The greatest damage Donald Trump did may not be in the actions he took but in the influence he had.
Trump isn’t the brightest bulb. He’s tremendously talented as a room reader and as a reflector of emotion, but he is no brilliant tactician, no keen sage, no erudite intellectual.
He runs on spectacle and fury. There is no grand vision or grand plan. His quest is to win the moment. His focus is too narrow to even consider the larger struggle.
But he did something, unleashed something, that is so much bigger than he is now or ever will be: He pushed the limits of acceptability, hostility, aggression and legality beyond where other politicians dared push them. And for the most part, he has not only survived it but been rewarded for it, too.
Now the danger is that Republicans will try not just to imitate Trump but also to one-up him.
Take Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.
He is often described as a Trump ally, but covetousness is often born of communion. If “The Talented Mr. Ripley” had a political corollary, it might well be “The Scheming Mr. DeSantis.”
Whereas Trump’s rhetoric was poisonous, and he issued some incredibly harmful orders and his administration instituted some corrosive policies, he wasn’t able to codify much of it. Some of his highest-profile policies — though not all — have been reversed by the Biden administration.
DeSantis, along with some other Republican governors, is taking the next step, doing the thing that Trump couldn’t do much of: getting laws to his desk and signing them. They have taken what might once have been stigmas, realized that in the modern Republican Party they confer status and converted them into statutes.
It was on the state level that Jim Crow was erected, and it is on the state level that Donald Crow is being erected.
Just take a look at the things that DeSantis has done since the 2020 elections.
He signed a voter suppression law, during an appearance on “Fox & Friends” no less, that included more restrictions on drop boxes and granted new authority to partisan poll watchers.
He signed the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, which does far more damage than just tamping down classroom discussion. As my colleagues Amelia Nierenberg and Dana Goldstein have pointed out, it also has far-reaching implications for how mental health services are delivered to children, even those who may not be L.G.B.T.Q. One clause in the law reads:
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
As Nierenberg concludes, “The impact is clear enough: Instruction on gender and sexuality would be constrained in all grades.”
He has signed an anti-protesting law, which granted some civil protections to people who drove through protesters blocking a road. As The Orlando Sentinel reported in April 2021, when the bill was signed, the law “might have protected the white nationalist who ran over and killed counter-protester Heather Heyer during the Charlottesville tumult in 2017.” A judge blocked the legislation last fall.
This month, the Florida Legislature passed the “Stop WOKE Act,” another so-called anti-critical-race-theory law. This one invoked the idea that teaching that a person “must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” should be banned.
DeSantis, who has been a big proponent of the bill and signed an executive order to this effect, is expected to sign the bill.
DeSantis is even going further than his own Republican-controlled legislature is willing to go on some issues. He threatened to veto a redistricting map drawn up by the legislature that would most likely increase Republican seats. But it didn’t go far enough for DeSantis. He drew up his own map that would go further, reducing the Black and Hispanic voting power even more.
He has also proposed raising his own defense force. As CNN reported in December, he wants to “re-establish a World War II-era civilian military force that he, not the Pentagon, would control,” one that would “not be encumbered by the federal government.”
DeSantis has repeatedly claimed that he has no plans to run for president in 2024, but you always have to take politicians demurring in this way with a healthy dose of skepticism.
DeSantis is playing to the base that Trump exposed and unleashed, but unlike Trump, he is demonstrating to them what it looks like when their priorities have the durability of enacted law. He is trying to be for them what Trump was not: a competent legislative deal maker.
I don’t know whether DeSantis will run for president or if he could win, but he is the first version of what many of us fear: a Trump-like figure with less of the bombast (though DeSantis has plenty) and more of the killer skill to enact policy.
DeSantis is Trump 2.0.
Image Credits: Damon Winter/The New York Times