Aside from accidentally generating some schadenfreude, there is no conceivable metric by which Ron DeSantis’s presidential launch this week on Twitter could possibly be deemed a success. If a successful campaign event projects energy and confidence, the DeSantis fiasco had all the majesty of a dysfunctional Zoom meeting, replete with false starts, technical glitches, and unscripted background chatter. And throughout it all, the Florida governor ultimately rallied an audience smaller by orders of magnitude than Buzzfeed once got by blowing up a watermelon or Drake did by playing Fortnite.
It’s worth pondering what the hell DeSantis and his operatives were thinking. A less choppy version of the same event would still have lacked a cheering crowd and likely been absent many of the older, cable news–addicted voters who tend to play such a pivotal role in Republican primaries (they aren’t on Twitter). But notwithstanding these basic practical issues, there’s a deeper insight to be gleaned about the ossified strain of conservatism DeSantis represents in what will almost certainly be his doomed campaign against Donald Trump.
For a fleeting moment after last year’s midterms, Florida’s governor managed to look like he might actually be a viable opponent for the former president. The case for DeSantis, amplified ad nauseam by the Murdoch media and parts of the Republican apparatus eager to ditch Trump, was that he represented a competent and baggage-free version of the same thing. By anointing the governor of Florida — a man whose political style basically consists in serving right-wing activist constituencies an all-you-can-eat buffet of red meat — primary voters were informed that they could have something both more palatable and more electable.
But the promised ascent in the polls never came. Trump’s lead over DeSantis has increased since the beginning of 2023, and nothing has occurred so far to suggest that he will supplant the former president as the standard-bearer of America’s political right. Far from being Trump’s heir or successor, DeSantis now looks more like the second coming of Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush: an establishment figure elevated by the creaking machinery of orthodox movement conservatism who owes his standing to the usual constellation of think tanks, corporate donors, and plutocrat-financed magazines rather than broad populist appeal.
DeSantis-ism is less a harbinger of ideological renewal than a symptom of institutional conservatism’s decadence and exhaustion. Its essence, located in the reactive impulse to lean into whatever freakish cause célèbre is animating the Right’s culture warriors on a given day, ironically mirrors that of the very hyper-woke milieu its zealots claim to detest. It’s an -ism by and predominantly for internet-addled right-wing activists and media consumers so accustomed to having their eccentricities satiated and their pleasure centers stimulated that they’ve become increasingly unmoored from the real world.
Cruel and hateful, to be sure. But it’s also emblematic of a political project whose sense of discipline and purpose has been overpowered by its own machinery — whose activists increasingly speak an abstruse and impenetrable online jargon, strike maximalist poses by default, and obsess over causes that scarcely register outside the reactionary echo chamber. For that reason, it’s perfectly fitting that the DeSantis campaign would think it a great idea to launch itself by partnering with Twitter — a place that, under Elon Musk’s incompetent and reactive leadership, has come to be governed by many of the same impulses.
Whatever continuity Trumpism may have with the right-wing politics that came before it, it clearly represents something other than the old, bowtie-sporting conservatism of the American Enterprise Institute and the National Review. At the level of style, it’s more ambidextrous and rhetorically heterodox, less willing to compromise with institutions, and in many ways inextricable from the idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump himself. Even notwithstanding the poor execution, that DeSantis sought to inaugurate his campaign against Trump in an online medium at all is symbolic of how narrow the appeal of a “Trumpism without Trump” really is on today’s right.