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What Puts A Smile On Ron DeSantis’s Face?

Ron DeSantis poses with a supporter, or anyway with a guy in a baseball hat, in Newton, Iowa in December of 2023. He is smiling in a very unsettling way.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

All up and down American politics, people are immiserated and brutalized and even killed by the state both as a matter of course and as an electoral strategy. Everyone understands this; the disagreement in our awful and abstracted politics comes down to how people feel about it. The shape of that question's expression changes from one moment to the next without the question or the broader situation being altered in any fundamental way. In the absence of any momentum at the highest levels for the state making people's lives materially better, the question resolves to how all that hurt gets distributed.

If you want to understand the fundamental appeal of Trumpism, absent any of the context about this particular moment's nested toxicities or the country's centuries-spanning manias, you only need to understand this: The man himself promised and promises still, in language more explicit than any similarly prominent figure in recent memory, to hurt the people that his voters have been conditioned to hate most. He says that he will do it in all the ways that those voters fantasize about: putting them in camps, or in court, or to the sword. Trump is distractible and sloppy and gets bored easily, but his own deep unseriousness is no reason to believe that he doesn't mean it, or that he wouldn't do it if it was made easy enough for him to do it without exerting himself more than he likes. If there was a button he could push that would erase 10,000 strangers, he'd push it with the same idle delight that he brought to ringing for a soda; the people that love him believe he's been ordained by god.

The political movement Trump leads, which easily busted out the more euphemism-reliant Republican establishment, promises its adherents nothing but that punishment. It will hurt the right people, over and over forever, not until bad things get better but until everything has been flattened and pacified and bleached; the end, the moment when the work is finished and the country is finally Safe, is necessarily much less distinct than the lavish, lurid fantasies of getting there. In place of conservatism's worn nostrums about freedom-to and freedom-from, there's just retributive violence and impunity; a gun brandished as an argument-ender at the supermarket or a truck accelerating toward a pod of protestors; the absolute right to turn in anyone who offends or just crowds you, and state agents standing by to do the dirty work from there. It is about who calls the cops on whom, and what they expect the cops to do when they arrive; its adherents are cop-callers and the self-deputized.

The challenge for the cynics and gremlins and adult libertarians running against Trump for the GOP nomination is that they also have to promise to do all this while, crucially, not being Trump himself—to sell the same rancid fantasy in a more compelling and presentable way than the dumpy golf priss that the fantasy's adherents have made its hero and deliverer. How would one do that?

The ambitious aspiring genocidaires around Trump, who want to remake every institution around those vicious impulses, lack both Trump's demented gravitas and his curdled charisma, but they have the parasitic instinct to know that he can get them where they want to go. They would still be around government if it weren't for Trump, working in some vile congressman's office or think tank and doing their level best to shovel as much hurt as possible onto the people they hate the most, but they would be nowhere near as close to being able to do it at the scale to which they aspire. They're loyal to Trump in the same inextricable and fundamentally unreasoning way that a symptom might be considered loyal to a disease.

When Ron DeSantis won his first term as Governor of Florida, in 2018, he did so by running as one of these people. In his disposition and unsettling personal presence—twitchy, salty, forever squinting as if staring into a very bright light—he absolutely was. He also caught on quickly to the fact that someone like him would never get to hurt enough people without attaching himself to a more compelling vampire. DeSantis was credentialed, accomplished and ambitious in familiarly merit-coded and worthless ways, and authentically shameless and cruel. Given his limitations, though, he also needed to go Renfield Mode.

And so DeSantis ran, first and foremost as a true-blue sycophant. His campaign released an ad in which DeSantis is seen reading to his young daughter from Trump's Art Of The Deal and teaching his infant daughter to say "Make America Great Again." At the time, DeSantis was a member of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which means that he had cast years of votes designed to send hurt in all the movement-approved directions. He opted not to run on that, or even on any of the extravagant sadism that he promised to rain with maximum efficiency and spite upon the most vulnerable people in his state, and touted himself as a "Pitbull Trump Defender" instead. That would have been much more embarrassing if it hadn't worked, which it did for a while, and I guess also if DeSantis were the sort of person who gets embarrassed, which he isn't. Now that DeSantis is running, very poorly, against Trump for the GOP Presidential nomination, that video has been set to private on YouTube.

In the last week, DeSantis has debated California Governor Gavin Newsom on Fox News—he blinked and honked and got very upset when Newsom accused him of "following science" in his initial response to the pandemic—and visited his 99th of Iowa's 99 counties. His campaign pivots and pivots; the goons in charge of it, all of whom seem like degraded versions of DeSantis himself, predictably can't stand each other. ("You have a stick up your ass, Scott,” NBC News reported DeSantis-aligned Super PAC administrator Jeff Roe saying to Scott Wagner, who sits on that Super PAC's board. They also reported Wagner responding, "Why don’t you come over here and get it?" before being restrained by fellow staffers.) Last Friday, the campaign appears to have done the politician version of when Dwight Howard would tweet, verbatim, "Hi Dwight, Please post Something To This Effect: I Love Skittles." It is not going well, and has lately been going so poorly that it is easy to forget what the gambit even was.

The original idea, as pushed by the campaign and carried a retrospectively embarrassing distance by political media, was that DeSantis was both the competence candidate and the cruelty candidate—a sincere sadist who was committed and focused in the ways Trump was not, and so could finish the brutal work that Trump was too distracted to start. DeSantis has governed Florida as if determined to prove this. He really has hurt a lot of people, if never anyone that he didn't think he could get away with hurting. He did this because that is what he is into—"He has always loved embarrassing and humiliating people," a former Yale baseball teammate told The New Yorker.

This was always part of the campaign's calculation—that every trans teenager or woman or queer person or schoolteacher punished, and every un-prevented COVID death resulting from state action oriented seemingly expressly toward that very outcome, all overseen by DeSantis in Florida, would inspire some Republican voter who learned about it on TV in, say, Ohio. That self-evidently awful Ohioan, the thinking went, would learn about that suffering and think "nice one," and then vote for DeSantis so that he could do the same to their neighbors. The calculation, at bottom, was that if DeSantis hurt enough of the right people, badly enough and often enough and theatrically enough, that cruelty might carry him to where he's always wanted to be.

That hasn't happened, for reasons that begin but do not end with DeSantis's world-historic anti-charisma. His executive actions have allowed him to claim, as he did during Wednesday night's Republican debate, that his Bathroom Bill was the harshest of his peers, but it hasn't helped. But all that suffering and death, all that intentional and orchestrated and exemplary hurt authored by the state for the recursive and utterly abject goal of Existing Where It Might Be Noticed, is still real. This is just Normal Conservative Governor stuff, in a sense. Arkansas's Governor, the daughter of a previous Arkansas Governor and Trump's former White House Press Secretary, denied clemency to a proven-innocent convict without explanation on the same day that she pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey. It is certainly normal for also-ran presidential candidates. If you think too much about the people who went hungry in Louisiana specifically so that Bobby Jindal could say that he had proven that he was willing to stand up to Big Starving Kid on a GOP undercard debate and drop out a few weeks later you will feel ... well, what? As if you are falling from a very great height? As unsurprised as you might be that Wednesday follows Tuesday? Both?

When it started to become clear that Ron DeSantis was not going to be the next President of the United States I started giving myself a strange little treat. Every now and then, whenever the tides of national news carried him bloated and gasping into view, I would look on the photo wire for picture of DeSantis "smiling" at various campaign events.

That sort of retail campaigning does not come naturally to him. DeSantis is more at home being abusive toward restaurant staff, or telling an audience of vicious suburbanites on folding chairs that, as their president, he will make it OK for them to spank their neighbors' kids. Actually talking to any of those people as one human might speak to another human is not his strength, and not just because the vicious suburbanites in those folding chairs mostly want to talk about Trump. DeSantis is not only not "a people person," he can appear from one moment to the next not to be people. His ambition and abiding personal nastiness have crowded out a lot of the things in him that might have made him otherwise. This is something he has in common with many of his peers, but I promise you that Ron DeSantis is worse at smiling than all of them.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis greets guest during a campaign event at the Machine Shed restaurant on November 07, 2023 in Davenport, Iowa. Iowa voters will be the first in the nation to choose their nominee for Republican presidential candidate when they go to caucus on January 15, 2024
Just chilling in Davenport, Ia. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The man simply cannot do it! And it's not just that DeSantis doesn't smile in a way that suggests any actual emotional warmth or life. It's that the physical movement, like the basic muscular action required, seems beyond him. He has clearly received a great deal of coaching on it—the many millions in political donations from rich reactionaries that have gone into shaping this loathsome candidate and bungled campaign is one of the most potent low thrills of DeSantis's failure on the presidential campaign trail if also, once again, something that makes me want to lie down immediately. All that coaching has not helped, and by all appearances may even be making things worse. DeSantis looks as weird as everyone else when he tries to emulate Trump's signature gesticulative language, but the inability to do and repeat the most elemental and elementary of physical actions is confounding.

The problem is that all that advice has left him with the same uncanniness issues that Tim Tebow had by the time he wound up on the Jets, where years of attempts to fix his bizarre mechanics didn't so much cancel each other out as accrue over each other like garish coats of paint. To see DeSantis smiling now is to see every bit of advice he ever got on how to smile, playing out simultaneously and in skronking contradiction. This, I think, is why his smile somehow looks like it's on his face upside down.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and US Senator from South Carolina Tim Scott attend the third Republican presidential primary debate at the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on November 8, 2023. (Photo by Giorgio Viera / AFP)
Looking very normal sir! (Photo by Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images)

There is no amount of humiliation that could possibly count as "what DeSantis deserves." He did lasting damage to real people's lives just so that he could get where he is, down in the polls and hissing somewhere in Iowa. When he finally drops out, he will go back home and get right back to doing it, because it is what he understands his job to be and because it is just how he is and what he likes to do. And when it is time to run again, he will run on that. There is nothing that could happen to him that would make him worse.

But if he is not going to be anywhere near the nomination, there is something useful about DeSantis and his failed candidacy all the same. Politics is not really as complicated as the people in the business make it out to be. Every person already knows whether they like it or not when someone else gets hurt; if you are the sort of person who opposes it on principle, and can imagine a world in which public life delivers more than machines for making misery and includes people other than the chittering goblins that operate them, then you already know who your enemies are. You already know what you want, and so you will be able to identify the people who not only do not share those values, but whose sole aspiration is making sure that all that suffering never stops. They will come to you, smiling.

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