Can DeSantis Compete With Trump’s Sinister Charisma? – New York Magazine

The master and his sometimes clumsy protégé. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If, as expected, Ron DeSantis challenges Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, it will probably be in the Florida governor’s interest to get into a one-on-one fight with the former president. The early polls show DeSantis fares much better without competition from other Trump challengers. Without question, in 2016 Trump benefited from a divided GOP primary field. Similarly, DeSantis could get a boost if he can present himself as the one candidate who can pick up the MAGA banner while jettisoning Trump’s heavy baggage. But in one potentially decisive respect, a nomination fight limited to the two Floridians could create contrasting impressions that are not helpful to DeSantis. To put it bluntly, the governor is light on charisma.

The heart of Trump’s appeal is that the savagery of his assaults on Democrats and “Establishment” Republicans are leavened with just enough crude humor and bad-boy charm. He’s loved not just for the enemies he has made but for the implicit self-mockery of his relentless hubris: the quality that makes it possible for his followers to take him “seriously, but not literally.”

DeSantis has quickly mastered the negative side of MAGA politics. Indeed, the main reason hard-right ideologues love the man is that he’s so much more disciplined than Trump in his attacks on “woke” corporations, teachers unions, university faculty, and the pieties of bipartisanship. Sometimes Trump conveys the sense that he’s putting us all on. DeSantis has the steely composure of the true ideologue — of the remorseless Franco rather than the clownish Mussolini.

But accounts of the Florida governor’s rise to national prominence are full of “on the other hand” references to his lack of people skills. Most recently, Politico’s Jonathan Martin observed that DeSantis is just now slowly acquiring the ability to schmooze with the wealthy donors who will be pivotal to any presidential run:

[T]he early rap on DeSantis from his fellow Republicans is that, for all his smarts and shrewdness, he lacks charm, and is either unwilling or unable to submit to the longstanding rituals of retail politics.

So the mere fact that he table-hopped at a dinner in his honor — and that more than a few of his contributors were thrilled enough about the personal touch to recount it to me after the closed-press fete — is revealing.

And if DeSantis has trouble bestirring himself to visibly hunger and thirst for campaign contributions, how much eagerness will he be able to express for mere votes in unfamiliar locales like Iowa and New Hampshire? Parallels could be drawn between DeSantis and a previous Republican governor who “owned the libs” in his own state and wowed right-wing opinion leaders: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose wildly anticipated 2016 presidential campaign sank like a stone before voters even voted thanks to his blah personality.

Certainly, Trump holds DeSantis’s retail political skills in minimum regard, repeatedly crediting himself for lifting the budding MAGA congressman to the governorship in 2018:

Imagine, if you will, a one-on-one candidate debate between Trump and DeSantis. Is it self-evident that the would-be usurper of the MAGA mantle would do any better than did Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, et al. did in such encounters in 2016? And how would DeSantis handle the retail politics of early primary states? Or on the Pizza Ranch circuit, where Iowa Republicans get to know their presidential candidates? We just don’t know yet.

DeSantis may have the early lead in the “invisible primary” of buzz, hype, Fox News appearances, speaking invitations, and the fearful apprehensions of enemies and opponents. But the “invisible primary” doesn’t award a single delegate. Engaging in a one-on-one fight with the 45th president of the United States could be unnecessarily perilous, so don’t be surprised if the 44-year-old DeSantis ultimately decides to take a pass on 2024 so he can work on his donor- and voter-schmoozing skills before going for the brass ring.

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