Commentators portray Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a more organized and calculating Donald Trump. In reality, DeSantis most resembles Richard Nixon -- disciplined, stiff and intense. Both lack Trump's charisma and ease before voters. Also unlike Trump -- but very much like Nixon -- DeSantis effectively deploys powers of the state for political gain. And DeSantis also mimics Nixon's cruelty, his willingness to place constituents in harm's way in the pursuit of political gain.
These traits are why DeSantis is unlikable, with nonpartisan independents judging him too extreme. That is also why -- despite being quite popular with Republicans -- DeSantis is barely above water nationwide as evidenced by his 38%-35% favorable/unfavorable rating in December.
DeSantis' extremism on wedge issues appeals to core Republicans but will pose a daunting hurdle in a general election. For one, DeSantis is a strident anti-vaxxer, attacking vaccine manufacturers and imposing state policies to discourage COVID-19 vaccinations and masking. His anti-science positions are broadly unpopular.
By vilifying COVID-19 vaccinations, DeSantis has exacerbated conspiratorial distrust about proven childhood inoculations. Kaiser has found that support for traditional inoculations for measles, rubella and mumps, for instance -- the MMR vaccine you received as a child (if 50 or younger) -- has declined to 71%.
DeSantis also favors an extreme abortion ban (six weeks) in Florida. And he has dramatized the issue with tricks like removing the elected pro-abortion rights Tampa area prosecutor and appointing an anti-abortion judge just rejected by voters. Yet, abortion rights were instrumental in the Democrats' surprising midterm success, with 59% of independents favoring abortion rights. In important swing states, exit polling found it was the top issue cited by voters. And referenda to protect abortion rights prevailed everywhere last year including in Kentucky, Michigan (57%) and Kansas (59%).
An effective political thespian, DeSantis stumbles with substantive issues. He criticized Disney for defending LGBTQ rights, for instance, and sought to punish it by raising state taxes on Disney World. In over his head, the attempt has become a fiasco for DeSantis -- raising taxes on everyone across two huge Central Florida counties and saddling taxpayers with servicing a $1.7 billion bond debt. DeSantis has had to reverse course. Moreover, other Florida Republicans have criticized his fumbling of the state's property insurance problem. While governor, DeSantis inattentively permitted insurance rates to soar, forcing Florida homeowners to now pay more than $4,000 annually -- three times the national average.
The good news for DeSantis is that Nixon won election as president despite also having a combative and unlikable personality. The bad news for him is that voters in 1968 were unaware of Nixon's cruel streak. Fearful that his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, would gain from peace in Vietnam, Nixon secretly derailed peace talks then underway in Paris. His cynical act prolonged the war by five years, ruthlessly adding more than 20,000 additional American deaths, plus hundreds of thousands of additional Vietnamese deaths.
In contrast to Nixon, DeSantis' cruel streak is already evident to voters. It includes demonizing LGBTQ youths. He is mimicking Russia's Putin, Hungary's Viktor Orban and others throughout history who similarly sought political advantage attacking the vulnerable -- the Irish, Rohingyas, Jews, African Americans, Uyghurs and now the LGBTQ community.
DeSantis has also caused needless suffering and death by mocking COVID-19 vaccinations and masking. Floridians have nearly 50% higher COVID-19 incidence rates and from 150% to 260% higher age-adjusted mortality rates than states like Maine, Vermont and Washington, which have higher vaccination rates. True, Florida has a large retirement community, but the populations of both Maine and Vermont are older and more susceptible to COVID-19 infection. The DeSantis mortality penalty is reflected in the tens of thousands of excess deaths above historic trends during COVID-19 in Florida.
Principled Republicans were pivotal in rejecting the amorality of Richard Nixon, ejecting him from the White House in 1974. In contrast, only a handful of today's House or Senate Republicans supported Trump's impeachment for the attempted decapitation of American democracy on Jan. 6, 2021. That shift signals that Nixon's dark amorality now permeates the party, a mania enabled by conservative billionaires and Rupert Murdock's laudatory Fox News and Wall Street Journal.
Like Richard Nixon, today's Republican leaders refuse to draw red lines, cruelly accepting avoidable deaths among the party faithful as merely a price to be paid for political gain. Thousands of party leaders are mimicking the cruelty and pathologies of Nixon in seeking political advantage -- but on a far larger scale that dwarfs his Vietnam brutality.
DeSantis certainly reflects this generalized devolution. But history suggests that DeSantis may well fade like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and others, his front-runner status only temporary.
The real challenge for America is how to purge the Republican Party of Richard Nixon.
George Tyler, former deputy assistant treasury secretary and World Bank official, is the author of books including "Billionaire Democracy" and "What Went Wrong."
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