The success of Donald Trump, an asshole who became president, created a fallacy: Americans want an asshole as their president. This misapprehension greatly appeals, of course, to assholes, especially those in public office, who seem happy to drop the traditional practice of politicians pretending to be nicer than they really are in favor of trying to win support by doubling down on being dicks.
In truth, Trump’s appeal is, or was, probably based less on just being an asshole than in getting American’s large share of angry, aging, conservative, mostly white people to feel “this asshole is on my side,” plus occasionally being funny.
But that distinction seems lost on figures like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, senators Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, and South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, presidential aspirants all, if not 2024 candidates. These folks may be secretly nicer than they pretend, but all seem to hope that publicly playing up any boorish qualities they share with the former president are a ticket to national polling success.
The main example in this genre, of course, is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has been elected governor of the country’s third biggest state twice, and has won extensive media attention in part by being unprecedentedly obnoxious to the press. No one can accuse him of being nice. DeSantis’ banning of books that address racism, his prohibiting saying “gay,” his use of state funds to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, and his (losing) fight with Disney are undeniably obnoxious. If American wants another jerk in the White House, here is a champion.
And yet it is not working. DeSantis’ confrontational public persona and his reportedly off-putting interpersonal vibe have damaged his presidential hopes. We have seen reports that he eats pudding with his fingers, that he blows off donors and generally stinks at retail politics. On Saturday came news from DeSantis’ effort to court British business chiefs at a London event Friday. According to Politico, attendees called his performance “horrendous” and “low wattage.” One attendee said that DeSantis “looked bored” and “stared at his feet” during the meeting, part of what was nominally billed as an effort to build Florida’s foreign trade ties. One person defended the performance as “fine.”
Boring some Brits is not that big a deal. But this is the latest indication that DeSantis struggles with the basic political skill of getting people to like him. And that still matters. The Florida governor’s struggle offers a corrective: Yes, Trump showed that assholes can win the presidency. But it takes a little more than that.