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The coronation of Ron DeSantis America's populists put their faith in faith

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


September 19, 2022   7 mins

Late last week, 50 Venezuelan migrants arrived by plane in Martha’s Vineyard, the summer getaway for America’s rich and powerful. Their presence on the island — a liberal haven that has been untouched by the ongoing border crisis — was the work of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had sent them in rebuke of Massachussett’s “support for the Biden administration’s open borders policies”. As if on cue, Ken Burns, director of a recently released documentary about the Holocaust, appeared on CNN to agree that DeSantis’s Martha’s Vineyard stunt raised eerie parallels with the subject-matter of his film.

The media comparing DeSantis with Hitler for making rich liberals live with the consequences of their ideas? The headlines write themselves.

It was a characteristic bit of political theatre from DeSantis. Over the past year, the governor has firmly established himself as the main Republican challenger to Donald Trump by picking fights with the national media on issues such as Covid, critical race theory, and gender ideology. His pitch to the base: I’m like Trump, but better — more focused and competent, less embarrassing. Supporters and detractors alike have taken to calling him “Trump with a brain”.

Earlier in the week, I’d seen DeSantis speak at the National Conservatism conference in Aventura, Florida. “NatCon”, as it’s known, is a yearly gathering of nationalist politicians, activists, and journalists organised by the Edmund Burke Foundation and loosely aligned with what has come to be known as the “New Right”. DeSantis gave a nearly hour-long speech at the conference’s opening dinner, rattling off his achievements — banning vaccine passports and mask mandates, keeping Florida open during the pandemic, taking on the liberal media and Disney — in front of a sympathetic crowd. “It was the best speech I’ve ever heard by an American politician”, one British guest gushed.

The whole conference was something of a coronation for DeSantis among the New Right intellectual crowd. At one busy panel, one of his aides, Christina Pushaw, urged Republican politicians to stop granting access to the “Democratic activists” in the mainstream media. The notoriously crotchety paleoconservative Paul Gottfried, a past critic of “populism” and of NatCon, offered a highbrow endorsement of the governor. Quoting Karl Mannheim on conservatism as a “socially situated” movement in defence of a concrete way of life, he praised National Conservatism as an embryonic mass movement and DeSantis as the first leader in years with “a plan to go after the Left”.

Mentions of DeSantis’s main 2024 rival — and the former object of nationalist affections — were, by contrast, few and far between. When the Claremont Institute’s Tom Klingenstein declared, in a rambling speech, that “we were blessed to have Trump”, he was met with tepid applause. Meanwhile, complaints circulated about a day one talk given by pro-Trump journalist Julie Kelly on the plight of the Jan 6 defendants (“Why bring that up here?”, one attendee hissed).

Not everyone was pleased with this passing of the torch. “Ron is such a fucking lib,” I heard one young man complain to his friend the morning after the speech. Beneath the general enthusiasm for DeSantis, there seemed to be a fear that the energies released by Trump, often destructive but also full of possibility, were in danger of being domesticated.

The first National Conservatism conference, in 2019, had been an attempt to provide some coherence to the Trump-curious wing of the Republican intelligentsia. Like the president it had gathered in support of, that conference was chaotic, controversial, and heterodox in good and bad ways. Tucker Carlson delivered a speech entitled “Big Business Hates Your Family”, while a string of speakers affiliated with the journal American Affairs offered wonky blueprints for nationalist economic policy. The headlines, however, were supplied by Penn law professor Amy Wax, who gave a talk on the need to consider “cultural distance” in US immigration policy. “In effect,” Wax explained, this would mean “taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites”. Conference organiser Yoram Hazony was forced to take to Twitter to defend against accusations of white nationalism. As Pushaw put it: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

This year’s edition, by contrast, was a tamer and more professional affair. The attendees skewed young, bookish, and religious; in the hallways, one heard earnest talk of a “new Apostolic Age” and the errors of Carl Schmitt. Any liberal would have found plenty to describe as “chilling”. But there was no repeat of l’affaire du Wax, and little hint of what V.S. Naipaul used to call “racial passions”. The talk, in the panels and plenary sessions, was of more conventional Republican fare: “woke communism”, religion and the public sphere, pornography and transgenderism, the corrupt media, the threat of China and the deep state.  “I’m trying to figure out how National Conservatism is different from regular conservatism”, one editor remarked to me. “I mean, the Heritage Foundation is funding this thing.”

I heard versions of this question a few times. For all the vitriol directed at the Republican establishment, many attendees seemed confused about what the NatCons would do differently from the current party leadership. One Trump supporter suggested that the conference was “controlled opposition” — an attempt to divert anti-establishment energies into a DeSantis presidency that would be heavy on culture-war red meat but would otherwise revert to the pre-2016 status quo. “Have you noticed that none of our nationalists are actually from here?”

This was an obvious dig at Hazony, who is from Israel, and at the seemingly ubiquitous Hungarians, who, outside the main conference hall, manned booths for the Danube Institute, the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, and the Hungarian Conservative. It also hinted at more domestic tensions that partly overlap with the “Ron vs. Don” fault line.

The core constituency for Trump’s populist-inflected nationalism was what the scholar Walter Russell Mead has referred to as “Jacksonian America”. That’s a way of saying white Protestants, many of them of English or Scots-Irish descent, who have been in the country so long that they list their ethnicity simply as “American”, and who tend to suspect that elites lack their single-minded loyalty to the country. Part of Trump’s appeal to these voters, as Christopher Caldwell has noted, was that he was so despised by elites that he “wouldn’t be able to sell out to them even if he wanted to.” With DeSantis, they feel there is no such guarantee.

Conservative intellectuals, by contrast, have long skewed more Catholic and Jewish, with some more recent infusions from post-1965 immigrant groups. Aside from the raw nativism and anti-Semitism present on the far-Right, there are fears, to some extent unavoidable in a diverse society, about who can be trusted to represent whom. Paleoconservatives, now tentatively being welcomed back into the party fold, have always complained about what they see as Israel’s undue influence over the GOP; more recently, there has been the pull exerted on Catholic intellectuals — heavily represented at NatCon — by “integralism”, which maintains that the government of the United States should be subordinated to the Church. For the hard core of Trump’s nationalist support, there is a constant fear that party leaders will attempt to rope them into serving as footsoldiers for someone else’s crusade.

“Yoram is very aware of these issues”, one older attendee told me when I relayed the dig about foreigners. And indeed, this year, for the first time at NatCon, Protestants seemed to have pride of place. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered the conference’s closing address; and Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation and a Catholic, gave a talk repudiating integralism.

Hazony, meanwhile, in a speech cueing up Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, leaned heavily on Christian themes. “If America’s going to change,” he told the attendees, “It’s going to change because you decide that Christianity is going to be restored as the public culture of the United States
 you don’t need to be the majority. There are plenty of places in this country where a Christian majority, a pro-Christian alliance to support Christian values, can still be mustered.”

For some, however, this embrace of religious nationalism marked a worrying return to the pre-Trump status quo. The GOP, after all, has courted the Christian vote for a long time; one of the original indictments of the ”dead consensus” was the ease with which the old party paid lip service to Christian “family values” while allowing the country’s social fabric to decay. The question hanging over the conference was: is DeSantis really a new and improved Trump, someone who can push forward with a viable alternative to Bush-Romney conservatism? Or is he an instrument of restoration — a movement conservative who recognises that everything must change for everything to stay the same?

The most explicit note of caution in this regard came from billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel. Speaking on the first night of the conference, Thiel warned the assembled NatCons not to fall into “nihilistic negation” of the liberalism represented by states such as California. “The temptation on our side is always going be to just say we’re not California
 We don’t like tech, we don’t like California, we don’t like the woke stuff”.

“All of that’s true,” he continued, “but it’s not a way we get back to broad-based growth that’s not just some kind of real-estate racket. We have all these different states where we’re trying different things, and I think DeSantis is probably the best in terms of offering a real alternative to California. But if we’re going to have a high-growth alternative, the test is, do the real estate prices come down? And the fact that real estate in Florida has melted up over the last two or three years is not evidence that you’re succeeding in building a better model than California. I worry that’s evidence you’re becoming like California.”

If DeSantis heard what Thiel had to say, he didn’t give any indication. A few hours later, the brash and confident governor railed against the “biomedical security state”, the “woke mind virus”, the depredations of “Brandon”, the states that kept their schools closed. He proclaimed, in the title of his talk, that “Florida is a model for America.” He closed with that classic staple of Republican rhetoric: a salute to the troops buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

For now, DeSantis remains a cipher — he is all things to all elite factions of the party, even as much of the base remains loyal to Trump. Both the establishment and the populists can read into him a vessel for their vision of the country, and thus far, DeSantis has had to commit to neither. But as a former GOP staffer told me after the conference, remarking on the conference’s embrace of both DeSantis and religious rhetoric, “I fear the NatCons are becoming cheap dates and have fantasies of being more.”

What he meant was, for a politician like DeSantis, the NatCons will be easy to please. Whether he will be compelled to listen to them is a different question.


Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

Why is it so hard to understand what the populist Right in America wants and why they think the way they do? It’s just article after article asking these questions and not understanding the answers.

  1. Stop leftist cultural overreach that has been empowered by the administrative state, corporate America, control of institutions, and illegal abuse of the legal system.
  2. Enforce the whole Bill of Rights. No exceptions. Some of the greatest damage to it was done by the Bush Administration and the populists have not forgot it. As for the Democrats, they do not even pretend to care about free speech anymore let alone any of the others.
  3. Reject the CATO/libertarian brand of neoliberal economics that the party elite love. The populists remember the damage it has caused to middle class and lower class Americans as well as how it has further enriched others. They want antitrust against corporate monopolies, not Reaganite corporate tax cuts.
  4. Enforce immigration law and secure the border. The country cannot handle the strain of such a large influx of people. Additionally, if you do not have a border then you do not have a nation state.
  5. Rein in the administrative state. The country is pretty much run by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats at this point.
  6. Enforce the law equally and crack down on crime, especially violent crime. While many populists are skeptical of law enforcement, criminals cannot be allowed to do whatever they want. The country is in the middle of a massive crime wave.
  7. Clean house in the party. The latest populist firebrand may betray you. An establishment party member who has been there decades will betray you.
  8. No more foreign wars or overseas adventures until the American government earns back the trust of its people. Many populists either served during the War on Terror or know someone who did. There has been no accountability since then or signs anything has changed. Additionally, the country is in crisis at home and sending vast sums of money to other countries feels like an insult.
  9. Screw the news media. They were supposed to be the “fourth estate” keeping government in check. Now they lie shamelessly and no longer even bother to challenge the country’s elites or political establishment. The populists want someone who will call them out on their lies.
  10. Rein in the FBI and CIA. They have gone completely out of control with few pretentions of even still following the law or Constitution.
  11. Finally, the populists want someone who will stand up and fight for them. When it comes to taking a stand for things they say they believe in, most Republican politicians have spines with the consistency of a wet noodle and care more about being part of the Washington D.C. club than representing their voters.
Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Excellent comment. Thank you.

Kent Clizbe
Kent Clizbe
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

No more foreign wars or overseas adventures until the American government earns back the trust of its people. Many populists either served during the War on Terror or know someone who did. There has been no accountability since then or signs anything has changed. Additionally, the country is in crisis at home and sending vast sums of money to other countries feels like an insult.

Could that (widely held) Normal American value/belief be why the NatCon movement is run by foreigners who demand our treasure, to the tune $10 million a day, and who want us to never-stop killing people in the Middle East for them, and to continue fomenting chaos in other places so that the world doesn’t pay attention to their atrocities?
They are terrified that Americans for America will realize we’re being played.
An American “National Conservative” organization run by a citizen of a hostile foreign power?
It’s called co-opting. Same thing happened with the Tea Party.
Something is rotten in Denmark!

Alan Groff
Alan Groff
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Matt Hindman, That’s a great list!
Much of it boils down to “stop the machine” or “stop the elites.” It’s the world Christopher Lasch foresaw in “Revolt of the Elites.”
What’s the upbeat version of stopping the machine? Truman had some excellent slogans. “Give ’em hell, Harry” “The Buck Stops Here.”
How can this be transformed into a positive vision for America? What’s the opposite of the elite machine that is fundamentally more American?
“Dignity and Respect for Every American.”
That might work. The minority identity groups demand respectability. Conservatives and white men have suffered great indignity at the hands of the Elites.
The renewal of America isn’t going to come from the Left and its stale apparatus. Trump was Sturm and Drang. Sturm and Drang ran for ten short years, but it unleashed human individualism and led to the overthrow of the Enlightenment cult of Rationalism. Today, like in 1770, we see the reign of the goddess Reason, that is, of mob rule, the stuff of decay.
The terrors of life exceed the terrors of death for a vast swath of young white men. That’s the stuff of Sturm and Drang. It’s the stuff of renewal that brings societies back from the dead.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I think you do not understand MAGA, let alone Ultra MAGA. Your lists are pretty much Republican, but Mainstream Republican just the right end of the Uniparty (Dems and Mainstream Repubs are the Uniparty) – Owned by the Big Money who paid their campaigns, and will give them the insider deals if they vote correctly – to make them very rich after they leave government. Yes your list is necessary – but more.

Americans are becoming MAGA – and your list misses three main points, very big ones:

1) China is the Nation which is Existential Threat to USA and the world.

2) The Great Reset is an even bigger threat than China, in fact incorporates China, And the Uniparty and the WEF and the Corporatocracy, and global Finance. These are out to conquer the Globe. All the top companies and finance are Global, no longer National, and are overtaking all the world from inside..

3) the Constitution is the only tool to fight the Great Reset, and the Constitution’s strength is that it is a Republic – and the real power devolves to the States under it, which makes it responsible directly to the People, because the Federal Government (the Administrative State), is owned by the Great Reset, it does Not serve the people.

MAGA, Make America Great Again – because you see it is not, cannot be, under the current system. The ballot box is the only way the world can be saved, by voting in not the Uniparty, but MAGA populism, which is for USA, not the Great Reset.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aaron James
Horizon
Horizon
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

I wish you guys would skip the inclusive populism and conspiracy stuff. Zionism/Talmudism and its outpourings have been and are the foremost hurdles to national sovereignty for our People. If you are European diaspora living in America, you are endangered. You’re worried about our values, not realizing that values come from people, and our People should be of primary concern to you. We are your extended family. The way to truly love something is to realize it might be lost. Blood and soil is all that matters in the end. One day you may realize this, hopefully there will still be something left to save.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Horizon

weird

harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago
Reply to  Horizon

This idiot begins by saying “quit the conspiracy stuff” and immediately goes in for the biggest — and dumbest — conspiracy of all — “It’s dem Jews what done it.” Pathetic, sad, and above all, real stupid.

Last edited 1 year ago by harry storm
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Not sure about 8 – I strongly believe Ukrainian that sovereignty deserves to be sustained – but otherwise a really excellent comment.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Yup an isolationist America is usually bad news – Hitler, Syria, Putin.

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

An interventionist America is also usually bad news – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, ex-Yugoslavia all spring to mind.

Don’t think your Syria example holds water either as America have been involved with Syria for years.On top of the bombing and other attacks on ISIS there was support and training for the supposed ‘moderate’ rebels that mostly turned out to be Islamic radicals.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Unfortunately, we have been burned too many times now and getting involved in Ukraine just seems like doing the same thing expecting a different result.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Certainly we’ve been burned in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya … But Ukraine is a very different kettle of fish. Not much chance of ISIS taking over there.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

But at what cost?
The biggest problem since at least March 2020 is single-factor thinking (a la Greg Gutfeld) with Exhibit A being covid policy based solely on deaths delayed, ignoring other factors like harm to the economy (2nd order affect on deaths) and harms to children.
Help Ukraine yes. But we are at $54B so far in 2022 and heading towards $70B this year! That is close to $1,000 form a family of 4 in the US!
As original poster noted that amount is an insult to working Americans.

harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

It isn’t just the populist right, or even the right in general, that agrees with these points. Real liberals do as well, though of course the self-proclaimed illiberal “liberals” think it’s anathema.

Bob Smalser
Bob Smalser
1 year ago

DeSantis is the original clean-cut Boy Scout, compete with a Catholic School blue-collar background, Harvard education and a picture book family, a poster boy for American meritocracy. But he learned some hard-knuckle tactics and strategy with the SEALS and has the judgment and guts to go in for the kill when necessary. Wish we had him earlier.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bob Smalser
Paul Rodolf
Paul Rodolf
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Smalser

I’m a DeSantis fan but I’m not certain he was ever a SEAL. I had understood that he was a Judge Advocate (Navy Lawyer) attached to a SEAL Team. Not a military expert but I believe there’s a distinction to be made between being a JAG deployed with SEAL’s and being a SEAL.

Mary Bruels
Mary Bruels
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Rodolf

DeSantis was senior legal advisor to SEAL commander Dane Thorleifson. That team was heavily involved in the bloody insurgency in Fallujah.

Bob Smalser
Bob Smalser
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Rodolf

My lawyer in wartime Kuwait was a key guy on my staff, went everywhere and did everything I did. To paint him as an minor-involved outsider would be totally incorrect.

Ayan Siddiqui
Ayan Siddiqui
1 year ago

The skepticism around DeSantis is not whether he would essentially be the reincarnation of Trumpism without Trump, it’s about whether he’s genuine about his beliefs and is willing to go against the GOP establishment. While I do believe DeSantis would be a more effective president and is the future of the conservatism (alongside Trump), there is a question around if DeSantis is essentially a ploy by the GOP establishment to get rid of Trump and have someone like DeSantis make neoconservatism fashionable again among the GOP voters.

John Aronsson
John Aronsson
1 year ago
Reply to  Ayan Siddiqui

The question in my mind is whether or not Trump is genuine about his professed beliefs. His despicable performance after August 2018 when he threw away the House to go courting McConnell’s Senate and ended up losing both the House and Senate is foremost in mind. He campaigned for everyone of MCConnell’s creeps, ignored the House Liberty caucus and seemed to rely chiefly on his idiot daughter and son-in-law for reliable advice. His list appointments from Gen. Miley to Gina Haspel told me very clearly that all Trump ever wanted was the same deals for himself and his relations as Joe Biden got for himself and his relations.
Finally, it was Trump who shut down the country in the Spring of 2020 and it was Trump who pumped the first $3 Trillion of stimulus into the economy and launched our current inflation all the while preening about how he’ll be remembered forever as the great savior from a trumped-up plague.
As for DeSantis, acta non verba seems to be his motto and that is good. Trump talks a lot in the end does nothing.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago
Reply to  John Aronsson

Agreed about how “reliable” Trump is. DeSantis is running for governor in November, and has raised about $140mm for campaigns. HOWEVER, unlike Trump, DeSantis is generously spending it on other candidates around the country. Trump has amassed a little less, BUT HAS NOT SPENT ONE THIN DIME, on any of the congressional and Senate candidates that he has foisted upon us (thinking particularly about Dr. Oz and Hershel Walker), let alone decent candidates that he endorsed to help win the Republican primaries – especially Blake Masters and Vance.

Trump remains all about Trump.

Mary Bruels
Mary Bruels
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

DeSantis’s spending money on other campaigns around the country reminds me of Nixon’s work in the trenches for other GOP candidates after he lost the CA governor’s race. He was repaid at the 68 GOP convention with the nomination.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary Bruels

Nice reminder – perhaps Trump should take notes (rather than risk losing Senate etc, by refusing to spend money on candidates he endorsed)

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

That is the rub with Trump. He’s a masterful showman but insists on being the Only Show in Town.

harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago
Reply to  Ayan Siddiqui

De Santis is about as good a candidate as conservatives are likely to get. If you’re waiting for the perfect candidate who ticks all your boxes I’m afraid you’re in for a very long wait.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

Contrary to Liberal gloom, some of the migrants are saying they quickly got jobs after being bussed to Washington.

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
1 year ago

Park MacDougald says: “the old party paid lip service to Christian “family values” while allowing the country’s social fabric to decay” (my emphasis). This implies that the GOP had the power to stop such decay but did not do so because their commitment to family values was only for show. But what actions could a more honest GOP actually have taken?
ï»żI think the problem is that no person or party really knows the secret to reversing societal decay, even if they had the political power to implement it.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

They’d be better served doing what Spain has done to plug their labour gap. Hundreds of visas have been granted to Venezuelans desperate to get out.

Alan Groff
Alan Groff
1 year ago

Joe Manchin + Ron DeSantis
ï»ż

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Groff

Sorry, no Manchin in the Sky.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
1 year ago

This is a very crisp essay, and it has inspired a lot interesting comments. Well done, everyone.