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Ron DeSantis to Christian nationalists: "It is time we impose our will"
Can he take the evangelical vote from Trump and ride it into the White House?
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Ron DeSantis kicked off his presidential campaign in Iowa on Tuesday with a speech that had all the hallmarks of authoritarian theocracy.
"We must choose a path that will lead to a revival of American greatness," he told the crowd of evangelical supporters at Eternity Church in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines. He spoke of a "malignant ideology" that had to be stamped out, reveled in his battle with "woke" Disney, spoke against the "indoctrination" of children, and even bragged about "sending illegals to Martha’s Vineyard."
He then made a pretty breathtaking statement:
It is time we impose our will on Washington, D.C. And you can’t do any of this if you don’t win.
DeSantis is openly articulating imposing Christian nationalism and its tenets on the laws of this country and forcing the entire nation to heel.
Christian nationalists were key to electing Donald Trump as president, pragmatically getting behind him in the primaries as other candidates dropped out and then turning out for him in massive numbers (for a relatively small, shrinking constituency) in the general election. Trump got a higher percentage of white evangelical voters than George W. Bush (an evangelical president) in his two elections (over 80%, compared to Bush’s mid-70s). That surge made a difference for a candidate who didn’t win the popular vote nationally but received a huge turnout in battleground states with a high percentage of Christian nationalist voters who put him just over the top in those states, helping him win the Electoral College.
This was quite transactional on the part of evangelicals, most of whom saw Trump as the candidate who could get things done—like overturning Roe v. Wade, which he implied via his judicial appointment promises—even if his own character, with his history as an adulterer and a liar, was deeply flawed. Others among them rationalized Trump’s nomination as God’s will—or even likened him to Jesus or a savior, melding with Qanon conspiracies—and still revered him. But these seemed to be the outliers, as most evangelicals simply saw him as a means to an end.
In recent months some in the political press have talked about a softening of Trump’s support among evangelicals, though most of this seems to be about Christian nationalist leaders hedging rather than about the polls, even as he did see a slight dip. DeSantis is obviously trying to make inroads among Christian nationalists—prompting Trump to remind them that "I was the one who got rid of Roe v. Wade"—by promoting his six-week abortion ban in Florida, and pointing to Trump's refusal to answer whether or not he’d support a federal abortion ban.
There’s been a lot of punditry and reporting about this. But much of it is shallow and glosses over what any of this means in a general election—and, more specifically, how evangelicals view a candidate’s viability in a general election. The New York Times, for example, covering the DeSantis Iowa speech and all of its fascistic bromides, ends its piece like this:
"I will be able to destroy leftism in this country," Mr. DeSantis said on Fox News on Monday.
It is part of a DeSantis pitch that, more broadly, centers on fulfilling the promises where Mr. Trump fell short, including winning the White House for a second term by appealing to Republicans and independents who say they can no longer support the former president.
"There are a lot of voters that just aren’t going to ever vote for him," Mr. DeSantis told reporters on Tuesday. "We just have to accept that."
But this completely covers over why some Republicans and many independents will no longer support Trump. Sure, there are a few for whom Trump was incompetent and didn’t get enough of his extremist agenda completed. But for most, it’s the opposite: because he showed himself to be a monster, is more extreme than ever, incited an insurrection, and installed a Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade. And those are precisely the things with which DeSantis has no problem. He even recently announced he’d seriously consider pardoning Trump and the January 6th insurrectionists.
So, on the two issues that caused the GOP to completely stall in 2022, with no red wave emerging—the threat to democracy and the ripping away of abortion rights—DeSantis is as extreme or worse than Trump. Even Trump sees the abortion issue as a dangerous one for a general election, hence his refusal to publicly support a federal abortion ban.
Evangelical voters have shown they are practical, as evidenced by their high transactional turnout votes for Trump in 2016 and 2020. They see Trump as someone who delivered and understand that his hesitancy on a federal abortion ban is a dance he’s got to do for the general election. He danced a bit in 2016 as well on the issue of LGBTQ rights, for example, telling them in their own forums he’d back their agenda but being more circumspect with the corporate media.
But once elected president, Trump banned transgender people from the military and did everything he could to eviscerate LGBTQ rights.
Peter Wehner, a long-time conservative Christian writer and commentator, told FiveThirtyEight recently:
There’s a very powerful emotional bond that’s been created between Trump and white evangelicals. Many view him as their great warrior. It’s a bond that will be hard to break.
As long as [Trump] doesn’t come out and say he’s pro-choice, I don’t think [the abortion issue] will be a big issue for most evangelicals.
So, DeSantis will likely have a tough time prying Christian nationalists from Trump’s base. But even if he does—should Trump implode under the weight of indictments or whatever—and DeSantis gets the nomination, DeSantis’ big problem is getting through a general election having signed the six-week abortion ban while battling Disney over LGBTQ rights and flouting the idea of pardoning people who violently stormed the Capitol as well as pardoning Trump himself.
None of this should make any of us complacent, as DeSantis is exceedingly dangerous. He is a hardcore, power-hungry extremist, and while his abilities as governor and "getting things done" have been overblown, anyone who’s remotely more efficient than Trump but is as authoritarian as Trump is someone to worry about.
The most important thing we can do is not allow the media to frame DeSantis as the "acceptable" GOP candidate compared to Trump. He isn’t "Trump lite" or a Trump alternative. He is as extreme or more extreme than Trump and must be stopped.