Donald Trump is the most popular person in the Republican Party. But Ron DeSantis is the hottest name in the GOP. And he’s building buzz by beating Trump at his own game.
Think about the recent headlines coming from Florida and its Republican governor.
* DeSantis pushed the Republican-controlled Florida state legislature to take up a bill to rescind Disney’s special status in the state after the company publicly opposed what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which the governor signed last month. State lawmakers sent that measure, as well as another aimed at Disney, to DeSantis’ desk on Thursday.
* DeSantis advocated for a new GOP-friendly congressional map in Florida, which state lawmakers gave final approval on Thursday.
* DeSantis suggested on Tuesday he may use the power of his office to go after the Twitter board of directors if they refuse to sell the social media giant to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
* DeSantis’ administration last week rejected 41% of new math textbooks that were submitted for the next school year, citing the teaching of critical race theory as one of its reasons. That came after DeSantis urged the passage of the “Stop WOKE Act,” which is aimed at limiting alleged liberal concepts in school curriculum.
(The only thing DeSantis hasn’t said he will use the power of the Florida government to address is Rudy Giuliani’s appearance Wednesday night on “The Masked Singer.” Yet.)
When he initially ran in 2016, Trump had a simple formula. Via Twitter, he would offer up a series of thoughts on any and every issue that popped into his mind. He did this, usually, early in the morning. He’d then monitor reaction to his various tweets to see what was breaking through with the Republican base that he knew he needed to win. When one or two issues looked like winners, he would focus on them — with more tweets and mentions in campaign speeches.
Take the wall that Trump pledged to build around the southern border. If you go back and look at his announcement speech, you will notice that Trump doesn’t even mention the wall until the end of his remarkably rambling speech. It wasn’t at the core of his campaign until audiences started reacting very positively to the mention of it in speeches. Trump, immediately sensing he had hit on something, started to put the wall front and center in his campaign.
Trump had and has — whether you like him or hate him — a highly attuned ear for what got people scared or outraged. He could, within the course of a day, identify what the big story was going to be for his base and lean like crazy into it.
That is exactly what DeSantis has been doing for months now. He sees what is bubbling up on Fox News and then finds a way to insert himself into the conversation. But unlike Trump in 2016, DeSantis is a sitting governor, with a compliant Republican legislature at his beck and call.
All of which means DeSantis can use the power of the government in one of the largest and most influential states in the country to curry favor with the national GOP base on the issue du jour — Disney! Twitter! Wokeness! — is.
Meanwhile, Trump is not only out of office — and without the platform that gives you — but also uniquely fixated on relitigating the 2020 election. Which remains an animating issue for the Republican base, but is far less current than the fights DeSantis is picking.
DeSantis appears to have internalized the lessons Trump 2016 taught. And now the student has become the master — at least for now.