Analysis. Like the few other Republican contenders for the 2024 nomination, DeSantis finds himself in the difficult position of taking the field against Trump while declaring obligatory absolute loyalty to the tenets of Trumpism.

‘Make America Florida’: How Ron DeSantis is challenging Trump

“Florida will not assist in an extradition request” for Trump, said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the whirlwind aftermath of Donald Trump’s indictment, a sentence that gives a measure of the political paradox America finds itself in on the eve of the upcoming presidential election.

DeSantis, of Italian descent through great-grandparents from Campania, Abruzzo and Molise, is a plausible candidate to take over from Trump the mantle of national-populist champion in the upcoming Republican primaries. His proclamation underscores the purely electoral dimension of the ongoing judicial case in New York and what it implies for a GOP that cannot find a way out from the narrow populist alley it has turned into, and from the personal cult of the former president, which is likely to come into even starker relief now that the courts have come into play.

DeSantis represents one of the party’s options for generational replacement, but his trajectory is also indicative of the irresistible gravitational pull exerted by the base loyal to the former president, akin to that of a black hole at the center of Republican politics. With an old-school conservative résumé (baseball team captain, Yale, Harvard Law School and Navy officer), the 45-year-old rising-star governor is the only rival who can plausibly challenge Trump for the nomination.

Like the few other Republican contenders, however, he finds himself in the difficult position of taking the field against Trump while declaring obligatory absolute loyalty to the tenets of Trumpism, and now coming to the all-out defense of Trump the defendant. Any deviation from this line would amount to political kryptonite and would be mercilessly punished by Trumpist voters. Like every other contender, DeSantis is thus obliged to profess loyalty to the man he would like to dethrone and to pander to grassroots grievances and identitarian resentment, aligning himself with the populist current – although perhaps in a somewhat “cleaned-up” version compared to the Mar-a-Lago original article.

The governor began his political career as a classical liberal, aligned with historical right-wing themes: dismantling the welfare state, tax relief to businesses (and the business class), cutting public services, opposition to the energy transition. His first election campaign put heavy emphasis on his veteran credentials. DeSantis served in Iraq, in Fallujah, as a member of the JAG (Judge Advocate General) corps, the unit that serves as the Navy’s military judiciary. It was in this capacity that the promising young Harvard Law graduate was detached to Guantanamo for over a year. At Camp X Ray, Lt. DeSantis was a legal “consultant” on interrogation techniques for detainees in the extrajudicial camp.

This was during the hot years of the Iraq War, the years of legal acrobatics by Bush White House lawyers to justify practices that would be later recognized as torture. DeSantis quickly proved adept at understanding which way the wind was blowing. He witnessed firsthand the force-feeding of detainees, but gave it the all-clear in his reports because he saw hunger strikes as an act of “jihad” against the United States.

Ten years later, with the advent of Trump, he would show the same gift for sniffing out the prevailing winds, becoming an “early adopter” of Trumpism, replacing conservative orthodoxy with emotional themes able to generate broad support among the base. It was a lesson he would later put to extensive use as governor by positioning himself as a national champion in the culture wars through a series of McCarthyist-style laws mandating patriotic teaching in schools and universities, purging school libraries, censoring “gender” topics and banning discussion of the country’s racist heritage. When he was re-elected in November by a 20-point margin, he doubled down on his zeal, calling Florida the “place where woke goes to die.” In DeSantis’s Florida, that got to the point of institutional censorship of Michelangelo’s David.

After using the Florida government to burnish his own populist credentials, DeSantis has been gearing up to bring the same model to the whole nation, having patented the slogan “Make America Florida.”

Now, Trump’s court case is forcing him into new public professions of support, while on the other hand it cements his candidacy even more as an “implicit” alternative to a candidate who might plausibly end up damaged beyond electability, especially if this indictment is compounded by further criminal charges against him. Meanwhile, Trump will not hesitate to escalate the confrontation and proclaim a holy crusade against the judiciary, useful for embodying the bogeyman of persecution and the usual “witch hunt” against him by the “Deep State” and the “enemies of the people.”

For America, there’s still no light at the end of the Trumpist tunnel.

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