As we look forward to the 2024 Presidential campaign with Joe Biden formally announcing his intention to run, there has been an undercurrent of dread in progressive circles about the upcoming campaign on the Republican side. Initially, it was feared that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump’s still-undeclared challenger was seen as a more chilling alternative to the former President. DeSantis seems to be as malicious and mean-spirited as the former guy, but slicker and smarter and therefore more dangerous to the rights of individuals, the survival of democracy in our polarized world, and the well-being of the country itself.
Recent illustrations of DeSantis’s political instincts and leadership style lead one to wonder if he is so smart after all. He has campaigned hard to remove books about race and gender from public schools. He has signed one of the most draconian anti-abortion bills in the country, banning almost all abortions after six weeks, before most women even know they are pregnant. He was AWOL during the recent deluge in Fort Lauderdale, when two feet of rain pummeled the city in a matter of hours—missing an opportunity to demonstrate his presence as an active empathetic leader in times of crisis. He has openly railed against transgender persons, seeking to limit their health care and participation in women’s sports. He went to Washington, DC to line up supporters for his yet-to-be campaign (instead of securing that support privately beforehand) only to have Donald Trump emerge from the visit with more endorsements than dis DeSantis.
But nowhere is the tone deafness of his nascent candidacy more apparent than in the fight he has picked with Disney. In a fit of pique when the Disney Corporation refused to support his “don’t say gay” bill, DeSantis has doubled down on punitive actions against Disney, a scuffle that is not only silly, but grossly counterproductive.
As I say in the prologue of my book, Beyond the Comma, “Walt Disney built an empire based on two…ideas: memory—which looks to the past—and imagination—which builds to an illimitable future…Using Disneyland as a metaphor of life itself, we can cite the words on a plaque there that says, ‘As long as there is imagination left in the world, Disneyland will never be complete.’ As memories propel us forward and imagination undergirds our continued efforts, we can find new and deeper purpose in our lives.” Such aspirations are quintessentially American. For DeSantis, who all accounts indicate is seeking a presidential run, to launch a frontal assault on Disney seems unwise at best, downright foolish at worst.
For me, such a philosophical principles became actualized several years ago when we took our six-year-old grandson to Disney World—marketed as “the happiest place on earth.” Our grandson never stopped smiling the whole time he was there—parents and grandparents beaming in joyful affirmation—until it was time for him to go, when he burst into inconsolable tears. This experience has been replicated over and over, literally millions of times, in families across this country. And yet, the Governor continues to seek retribution. His most recent ploy: to threaten to build a state prison on land adjacent to Disney World.
The lesson here, it seems to me, is that maybe Ron DeSantis is not the “smarter, slicker version of Donald Trump” that we feared. Rather, he is just as shallow, just as vindictive, just as short-sighted as Donald Trump—and just as prone to missed opportunities and blunders. We need to wake up to the idea that this Trump-lite alternative is no alternative at all, but rather a dunderheaded clone of the one whom he seeks to replace—with political instincts that are just as out of step with our values and hence just as dangerous to our collective future as the one who came before promising “I alone can fix it.”