America suddenly feels like Gotham. But I can’t see Batman
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America these days sometimes seems to be like something out of a dark dystopian movie or TV show: Batman meets The Handmaid’s Tale meets Game of Thrones. And so it was on Thursday morning, as I sat online waiting to tune in to an important political development in the US.
I kept getting confused. Thanos – I mean, right-wing centibillionaire Elon Musk – was about to host the Penguin – I mean, Ron DeSantis, currently governor of Gilead – I mean, Florida – to let the latter announce his candidacy for King of Westeros – I mean, president of the US – live on a video feed the engineering genius devised to hijack the broadcast of every TV channel in the world.
Illustration: Simon Letch. Credit:
I mean, on Twitter.
But then this illusion burst. To be clear, in case you hadn’t heard, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, was indeed announcing a run against Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primaries next year. He would announce his intentions on Musk’s Twitter and field questions from the industrialist and some invited guests.
And the illusion was lost because buffoonish technical difficulties turned the announcement – not on video, just audio – into a debacle. Nearly 30 minutes of blurbs, echoes, silence and disconnection went by as Twitter struggled to stream a simple feed of people talking. The unpredictable Musk has been showing his contempt for the company he owns by laying off vast swaths of its engineering brain trust. The result: a technical meltdown and an epic self-own.
The substance of the event, once it got going, was a mess as well. We heard fawning testaments to Musk, fawning questions to DeSantis. Musk interrupted people and went off on technical tangents.
For his part, DeSantis ranted at length about Joe Biden, contending that there’s a “woke mob” taking over America. (Spoiler alert: there’s not.) He said proudly that Florida had resisted COVID lockdowns – not mentioning that, as a result, the state had one of America’s highest COVID death rates.
Next up was a Star Wars Cantina-like array of Musk cronies stepping up to ask convoluted questions about things like Bitcoin.
And no one mentioned Donald Trump – plainly a behind-the-scenes agreement between Musk and DeSantis.
You’re going to be hearing a lot about DeSantis as the country gears up for next year’s election. On paper, in certain ways, he’s a dreamboat, if you’re a Republican. DeSantis is Harvard law and a war vet. He just got reelected by a hefty margin in the nation’s third-most-populous state – this is on an election day when Trump lost and the Republicans nationwide had a terrible night.
To the right of Trump: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.Credit: AP
But really, there’s only one thing you need to know about Ron DeSantis. There are a lot of very rich Republicans who want an alternative to Donald Trump. They know that Trump is a proven electoral loser and that he’s going to be facing various criminal charges. They need an alternative, and right now, DeSantis is it.
However: most of the party’s functionaries are resigned to Trump getting the nomination. Trump’s base, which dominates the party, is rabid and will not abide his being challenged. However, everyone can see that external events might intervene – legal or otherwise. If that happens, DeSantis wants to be the guy standing centre stage.
So for now, DeSantis is devoting all his energies to be more MAGA than the next guy. His policies in Florida have been harsh and unnecessarily cruel to gays, trans people, immigrants, and of course pregnant women. (He signed into law a ban on abortions after six weeks.)
This is the ultimate tactical move. He and his team know he’s got to be righter than right to accept the MAGA mantle if Trumps drops out. This would create obvious, and indeed perhaps fatal, problems in a general election against the Democrats. DeSantis babbles constantly about things that have little resonance to those who haven’t immersed themselves in the right-wing media bubble. (I had to look one of them up myself.) A lot of voters have made clear they have had enough of abortion restrictions. And on the defining foreign policy issue of our time, DeSantis is afraid to stand up to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
Team DeSantis doesn’t care. They will deal with the tack to the centre in a general election when they have to – and no doubt some might be hoping that circumstances intervene there as well to make Biden a more vulnerable candidate or even take him out of the race.
You will notice that, beneath the tough talk, political cruelty, and clumsy positioning, that there are a lot of hopes and dreams underlying the candidacy of Ron DeSantis. The right says the left in the US are snowflakes, but here’s a guy who won’t stand up to either Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump, and bases a presidential campaign almost entirely on wishing. It’s not really what you’d expect from what was once the party of Ronald Reagan, but that’s the state the Republicans have gotten themselves into these days.
Bill Wyman is former assistant managing editor of NPR in Washington. He teaches at the University of Sydney.
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