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Trump without the crazy: Critics on Republican governor eyeing tilt at White House after picking fight with Mickey Mouse

© Rick Bowmer/AP/ShutterstockRon DeSantis speaks during the American Legislative Exchange Council in Utah last year
Ron DeSantis speaks during the American Legislative Exchange Council in Utah last year

With the summer tourist season in full swing, the streets of Walt Disney World in Florida are humming with visitors from all over the globe.

But behind the scenes, Disney has found itself at the centre of an extraordinary dispute thanks to the actions of one man who some are tipping as the heir to Donald Trump.

Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, revoked the company’s special taxing district which has allowed Disney to essentially govern itself since 1967.

Disney’s offence was to criticise a new law signed by DeSantis which banned instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” in public schools, a law dubbed “Don’t Say Gay”.

The response from DeSantis was vengeful, swift and energised his base, a tactic which has become his trademark.

The Harvard-educated former US Navy officer has turned Florida into the most Maga – Make America Great Again – state in the US and with it made himself into a potential Presidential candidate in 2024.

The New Yorker magazine dubbed him “Trump with a brain” while New York Magazine criticised his authoritarian leanings, saying he would “kill democracy slowly and methodically”.

DeSantis with Trump in 2020 (Pic: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock)

DeSantis is widely seen as more effective than the blustering former president and, in the eyes of Democrats, a bigger threat if he wins the Republican nomination.

Such anxieties have been heightened as Trump’s grip on the Republican party appears to be slipping after his chosen candidates had mixed results in recent primary elections.

The Congressional hearings into the riot on the US Capitol in January last year have painted him as being at the centre of a plot to overthrow democracy.

A New York Times poll found that just 49% of Republicans back Trump as their candidate in 2024. That is still a long way ahead of DeSantis on 25%, but the governor has been receiving plaudits from right-wing TV network Fox News which has enormous sway among Republican voters.

Soon DeSantis will meet with some of the party’s biggest donors in Utah to flesh out a potential campaign, another sign of his political intentions.

Rick Wilson, a longtime moderate Republican strategist from Florida, who has been critical of Trump, told The Sunday Post that DeSantis was “100% preparing to run” in 2024.

He said: “I predicted that if we didn’t stop Trump and Trumpism at some point we should have somebody who would embrace all authoritarianism under the guise of what is described as conservative but without Trump’s obvious cognitive and moral deficits. Right now that’s that guy.”

He added: “DeSantis’ governing style is angry, racially motivated and he would rather own the liberals than govern. He is a guy that’s bitter about his origins. He was from a middle-class family and his father sold Nielsen TV boxes. It was a perfectly respectable life but he’s so angry at anyone he considers to be above him socially and that’s what motivates him.”

DeSantis assumed office in July 2019 and initially impressed moderates with moves such as raising salaries for public school teachers and putting $1bn to restoring the Everglades, Florida’s wetlands.

But the pandemic caused him to embrace Trumpism. After initially imposing lockdowns he changed his mind and lifted the restrictions three weeks later, removing all masking requirements soon after.

As the Covid death rate climbed, DeSantis’ critics mocked him as “Ron DeathSantis” but he said that he had turned Florida into a “citadel of freedom”, free of fear from the virus.

Soon other culture war issues followed. DeSantis banned some maths books from public schools as he said they were “indoctrinating” students about Critical Race Theory, a degree-level subject which isn’t even taught at that level, and had already been banned from being taught anywhere.

When Trump won Florida in the 2020 election, it turned what has previously been a swing state into a Republican success story, further emboldening DeSantis.

As the governor’s profile rose, he engaged in what Wilson called “petty authoritarianism” including kicking reporters out of press conferences.

Then came the Don’t Say Gay law and a proposed “anti-rioting” law in the wake of the George Floyd protests which would make it a crime to block traffic even if the protest was peaceful – it wasn’t passed.

DeSantis has signed a law that would prohibit all abortions in the state after 15 weeks of pregnancy, though a judge has blocked it for now.

DeSantis’ embrace of Trumpism can sometimes be clunky. One campaign ad featured him and his toddler playing with some toy bricks while he told the child to “build the wall”, a reference to Trump’s pledge about a wall on the US/Mexico border.

Another scene featured DeSantis reading from Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, with the child in his arms. But while liberals mocked him it was a hit among DeSantis’ supporters.

Dr Kevin Wagner, chairman of the political science department at Florida Atlantic University, said that DeSantis was “much more strategic” than the Trump administration – but that could be a problem.

He said: “What made the former president appealing is he had an unplanned nature. He didn’t come across as a traditional politician and that’s a hard thing to mimic. People who think DeSantis will go in there and beat Trump, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Wagner said that Trump still holds a significant lead over DeSantis in the polls, while Wilson said that the former president’s supporters are “fanatical” about him.

Another problem for DeSantis is that he is not a naturally gifted politician – Trump, by contrast, connects with his base on a visceral level.

“To be President you have to go to Iowa and sit in a diner for three hours and listen to the local county chairman tell you their theory on monetary policy – Ron doesn’t have the patience for that,” Wilson said.

At the age of 43, time is on DeSantis’ side, unlike Trump who is 76 and would be 78 if he wins a second term.

If DeSantis runs in 2024, loses to Trump who then loses the Presidential election, DeSantis can turn around and say Republicans should have chosen him.

If Trump wins then he can only serve one more term, meaning the floor is clear for DeSantis in 2028.

Either way, the name Ron DeSantis will be one that America are likely to be hearing a lot more in the years to come.