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Opinion: The problem with Ron DeSantis' mini-Trump pose

Ruth Ben-GhiatRuth Ben-Ghiat
DeSantis became Trump’s man, running as a “Pitbull Trump Defender.” One campaign ad, narrated by his wife, Casey DeSantis, presented their home as an altar of Trump worship, complete with their infant lying in a crib, dressed in a MAGA shirt, with a MAGA blanket.
Four years later, DeSantis’s new identity has now anchored so completely that he routinely mimics the former President’s body language, from his hand gestures (including the classics: “accordion hands” and the “pinch” of thumb and forefinger), to the way he faces the cameras. He has become a mini-Trump.
This all bears a striking resemblance to the intense world of authoritarianism. When leaders have a personality cult, they don’t just set policies, but also model certain ideals of masculine power and performance that their followers widely imitate.
Men with political ambitions learn quickly that mimicking the leader, in word and deed, can win them a place in the new political world the leader is creating. They learn that the leader rewards public expressions of loyalty and blind devotion — even better if you are seen teaching those lessons to your children (DeSantis’ Trumpist video recalls this). Imitation truly is the best form of flattering an authoritarian or authoritarian wannabe’s giant ego.
The many lives of Steve BannonThe many lives of Steve Bannon
The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini set the modern template for authoritarianism. His surrogates and proxies repeated his hyper-masculine performances and bombastic oratory, starting with his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who mimicked Il Duce’s chin thrusts, earning the nickname “the Jaw.” The writer Italo Calvino, who grew up during the dictatorship, recalled how his generation internalized the gestures, opinions and behaviors of Mussolini from an early age.
Trump’s success at making the Republican Party into his personal tool and converting critics into slavish adulators — Sen. Lindsay Graham, who in March thanked Trump on Fox News for “allowing me to be in his world,” comes to mind — is impressive because he governed in a democracy for only four years.
So is Trump’s ability to keep his personality cult alive after leaving office, through his “Big Lie” that allows millions of devotees to think he, and not Joe Biden, is still the “real” president.
GOP politicians who debase themselves for Trump look ridiculous and even comical, as when Vice President Mike Pence copied Trump’s gestures at a 2018 meeting (when the President moved his water bottle onto the floor, so did Pence).
But there’s nothing funny about the damage done to democracy by an entire party rearranging itself around the priorities of one man, to the point of making support for him, no matter what he says or does, its official platform. Trump’s game requires participants to publicly prostrate themselves to his version of reality, even when it means denying obvious truths about subjects like the 2020 election and the efficacy of vaccines and masks in containing the coronavirus.
Trump allies' election 'command center' was a war room for attempted coup Trump allies' election 'command center' was a war room for attempted coup
On both issues, DeSantis has made Trump’s lines, and lies, his own. The governor had praised Florida’s election security the night Trump was elected. But by May 2021, when he signed into law an election bill predicated on the existence of state election fraud, good standing in the Trump cult required delegitimizing the American election system. The governor “increasingly acts like his role model, the tyrannical Donald Trump,” wrote the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s editorial board.
That includes insisting on public health policies, like opposing mask and vaccine mandates, that have contributed to mass death in Florida. A May 2021 law prohibits businesses, schools and even cruise ships from requiring proof of vaccination, and DeSantis is still seeking to ban public schools from implementing mask mandates despite a record surge in cases in late summer and contestations in court.
On Sunday, he touted plans to offer vaccine-resisting officers $5,000 bonuses to relocate to Florida and join the police force. “If you’re not being treated well, we’ll treat you better here,” DeSantis said. A day later he asserted that the offer was unrelated to vaccines. “People are saying it’s a vaccine issue, it’s not. It has nothing to with that,” DeSantis said — adding, however, that he did not “think police officers should be fired for shots.”
It could be argued that in a Trump-dominated political world governed by authoritarian cult dynamics, DeSantis is being shrewd. This summer, Trump easily won an informal straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in which attendees were asked to pick their favorite for 2024.
Since then, things have become more complicated: DeSantis worked with Democrats after the Surfside apartment complex collapse, and refused to attend a Trump rally held soon after the tragedy. Trump also recently warned his junior admirer not to run against him in 2024. DeSantis has absorbed Trump’s style of politics, and can deliver an approximation of Trump’s showmanship in a much younger package. That makes him a threat.
Whatever DeSantis’s future plans for his mini-Trump brand, he might take heed of the fates of many politicians who have adulated and imitated their strongman, only to find that he turns against them. For authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians always do whatever benefits their own power, no matter who is harmed in the process, and no matter how loyal their lackeys have been in the past.

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