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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What I Saw Inside the DeSantis Campaign

The governor was inspired on substance but couldn’t match Trump’s spiritual appeal.

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Credit: Getty Images

The one time I really met Ron DeSantis—the authentic, human Ron DeSantis rather than the stiff public persona that most Americans have come to know—was in March 2023, during my first week as a speechwriter on the Florida governor’s as-of-then unannounced presidential campaign. It was a brief, amicable meeting in the downstairs office of the Republican Party of Florida; DeSantis wanted to give me a copy of Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln by James C. Humes, a book on speechwriting he had used during his time in Congress. We made friendly small talk for a few minutes. I suggested he talk about trade policy in an upcoming New Hampshire speech. He laughed—a real laugh, revealing a brief, transitory glimpse of a man with an actual sense of humor—at a joke I made about fundraising emails. I thanked him for the opportunity, shook his hand, and walked out of the office and back to my desk.

Four months later, on July 25, my time on the DeSantis presidential campaign came to an abrupt end. The public explanation for my departure was that I had been fired for secretly creating and sharing a series of pro-DeSantis videos, the most inflammatory of which included a clip displaying a Sonnenrad—a black sun-shaped symbol associated with Nazism—posted to Twitter through an anonymous account. The story’s veracity quickly solidified as an unquestioned assumption in the press, despite the obvious problems with the idea that an ethnically Jewish kid with no prior video editing experience was cranking out neo-Nazi videos under the cover of night. While this piece will briefly correct that record, it won’t delve into the origins of the videos that were alleged to have caused my termination, or the accounts posting them, or their relationship to the campaign, or anything else that carries the risk of throwing friends under the bus or sparking a public conflict with the DeSantis operation. This is not a comprehensive fact-checking expedition, nor is it a navel-gazing reflection on the controversy that precipitated the end of my time on the campaign.

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The broader issues surrounding my departure are the same issues that hobbled DeSantis’s presidential ambitions. But they are not unique to DeSantis, and they will persist long after this election cycle comes to a close. What follows is a story about things that are far more important than what happened to me. If I tell that story from my perspective, using the specific circumstances of my experience, it’s simply because it’s the only way I know how to tell it.

The best way to tell this story is to begin at the end. Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination, almost certainly by overwhelming margins. If he manages to eke out a victory over Joe Biden in the general election, it may be the last victory Republicans see in a presidential election for a long time. In 2024, it will be 20 years since a Republican presidential candidate carried the popular vote; today, the party’s sole remaining path to an Electoral College majority requires mustering razor-thin margins in enough must-win states to crawl across the finish line. That path will continue to narrow due to demographic change, generational turnover tied to the unprecedented fact that young people are not becoming more conservative as they age, and the growing scope and sophistication of the Democratic Party’s ballot-harvesting and electioneering machine. Contrary to what some pundits say, these challenges are not unique to Trump. They are endemic, and every future Republican presidential candidate will have to contend with them.

Ron DeSantis was bound to lose this primary. It brings me no pleasure to say this: DeSantis was the best Republican governor of my lifetime, and his past two years in Florida are a top contender for the greatest string of conservative policy victories in modern U.S. history. But the underwhelming—at times, downright embarrassing—way DeSantis prosecuted his case teaches many lessons about what has become of the set of institutions that we used to call “movement conservatism” and the increasingly apparent chasm between those institutions and the broader political forces animating the Republican Party. The point of this essay is to offer some of what I learned about that dynamic during my time on the inside.

In April, a Trump-aligned political action committee released an ad about DeSantis’s alleged support for cutting Medicare and Social Security. The video’s narrated message was underlaid with clips of a man eating chocolate pudding with his fingers—an obvious reference to widely circulated reports of DeSantis’s alimentary faux pas. A pro-DeSantis Super PAC swiftly hit back with an ad of its own. Rather than engage with the “pudding fingers” allegation, the response focused on fact-checking the entitlement-cutting jab, airing a clip of DeSantis promising not to “mess with Social Security,” followed by another clip of Trump floating the possibility of welfare cuts himself.

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Writing in the New York Times, the progressive columnist Michelle Goldberg noticed something perceptive about the interchange: “The ad from DeSantis’s allies misse[d the] point entirely.” The Trump attack ad wasn’t actually about Social Security. That was ideological window-dressing for the real message, which was that Ron DeSantis is a creep who eats pudding with his fingers. “The policy argument is just an excuse for the disgusting visuals,” Goldberg wrote. “The point is not to disagree with DeSantis, but to humiliate him.”

DeSantis, Goldberg wrote, was “making the mistake of believing that the primary race is about issues, while Trump instinctively understands that it’s about dominance… It will be about who is weak and who is strong.”

On an important level, Goldberg was right. Trump has a genius for the politics of the subconscious, instinctively intuiting and exploiting the weak points in the public’s perception of his opponent’s brand. That was evident during the successful months-long campaign not only to wear down DeSantis’s standing in the primary polls but to tank his approval rating among Republican voters. By summer 2023, DeSantis’s net favorability among GOP voters, once neck-and-neck with Trump’s, had dropped by double digits in many national polls. Every week came with a new installment in the slow-motion assassination of the governor’s public image. There was the odd laugh; the bright-white rain boots; the “leg-lengthening footwear”; the nose-wiping video clip; and an endless number of weird facial expressions and awkward interactions with the public. The left was only too happy to join in the evisceration of a figure who had, until then, proved frustratingly immune to their attacks.

The basis of the MAGA case against DeSantis was pre-ideological. They were selling a feeling, a vague sense of revulsion. From there, they would go on to build a more formal political case against DeSantis: He voted to raise taxes and cut entitlements. He shut down Florida during COVID. He flip-flopped on Ukraine. He’s controlled by his donors. He’s corrupt, inauthentic, can’t be trusted—he’s not one of us. All of those more conventional critiques were enabled by the baseline “vibes” case against the governor.

This took place over several months. In February, the critiques from prominent MAGA influencers were relatively cautious. There was a tone of feigned bewilderment—“what is Ron DeSantis doing?”—paired with a projected suspicion about his ties to donors, links to hated establishment figures, and general lack of authenticity. It was an attempt to meet Republican voters where they were. If the attacks went nuclear too quickly, it would have invited indignance from a voter base that had spent the last two years viewing DeSantis as a folk hero.

By April, however, the same influencers were waging a much more aggressive and explicit narrative war, integrating a number of policy issues into their attacks. The tone shifted from “just asking questions” to outright ridicule and contempt, enabled by a handful of slip-ups on the part of DeSantis that provided his enemies with an opening. Now that MAGA had softened up DeSantis’s image, they could begin to wear down the credibility of the story he told about his actual record.

The DeSantis campaign was largely oblivious to this dynamic. To the extent they were making a case against Trump, it was a political one, based on policy issues or general electability. Trump would float the possibility of executing drug dealers, and DeSantis allies would retort that he had sponsored soft-on-crime legislation as president. Trump would promise to end birthright citizenship by executive fiat, and the DeSantis camp would argue that the proposal was constitutionally dubious or ask why he didn’t do it during his first term. More than once, I was reminded of the famous exchange from the 2016 GOP primary debates when Wolf Blitzer pressed Trump on the fact that the Mexican president had rejected Trump’s signature promise that Mexico would pay for the border wall. “If you don’t get an actual check from the Mexican government,” Blitzer wondered, “how are you going to make them pay for the wall?” Trump’s response was unhesitating: “I will. And the wall just got ten feet taller.”

The MAGA offensive against DeSantis was a one-sided war. There was little to no attempt to stage a counteroffensive because the DeSantis team failed to grasp the terms of the battle. The way DeSantis made the case for himself had all the same flaws. His pitch to Republican voters was often described as “Trumpism without Trump,” “Trump without the drama,” “Trump but competent,” and so on. It would be more accurate to call it a technocrat’s Trumpism. The issue set was substantively similar. The distinction was drawn along the lines of administrative ability. DeSantis would rattle off his impressive policy achievements like he was reading a grocery list—check, check, check—before concluding that we needed someone who could “get the job done.” A senior staffer, in a moment of private frustration, described him to me as “the Home Depot candidate.”

The campaign’s message was supposed to be built on low but solid ground. The vision, to the extent that there was one, took a backseat to the ability to execute. In the early months of the campaign, one of the governor’s favorite stump speech anecdotes was a story about swiftly rebuilding a bridge destroyed by Hurricane Ian—“they said repairs would take six months…we rebuilt the bridge in three days”—punctuated by a quippy proposal for President Biden: “I’m willing to send the guys that rebuilt the bridge down to the southern border to build the wall. Put me in, coach!”

DeSantis was eager to display his sophisticated grasp of public policy. In his glitchy Twitter Space campaign launch, he waxed poetic about the college-accreditation system, Chevron deference doctrine, and his advanced understanding of “the different leverage points that you would have under Article II of the Constitution.” But his wonkiness came with an increasingly apparent dearth of political vision. He talked of “reform,” not revolution; “restoring normalcy” rather than achieving greatness; “sanity” rather than excellence; “getting the country back on the right track” rather than winning the spiritual war for our way of life.

Trump’s pitch was more audacious. For MAGA, 2024 was the final saga of the eight-year-long war for America. The battle lines were clear. The stakes were all or nothing. Red America was besieged on all sides, facing insurmountable odds, outmanned and outgunned by the powerful forces arrayed against them. If they failed, all would be lost, and the America our ancestors fought and died to build would be plunged into darkness. But if they won, they were coming for everything—and those who had orchestrated the destruction of their country would pay dearly for their betrayal. Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state.

“Make America Great Again” was a tight, succinct slogan that managed to communicate an enormous amount of substance in just eight syllables. It was an imperative, a call to action. At a fundamental level, it communicated what Donald Trump wanted to do. It was a demand, a promise, and a statement of intent, describing a tangible future to strive towards as a people.

The DeSantis campaign’s tagline was: Decline is a choice. Success is attainable. Freedom is worth fighting for. But these were empty words, drained of any concrete meaning or authentic feeling. They were abstracted out to the 10,000-foot view, removed from the experience of real, material Americans. The message was linguistically clunky and substantially uninspired. It was an attempt to retroactively backfill a political vision onto a pre-existing policy agenda, rather than a policy agenda built upon a pre-existing vision.

In the speeches I wrote for DeSantis, I tried to formulate a message with higher ceilings. Rather than saying decline was a choice, we needed to communicate what decline meant, why it was happening, who was responsible, and what the stakes were. The prospect of “success” does not stir the heart like the promise that one’s country can and will be made great again. And we needed to fight for America, our nation, our people, and our way of life, rather than a faceless, abstract “freedom.”

The governor rarely talked in these terms. But it may not have made a difference if he did—the way he talked mattered more than what he talked about. They used to call it the “beer test,” the proverbial question of which candidate voters would prefer to have a beer with. The meteoric rise of Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old political novice, is a testament to the relevance of that metric. On paper, Ramaswamy ran very close to the DeSantis “lane,” a hard-right, anti-woke policy wonk whose relative youth promises a generational shift in the boomer-dominated GOP. But Vivek had a decisive charisma advantage over DeSantis, which proved to be an ample substitute for his lack of policy record.

But there was also something deeper at play than “beer test” likeability. In another time, with another Republican voter base, DeSantis’s pitch—electability, experience, and a proven record—may have resonated. John McCain and Mitt Romney weren’t exactly fonts of charisma. They sold themselves to Republican voters on the grounds that they had a depth of governing experience and the (false) promise that they could win in the general. Today’s landscape is different. In the minds of many contemporary Republican voters, elections are no longer an orderly contest between competing governing philosophies but an existential battle between good and evil. Numerous polls over the past year have found that about half of the GOP electorate believes that the U.S. is on the brink of civil war. These are not normal times, and Republican voters don’t think of 2024 as a normal election. They want a candidate who talks and acts in a way that suggests he understands the stakes.

The Republican base does care about policy. Primary voters have been willing to unseat Republican incumbents, including those in leadership roles, due to their betrayals on key issues. Just ask Eric Cantor: After voting for amnesty in 2014, the second-highest-ranking House Republican, widely seen as the next in line for the speakership, promptly found himself among the ranks of the unemployed. But the average voter is not as ideological as those of us in the political class. This is the limitation of public opinion polling. When pollsters present respondents with distinct, isolated questions about a given policy, they produce results that don’t always mirror how voters act. 

A humbling realization dawned on me over the course of the first few months of the campaign: The reasons I was initially interested in working for DeSantis were the very reasons his presidential run was ultimately doomed. DeSantis was, as Geoff Shullenberger put it in a July essay for Compact, “The GOP’s Liz Warren.” Shullenberger wrote, “DeSantis’s campaign language and emphases, like Warren’s four years ago, betray a disproportionate fixation on the pet concerns of his party’s media and activist class.” Both candidates “were heavily favored by their respective parties’ aligned media professionals and broader constituency in the educated professional class, but never managed to broaden their appeal much beyond that narrow precinct.”

While the campaign’s issue set, record, and candidate all looked pristine on paper, the effort to convert them into a winning presidential run overlooked how normal people think. DeSantis was selling a plan; Trump was selling a feeling. That doesn’t make Trump’s pitch less legitimate. Loyalty, solidarity, mutual obligation, and a willingness to sacrifice are the lifeblood of mass political movements. But they are built upon a politics of common purpose and shared identity that DeSantis wasn’t capable of offering—not a politics of the book, but a politics of the heart.

Many voices have criticized the DeSantis campaign for being “too online” in its aesthetic, its rhetoric, and its substantive issue set, e.g., “Rich donors to Ron DeSantis: Be more normal,” Yahoo News, August 2023. What most of these critics mean by normal is a more moderate, conventional form of politics, a tack to the center on key culture-war issues, and a reduced focus on online platforms like Twitter.

There’s an obvious problem with that diagnosis. Whatever else you might say about him, Donald Trump is not “normal.” His 2024 policy platform is the most aggressively right-wing agenda of any leading presidential candidate in recent memory and has all the hallmark issues of the “very online right” that is ostensibly responsible for torpedoing DeSantis’s campaign. His rhetoric is more aggressive, not less. And online platforms like Twitter have always played a pivotal role in Trump’s political operation. 

It was the MAGA campaign against DeSantis’s image, organized and driven by platforms like Twitter, that produced the overwhelming body of ridicule that eventually undermined his standing with Republican voters. While the average GOP voter may not be closely following every video and tweet produced by Trump influencers, they may have seen at least a few of the unflattering images and memes that migrate over from Twitter to Facebook, a platform used by a high proportion of Republican voters. And it’s more than likely that they saw the souring coverage of DeSantis on platforms like Fox News, a development driven in part by the Twitter cycle’s influence on the people who run Fox.

The core problem, then, wasn’t that the DeSantis campaign was too online. The problem was that it wasn’t real. The operation learned the hard way that you can’t fabricate authenticity, even if you perfectly mirror, or even surpass, the on-paper traits of the authentic subject. The Twitter videos that were publicly linked to my exit from the campaign were part and parcel of the increasingly extreme, and haphazard, attempts to substitute ideology for authenticity. If DeSantis could get as far to Trump’s right as possible, the thinking went, then the mystical hold Trump possessed over his voter base could be broken. This betrayed a subtle but fundamental misunderstanding of human nature—a conception of the average voter as homo ideologicus, driven by formal philosophical commitments.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I don’t intend to give a comprehensive accounting of everything that was wrong with the public reporting on the video controversy, other than to stipulate that a large body of the reporting was, in fact, wrong. What is true is that I retweeted a video containing what I would later come to learn was a Sonnenrad and immediately un-retweeted said video and alerted my superiors on the campaign staff when I learned what the symbol meant. From there, the reporting graduated to the claim that I made the video and then to the speculation that I had also made an anti-LGBT video that had landed the campaign in hot water weeks prior. That reporting was categorically false. 

But at this point, that’s almost irrelevant. Regardless of what the press might have said about me or my involvement in various campaign gaffes, my departure was not going to save the DeSantis operation—nor would spending less time on Twitter, moderating their tone, shifting their issue set, nor attempting to appear to be more “normal.” All of these problems were symptoms, rather than causes, of the forces that were responsible for the campaign’s inability to make its case to Republican voters.

Donald Trump has a practical mastery of conservatism—if not the intellectual, ideologized conservatism that one encounters inside the Beltway, then certainly the felt conservatism of the heart that is native to the GOP base. It is a conservatism that is intimated rather than reasoned. DeSantis, on the other hand, justified his political project in terms of a formal ideology. This endeared him to the conservative political and intellectual elite who reside in the world of ideology, but it stunted his ability to speak to the millions of Americans who instinctively “got” Trump and neither needed nor desired a more complex ideological framework for their political attachments.

Those of us in the political class often recognize no distinction between these two forms of politics or, when we do, we discount the latter as just the irrational, anti-intellectual impulses of the common voter. The idea of Trumpism as a “cult of personality” rather than a substantive policy agenda has become a popular cliché for this reason. But this is a feature, not a bug, of self-government. In a time such as ours, when our ruling class has so ensconced itself in ideological fads and theories as to have completely severed itself from the laws of reality, the instincts, feelings, and intuitions of the people—the politics of the heart—offer a welcome corrective to an elite that is enchanted with the search for utopia.

“God must love the common people,” said Abraham Lincoln. “He did make so many of them.” If this country finds the will to pull itself back from the brink, it will come from the nation’s heart; not a formula, or a technique, or even a particular ideological program but a felt need, an inextricable determination, a sense of necessity—not just that things can change, but that they must. Trump embodied that imperative in a way that DeSantis—or anyone else for that matter—could not. In a number of important ways, my time on his rival’s campaign deepened my appreciation for what the former and perhaps future president represents. I don’t resent Republican voters for being a step ahead of me on the curve.

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