Cartoonishly unlikable, Ron DeSantis was a candidate seemingly engineered to appeal only to the hyperspecific grievances of social media–addled right-wingers. His failed bid shows just how cloistered the conservative movement has become.

Republican presidential candidate Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event on October 5, 2023, in Tampa, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Richard Nixon has long held a hallowed place in America’s political folklore. JFK, it’s usually said, triumphed with television audiences, while Nixon, less polished but more substantive, fared better with those tuning in on the radio.

This account seems to be basically apocryphal. But, like most popular myths, it’s probably found its way into common parlance because it’s a useful shorthand for something that many people feel — in this case, that the age of mass media has turned politics into an empty popularity contest in which appearance trumps content. And so, as the jock in an ’80s movie beats the nerd to become class president, the flashy politician with whom voters would prefer to have a beer beats the charismatically challenged one with actual vision.

Or so the story goes. Since 1960, events have often appeared to vindicate it and, fittingly enough, many of America’s most successful politicians — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — have been those able to project the kind of oleaginous charm of which mere mortals can only dream. More recently, however, the country’s two major political parties have increasingly seemed to defy conventional wisdom: elevating a succession of comically overhyped figures with astonishingly little popular appeal to positions of national prominence.

From Beto O’Rourke to Pete Buttigieg, the 2020 Democratic primaries threw up a series of flash-in-the-pan candidates that could only flourish as long as the actual electorate remained uninvolved. Throughout 2016, the GOP establishment fired repeated broadsides at Donald Trump only to find its Wall Street–financed, focus-tested tribunes — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz — butt up against the reality that many outside the Beltway valued them more as punching bags for a former reality show host than as prospective leaders. More reactive than ever to their own arcane machinery and the fan culture it ceaselessly churns out, both parties have seemed to develop a peculiar taste for Icarus-like politicians whose sole talent is to fail spectacularly.

Which brings us to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose presidential campaign — if it’s remembered at all — might be taught to future generations of schoolchildren as a case study in the dangers of being chronically online. Young, cartoonishly right-wing, and seemingly possessed by a sorcerer’s ability to turn the esoteric grievances of social media–addled conservatives into legislation, the aftermath of the 2022 midterms briefly made DeSantis look like a man primed to exploit the political moment.

Once a purple state, Florida had been remade in his brazenly cruel image and swung for his reelection by a margin of almost 20 points. With the blessings of the Rupert Murdoch Death Star and the usual cadre of faceless billionaire donors, he was now effectively the Sunshine State’s God Emperor and poised to present himself as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

I love you, Ron.

On behalf of millions of people, never stop fighting for freedom. pic.twitter.com/5wcopo041U

— Casey DeSantis (@CaseyDeSantis) November 4, 2022

Barely a year later, DeSantis stands not only defeated but utterly humiliated — having made the journey from would-be Napoleonic figure to the political equivalent of unconditional surrender in a matter of mere months. After months of sagging poll numbers and a distant second-place showing in Iowa, the Florida governor appropriately went out with a whimper: offering a fake Winston Churchill quote and some generic pablum about party unity before limply endorsing a man who has spent the past twelve months branding him a gay pedophile.

DeSantis’s fate may be surprising to some, but should have been obvious to anyone who bothered to look beyond the hype. The premise of his campaign — that it’s somehow possible to offer a version of Trumpism that does away with the man himself — was always incoherent. Among other things, the very idea suggests that anti-Trump Republicans still fail to grasp the sources of Trump’s appeal to the GOP base and, as a result, calculated they could somehow replicate it in the form of boutique right-wing policies and slogans.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

– Winston Churchill pic.twitter.com/ECoR8YeiMm

— Ron DeSantis (@RonDeSantis) January 21, 2024

From this foundational misunderstanding, the precipitous collapse of the DeSantis campaign was both hilarious and entirely predictable. While Trump serenely continued to do his thing, the Florida governor boasted of having cracked down on the scourge of “Confucius Institutes.” With the solemnity of a great general addressing his troops before battle, he pledged to end Joe Biden’s “war on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency.” As polls made it obvious voters were thinking about the state of the economy and immigration, DeSantis incessantly invoked obscure right-wing pejoratives like “ESG” and “DEI” — apparently mistaking the minuscule cult of internet-poisoned groypers from which he drew a part of his staff for a genuine populist vanguard. The result was a campaign well-equipped to stimulate the pleasure centers of pimply faced Ben Shapiro acolytes and people who “like” Viktor Orbán on Facebook but little else.

Like a beta-tested Cruz, DeSantis exuded the visceral insectoid weirdness of a cyborg engineered in a lab to be as off-putting and as repugnant as possible. Possessing — in the words of one prescient local commentator back in 2013 — “the personality of a bookend and a push-button doll’s ability to parrot the right-most talking points in a whiny soprano voice,” few politicians in the annals of American political history have ever been quite so virtuosic at getting people to dislike them. With tens of millions in ad dollars at his disposal, DeSantis only got less popular the more voters saw him — the $53 million DeSantis spent in Iowa translated into just 23,420 votes, or $2,262 per voter. In recent memory, only Michael Bloomberg has managed a comparable feat.

In the final estimation, the DeSantis train wreck is really nothing more or less than what it appears to be: a marriage of rank incompetence and right-wing idiocy that has culminated in the hilarious self-immolation of its main character. But it’s also a case study in how what calls itself the conservative movement has become a cloistered reality unto itself, its worldview distorted by a parochial universe of overpowered donors and media celebrities, so detached from reality that it tried to elevate one of the weirdest and most unlikable men in America.

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