, after all, have long fought the left, but DeSantis does it differently, in part by abandoning fusionist commitments to free speech and limited government.
Thus, DeSantis punishes Disney for merely speaking in opposition to a Florida law that restricted instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida public school classrooms. DeSantis likewise attempts to regulate social media moderation, intruding on private corporations’ decisions about who to platform and what kinds of speech to moderate. He attempts to restrict speech about race and racial equality in public universities and private corporations. He’s banned even private employers from imposing a Covid vaccine mandate.
When you view DeSantis as more anti-left than conservative in the classic sense, then other aspects of his rhetoric begin to make sense. Once a Covid vaccine advocate, he has since asked the Florida Supreme Court to convene a grand jury “to investigate crimes and wrongs in Florida related to the Covid-19 vaccines.” A strong supporter of lethal aid to Ukraine during the Obama administration, he recently and notoriously referred to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute.” Why the flip-flops? Because support for vaccines and for Ukraine are now seen in populist right circles as “coding left” or — equally unacceptable — as positions of the “regime” or the “uniparty” or the “establishment.”
For conservatives like me who want both to defeat Trump and to begin a restoration of the fusionist principles that once defined the G.O.P., DeSantis presents a dilemma. As I’ve written before, I disagree with DeSantis on many things, but I see Trump as an entirely different order of threat — one who is demonstrably willing to help precipitate mob violence to sustain his hold on power. So should someone like me quiet his critique of DeSantis in the interest of defeating Trump?
I say no. I believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time, opposing Trump while upholding a vision of state power that limits its ability to “reward friends and punish enemies” so that all Americans enjoy the same rights to speak, regardless of their view of the government.
Moreover, suspicion of state power should extend beyond the protection of civil liberties. Conservatives have long raised proper concerns about the ability of the government to achieve the economic or cultural outcomes it desires when it institutes sweeping, large-scale government programs. And this concern is not exclusive to conservatives. My colleague Ezra Klein has done outstanding work, for example, demonstrating how in California many of the best-intentioned progressive government programs are simply not working well.
Here it’s worth repeating the pragmatic concerns about wielding government power. Any government strong enough to suppress my opponents’ speech is also strong enough to suppress mine, and any G.O.P. effort to erode American liberty will hand the same powers to the party’s political opponents. Republicans could live to rue the day when they rejected economic freedom and scorned free speech. This is particularly true if — as many advocates of DeSantis-like measures attest — liberalism is otherwise dominant in American culture.
I’m reminded of a memorable scene in the 1990 movie “The Hunt for Red October.” A Soviet submarine captain, in his eagerness to sink a defecting Soviet submarine, recklessly launches the very torpedo that sinks his own ship. His executive officer’s final words hang in the air. Condemning his superior for his arrogance, he tells him, “You’ve killed us.”
Speaking of exceptional colleagues, I want to close with a brief note about Ross Douthat’s latest column. He expertly outlines the competing arguments of pro-Trump and Never-Trump Christians:
Ross is right, but there’s something else worth considering. Christian credibility is important, but not as important as Christian character. I opposed Trump for many reasons, certainly including concern over what such overt moral compromise would do to the witness of the church. I also opposed Trump because of what loyalty to Trump would do to Christians.
To put it another way, after years of engagement with Trump, has Trump influenced the church more than the church has influenced Trump?
The verdict is in. I see it with my own eyes. Trump has influenced the church. You see it in casual Christian cruelty online. You see it in the conspiracy-addled ReAwaken America rallies that are packing churches from coast to coast. You see it when genuine Christian candidates such as Mike Pence and Tim Scott struggle to gain traction even though they purportedly share the faith and values of tens of millions of American evangelicals, while Donald Trump self-evidently does not.
Trump’s influence should not be surprising. After all, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Trump has been bad company for evangelicals since the day he rode down the escalator. And he has corrupted the morality of all too many American Christians.