Both men are uncharismatic, populist pretenders — and prematurely written-off
JANAN GANESH | Contributor
Neither man has an alternative career in audiobook narration awaiting him upon retirement. Ron DeSantis speaks in a sort of monotone nag. Rishi Sunak can sound adenoidal. If you share my belief that people are defined as much by their voice as by their looks, it is a miracle these two have got as far as the Florida governorship and 10 Downing Street. On first listen, Americans of a certain vintage would call one a Poindexter, while older Brits would regard the other as a swot.
And they’d be right. These are men of exam-passing, credential-hoarding diligence. Each is family-minded and has passed through the kind of established institutions that modern conservatives are meant to define themselves against. DeSantis is a product of the Ivy League and the US Navy. Stanford and Goldman Sachs gave us Sunak, who was also said to be the dutiful creature of Her Majesty’s Treasury in his time there.
The parallels go on. Sunak helped to bring down Boris Johnson as UK prime minister. DeSantis is challenging Donald Trump for the Republican nomination at the next US presidential election, and becoming ever more explicit about his failure to win the last one. (“Of course he lost.”) And so, to belabor the school metaphor, diehard fans of both those fallen leaders resent this pair for snitching in class.
Sunak is a sunnier character than DeSantis, who could illuminate a stage by getting off it. He is also the more reliable friend of Ukraine. Other than that, their oneness is striking. Inside both of these politicians is what Freudians would recognize as the same “conflict”. Having spent their lives amassing establishment bona fides, they now belong to movements that regard themselves as near-revolutionary. The outward awkwardness of each man is at least in part the result of having to flit between mental worlds. Trump and Johnson really are nihilists. The other two are just very, very conservative. In pretending otherwise, each comes across as a playground nerd acting the lad (or jock).
Rightwing grassroots smell this a mile off, and mind. But they might not have a choice. And so we come to the ultimate symmetry between Sunak and DeSantis. Both still have a chance of passing their electoral tests in 2024. The case that Sunak is underpriced (though still unlikely) to remain prime minister is one I have made before. It rests on: the limited value of voting-intention polls this far out from an election, the competitiveness of his personal ratings with those of the Labour party leader, and the historic rarity of Britain turning decisively left when it isn’t in a good mood, whether amid postwar demobilization (1945), cultural renewal (the mid-1960s) or economic boom (1997).
But it is worth putting in a word for DeSantis, too. Depending on your betting exchange or turf accountant of choice, £10 on Trump to be the Republican candidate pays out little over £13. The same wager on DeSantis returns £80. Trump should be strongly favored, no doubt, but this is quite the margin for a 77-year-old facing a battery of criminal charges, including the almost magnificent “Conspiracy to defraud the United States”.
It is not that I predict a plea deal for Trump to withdraw, or a new stinginess among donors who see his legal bills mounting, or a health scare. But DeSantis must look at the historic record and see that a big part of becoming president is just sticking it out. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama weren’t leading the primaries at the start of 1992 or 2008 respectively. Trump himself didn’t break clear of other Republicans until November 2015. If “events” transpire, DeSantis is still there.
And if he does get to face the general electorate, he and Sunak will be perverse beneficiaries of the men they slew. Because Trump and Johnson are so beyond the pale in tactics, it is possible for others to be ferocious in doctrine without seeming extreme. As long as a conservative politician doesn’t break the law, or threaten the constitutional order, they can get away with more strident policies and rhetoric than a swing voter might have tolerated a decade ago. (Remember that Mitt Romney was considered a hardliner in 2012.)
Sunak gave a well-intentioned but reckless subsidy to dine out during the pre-vaccine phase of the pandemic. DeSantis picks cultural fights that are sometimes warranted but more often exhausting. Yet each man will seem at least house-trained compared with recent leaders of their party. “Rightwing, but not feral,” is quite the commendation now. A political scientist might say that the Overton window of acceptable ideas has widened. In plainer speech: voters are grateful for small mercies.
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