Wednesday, March 22, 2023


On Substack, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian who writes about authoritarianism, argues that Ron DeSantis's lack of charisma won't necessarily prevent him from being America's authoritarian leader someday:
Do you need charisma to succeed as an authoritarian? Not always. General Francisco Franco had little before he became head of state in 1939; General Augusto Pinochet, who became dictator after the U.S.-backed 1973 military coup in Chile, had even less. "He was a man in the second row, a man you did not notice," a retired Chilean general told the American journalist Mary Helen Spooner. As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former intelligence officer blended into a crowd by design. “Everyone could invest this gray, ordinary man with what they wanted to see in him,” as Masha Gessen notes.

The strongman's secret is that he works hard to develop that ineffable charismatic glow. In the 1920s, when he was trying and failing to get to power, Adolf Hitler hired Heinrich Hoffman to photograph him rehearsing hand gestures as he figured out how to stand out as a speaker. Voice lessons he took with the actor Emil Jannings also paid off.

Even Trump's easy performances, which have been key to the bonds he forges with followers, are the product of decades of practice. New York Times photographer Doug Mills, whose photo sessions with three decades' worth of U.S. presidents usually lasted just a few minutes, found that his sessions with Trump took "up to 90 minutes" because Trump was so "camera-conscious" and attentive to every detail of his image.
But DeSantis has just given a major interview to Piers Morgan for Morgan's streaming series on Fox Nation, and instead of using the opportunity to project a "charismatic glow," he's decided to be boring. The New York Post has published a preview under Morgan's byline, and where you'd expect fireworks -- remember, this is the teaser, the highlight reel -- there's just tedium. DeSantis makes clear that he wants you to see him as dull and workmanlike:
DeSantis ... slammed Trump’s chaotic, self-obsessed, divisive management style: “I also think just in terms of my approach to leadership, I get personnel in the government who have the agenda of the people and share our agenda. You bring your own agenda in, you’re gone. We’re just not gonna have that. So, the way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board, and I think that’s something that’s very important.”
DeSantis's affect is so management-consultant-who-uses-sports-metaphors that he says "points on the board" again:
As for the rude nicknames, he mocked: “I don’t know how to spell the sanctimonious one. I don’t really know what it means, but I kinda like it, it’s long, it’s got a lot of vowels. We’ll go with that, that’s fine. I mean, you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner because that’s what we’ve been able to do in Florida, is put a lot of points on the board and really take this state to the next level.”
In his press conference on Monday, DeSantis repeated the phrases "porn star" and "hush money," trying hard to sound like a moral scold, even as he also attacked the DA who's about to bring charges against Trump:
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair, I can’t speak to that,” DeSantis said. “What I can speak to is that if you have a prosecutor who is ignoring crimes happening every single day in his jurisdiction, and he chooses to go back many, many years ago to try to use something about porn star hush money payments, that’s an example of pursuing a political agenda and weaponizing the office.”
In the Morgan interview, DeSantis remains on his moral high horse:
When I asked if he meant to be as censorious as he sounded when talking about Trump allegedly paying off porn stars, he doubled down and replied: “Well, there’s a lot of speculation about what the underlying conduct is. That is purported to be it, and the reality is that’s just outside my wheelhouse. I mean, that’s just not something that I can speak to.”

The message was clear: I’m nothing like Trump when it comes to sleazy behavior.

And when I followed up by asking if personal conduct in a leader matters, he contrasted Trump to past presidents with a higher moral code....

“You really want to look to people like our Founding Fathers, like what type of character, it’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think what type of character are you bringing? So, somebody who really set the standard is George Washington because he always put the Republic over his own personal interest. When we won the American Revolution, Washington surrendered his sword. [King] George III said he’s the greatest man in the world if he gives up power. I think the person is more about how you handle your public duties and the kind of character you bring to that endeavor.”
It's as if DeSantis is trying to be Mike Pence.

This might help explain why a Morning Consult poll conducted over the weekend shows Trump with a 28-point lead over DeSantis among Republican voters. (It was a 16-point lead five weeks ago.) And DeSantis's slippage in the polls came after the release of his memoir on February 28. The publication of the book should have been the opportunity for a rock-star tour, but if DeSantis is out there positioning bike racks between himself and the crowds, then he's squandering the opportunity.

Nevertheless, he's still one of the two front-runners, and no one else comes close. If you look at the Morning Consult polling going back to December, what's striking is that the numbers for Trump and DeSantis always add up to 80%, give or take a point or two. The rest of the field combined can't get past 20%. I think that will continue to be true for quite a while, maybe all the way through the primaries, because no one else in the field exasperates the libs the way Trump and DeSantis do -- it's not even close -- and no one makes lib-owning as much as fun as Trump does. But DeSantis will probably have to settle for second place if he continues running as the anti-fun, anti-excitement candidate.

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