Duane Schwingel and a group of Trump supporters attend the Conservative Political Action Conference at The Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida. Agence France-Presse
Holly Baxter, The Independent
A few thousand miles away, Ukraine had just been invaded by Russia — but in his home state of sunny Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis was centre stage. At the Conservative Political Action Conference — known by its friends and enemies as CPAC — there wasn’t much planned about Putin. Instead, breakaway sessions included “Are you ready to be called a racist: The courage to run for office,” “Defending the cancelled,” “Why the working class hates the Democrats,” and, “Domestic terrorists unite”. Like outrage time-capsules, there were also a couple of greatest hits: “Fire Fauci” and “Lock her up, FOR REAL”. The tagline of the conference in 2022 is “Awake not woke”.
The keynote speech on Sunday is due to be given by Donald Trump Jr, favourite son of the former president. His social media reflected the tone we might be able to expect, with an Instagram flurry of memes appearing across Wednesday and Thursday: an image of Stalin (“seeing as we are verging closer and closer to communism”), a picture of Trudeau’s face superimposed onto a portrait of Chairman Mao (“Chairman TrueDope”), and a fire alarm with his father inside that said “In case of emergency, break glass”. As troops poured into Ukraine from every side, Don Jr shared a picture of Kanye West holding up a notebook.
The words “Russia wouldn’t be invading Ukraine if Trump was still president” had been typed onto the notebook, and Junior added in text: “Predators prey on the weak and in this case Putin waited for the weakest most feeble and infirm president ever to be in office. It’s why you need strong men and women worrying about real threats not weak ones worrying about their pronouns.” His Instagram bio reads: “Pronouns: Your Hero”.
Don Jr might seem like his father’s natural successor, but there is another pretender to the throne. In many ways, he is even more Trumpian than the younger Trump, and he has the added bonus of having been democratically elected to power. Governor DeSantis made a name for himself across the US during the pandemic for refusing to bring in masking mandates in Florida, claiming that COVID was no more dangerous than RSV or the flu, holding off on lockdowns, and choosing not to reveal whether he was vaccinated while banning vaccine passports. Even Trump — whom he once sycophantically praised all the way to his governorship — has publicly stated that he got the vaccine.
And after riding on the coattails of the former president’s success, the younger and equally outspoken DeSantis has now started to refuse to say whether he would stand aside in a 2024 election where Trump decided to run again. He’s 30 years younger, politically similar, and a little more restrained. Why wouldn’t the Hydra-head of Trump’s base be turned? Reports of a budding war between the two “kings of Florida” have already begun to appear.
So, while many CPAC sessions made nods toward the glorious Trumpian past, DeSantis was focused on the future. As he walked up to the stage, he threw merchandise out into the screaming crowd. “CPAC, let me welcome you to the freest state in these United States!” he began, and he had everyone’s attention.
What DeSantis offers is a more cerebral-sounding Trumpism. He’s energetic but calm onstage, talking about how “we reject the biomedical security state” rather than ranting on about how UV light can probably cure COVID. He rejected science as much as any other far-right Republican, but he did it by invoking Eisenhower’s farewell speech as president and claiming that what Eisenhower was really doing was warning us all about a future “scientific elite” and “health bureaucrats” who would take away people’s freedoms with their data and their medicine and their objective numbers.
DeSantis is also a surprisingly erudite speaker, considering what he communicates. He uses very specific, seemingly off-the-cuff neologisms: “Fauciism”, “Bidenflation”.
He buys heavily into the American conservative belief that everywhere outside of the US is a communist hellhole replete with forced labor camps, which is why “If Florida had not led the way, this country would look like Canada or Australia” didn’t conjure up images for his audience of low Covid levels and liberalism but instead desperate populations living under modern-day Stalins.
This was a speech with a lot of the tried-and-tested MAGA greatest hits: shout-outs for “the rule of law” and “the integrity of our elections,” vague allusions to Zuckerberg and cancel culture, a full-throated rejection of critical race theory, nods to conspiracies about “the corrupt and dishonest legacy media” which is supposedly “working with the Biden regime”.
He promised, somewhat nonsensically, that “if Biden dumps illegal aliens in Florida, I’m re-routing them to Delaware,” to riotous applause (“We’ll do some in DC and Hollywood as well,” he added, when he realised the line had gone down well.)
DeSantis spoke of Florida like it was a country and he the president, which worked well as a de facto presidential pitch. “As Biden flounders, Florida is leading on issue after issue,” he claimed, as if Florida were a separate nation over the border rather than a state also under the jurisdiction of President Biden.
He spoke about how people “around the world” see him, the governor of Florida, as “a citadel of freedom” while they “chafe under authoritarian regimes” — people like “Samuel from Australia” who, he said, had written to him to say: “Thank you for standing up for us.”
Objectively, the claim that Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, is known for standing up for a random man in a country at the other side of the world is ridiculous — but as DeSantis rattled through the rest of his supposed global fans (“Letters are coming in from Canada, Australia, Europe, you name it”), it was clear the audience was indulging in the fantasy with him: DeSantis as world leader, talked about in the halls of power, catching the ire of Trudeau and the admiration of downtrodden peoples everywhere. The idea that Trudeau likely does not know his name wasn’t going to catch on in this room.
What differentiates DeSantis from Trump isn’t just his youth, but his ability to be slightly self-effacing as well as bombastic. Minutes after claiming he was a shining light for freedom-lovers the world over, he detailed the genesis of his political career: “My mission was largely to stop Barack Obama — I even wrote a book that was read by about a dozen people.” The audience laughed; they were with him, they liked him, they found him familiar. Where Trump is a cult leader, DeSantis is a patriarch. He says the same things as the aging grandfather in the corner, sure, but he says them in a folksy, I-got-your-back kind of way, and not in a way that makes some people wonder if Gramps might be losing his mind.
In an unfortunate coincidence, DeSantis spoke at 1.30pm Eastern Time on Thursday, the exact same time President Biden was giving an address on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His constant use of the word “regime” to describe Biden and some of his warmongering imagery jostled uncomfortably with Biden’s discussion of the Russian regime and the very real conflict going on inside Ukraine.
Yet, to the people who matter to DeSantis, this likely won’t register. They are already engaged in a psychological war, and they’re largely isolationists. Like many of their favorite hosts on Fox News, they couldn’t give a fig about Nato.
Though he came onstage with much aplomb, DeSantis didn’t drag out his goodbye. He yielded to the next speaker politely, and waved. There’s no denying that he’s one of the most statesmanlike speakers on the CPAC schedule. And he might have just turned from Trump’s greatest protegée into Trump’s worst nightmare.
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