Ron DeSantis is a man of many straitjackets.
By choosing Twitter Spaces as his formal presidential launch pad this week, the Florida governor is obviously trying to inject a little informality into his stiff-necked image. But he could make the announcement from inside a kidney-shaped pool filled with wine coolers and still not obscure his straitjacketed personality. Not to mock the governor, but he exudes more coldness than coolness. He gives every appearance of not particularly liking people, and that feeling has been reciprocated in the recent national polls as his numbers have peaked and tumbled down.
Then there’s the physical straitjacket he dons when he takes the podium or mingles with voters or walks through crowds protected by his ultra-protective retinue. Dead-eyed and dour, DeSantis speaks a body language that always seems to be looking for an exit. If no exit exists, he calms his demons by sparking some new senseless fight with the Disney corporation. If he becomes president, will the House of Mouse rank above or below China in his Axis of Evil?
Noting both his rigid demeanor and his deliberate avoidance of the nonpartisan press, the reporters covering DeSantis have gathered these behavioral cues to sew the candidate a straitjacketed image, portraying him as a locked up, frozen and vengeful character whose veins pump bile, not blood. He’s now in a box — likely for his entire 2024 campaign — that will be difficult to break out of, even for the most talented escape artist.
Like many press portraits, this one may not be completely fair. There could be a charming, easy-going lad hibernating under all that permafrost, a Republican Mister Rogers who wants to be your friend and neighbor. But reporters must rely on what they’ve seen and heard during his stint in Congress and over the four years he’s occupied the Florida governorship. He looks and acts like the guy who would confiscate the ball kicked accidentally onto his lawn by kids playing on the sidewalk. Aloof and distant, as if nursing some eternal grudge, DeSantis seems as tightly wound as a fishing reel and a better candidate for residence on a desert island than the White House.
DeSantis isn’t the only presidential candidate reduced to an unflattering stereotype. Richard Nixon was quickly pegged by the press as slippery. Lyndon Johnson as scheming. Bill Clinton, phony. George W. Bush, stupid. It may be no consolation to DeSantis that the press has reduced him to a political mummy, wrapped tight in the white of his own hang-ups, but that’s the way political journalism works: The candidate makes a face and the press describes it.
There was always more to Nixon than treachery, more to LBJ than lies and more to Clinton than his insincerity. (In observance of the mercy rule, we won’t say there was more of anything to Bush.) So there’s a good chance that DeSantis isn’t as frigid as he comes off in his public appearances. It’s not impossible for him to course-correct and share a more human side in his appearance, to invent a “New DeSantis” who is relaxed and personable the way Richard Nixon tried to fashion a “New Nixon.” But the odds are long. Once the press corps decides what costume looks best on a candidate — and the press has done so with DeSantis — it rarely considers a rewrite. After his famous ride in a tank, Michael Dukakis was trapped as a weakling cosplaying a warrior. Candidate Bob Dole couldn’t escape his whiner persona, nepo baby Al Gore couldn’t drop his Harvard toff status and Hillary Clinton was stuck as an icy know-it-all.
DeSantis sees a path to the White House — 280 characters at a time
Once the press typecasts a politician, everything he does gets interpreted as new proof of his wicked nature. Pigeonholed as Mr. Uptight, he can barely yawn or say hello to voters without being accused of being gloomy Gus. Anything he might attempt to counteract his image at this point — tell jokes, wear funny hats, go on late night talk shows — will do more to amplify the picture than dilute it. DeSantis could stage a media event in which he bottle feeds a litter of newborn kittens and the press would still find a way to find evidence of cruelty in the performance.
Does he have any way out? There’s another recent candidate who was dressed by the press in unflattering garb who overcame the representation to win the presidency: Donald Trump. According to a thousand news bulletins, Trump was a narcissistic bully, a misogynist, a racist, a xenophobe, a Putin toady, an authoritarian, a con man, a cheat, a liar, an egomaniac, a fraud and a sexist. But instead of contesting these nasty effigies, Trump shrugged them off. Oh, he quarreled now and again with some of the assessments, like boasting about being the least racist person in the room, but by and large, he slept soundly in the bed the press made for him, wearing the insults like a toga and the descriptions like a wreath.
Could DeSantis make a similar bounty out of his straitjacketed personality? Could he pretend his straitjacket was a royal robe and welcome the abuse? Stranger things have happened in campaigns than organizing a presidential run around the politics of joylessness, even if it has proved successful in Florida.
If the straitjacket fits, maybe DeSantis should wear it proudly.
If you put DeSantis and Trump into a bottle and shook it, who would win the resulting fight? Send your pick to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is the original happy warrior. I pay less attention to my Mastodon, Post and Substack Notes account than you do. My RSS feed makes Hell’s Angels look like good Samaritans.
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