On May 20, 2020, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stood outside a Central Florida long-term care facility alongside Vice President Mike Pence and officially arrived on the national scene. In one of the more iconic moments of the early pandemic, DeSantis, when questioned about his COVID-19 response, went off on the reporter, claiming that Florida was faring better on all metrics — deaths and cases — than its blue-state counterparts. DeSantis, pretty much a national unknown at that point, was summarily slotted as the anti-Cuomo, a maverick governor with a disdain for science and no respect for life, unconcerned about Florida’s inevitable decimation at the hands of COVID-19 — he was now Governor DeathSantis.
This was the liberal media’s framing, of course, as they’d found Cuomo’s foil — the obligatory villain needed for the blue vs. red state narrative. But the Right, salivating over the prospect of a politically experienced, true-MAGA fighter, was also quick to embrace DeSantis due to his moxie. To many in the right-leaning media-sphere, a savior had emerged. (RELATED: SCHILLING: DeSantis Strikes Back Against Big Tech Censorship)
I didn’t see a savior — not yet, at least — because DeSantis, as his response to the reporter had made clear, wasn’t ready for prime time. Sure, he’d fought back, but his response, albeit aggressive, was reactive and utterly lacking in charm and control — he was merely screaming at the reporter, as opposed to playing the media. DeSantis was attempting to channel Trump, but lacking the former president’s media savvy and second-to-none ability to expose reporters as partisan hacks, he came off like someone playing a part he wasn’t well-suited for. In the ensuing year, however, as DeSantis’ COVID-19 plan proved to be the correct approach, an incredible political metamorphosis occurred.
The whiny, petulant DeSantis of that May 2020 encounter, a bit player forced into a starring role even though he wasn’t ready, transformed himself, through shrewd political maneuvering and a growing confidence, into a legitimate star of the Republican Party. DeSantis might’ve reached this position eventually, but his timeline was accelerated by that May 2020 moment.
The process by which he went from “not quite ready” to the obvious 2024 frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination (besides Trump himself), has been fascinating to watch and a testament to his political chops. Most importantly, DeSantis created the blueprint for the post-Trump Republican.
Trump solidified what politicos have always known: politics is a personality game in which the persona you construct will, more often than not, determine your electoral viability. Early on, and especially after his initial May 2020 outburst, DeSantis was without personality, which is to say, without persona. Thrust into the spotlight as the pandemic’s supposed great villain, he constructed a persona that’s catnip to Republicans and rage-bait to Democrats: the Refined Florida Man.
The basis of the Refined Florida Man persona is the belief that the state of Florida is the last, great hope for the country, the place that epitomizes resistance to the technocratic ethos of the modern Democratic Party. The state of Florida, during Covid, was a free one. He’d been framed as its reckless leader, but not long after the May 2020 debacle, he leaned into the media’s framing while tweaking it to his favor. He’d kept Florida “open,” a decision that was not only popular with Republicans but the increasing number of Democrats and independents who’d grown tired of blue-state lockdown policies. Yes, DeSantis was now calmly saying, come to Florida. Florida is open. Florida is free.
The brilliance of DeSantis’ Refined Florida Man persona lies in his ability to play up the perceived reckless “Florida Man” aesthetic so often mocked by liberals while maintaining a calm and collected rationality, which is to say that his decision-making and public face are guided by these dueling polarities. We’re open, he says, as Florida Man. Come on down! Then, very calmly and rationally, the intellectual that he is, as Refined Florida Man, DeSantis will give you his reasoning as to why Florida fared better than many lockdown states. The science is on our side.
DeSantis understands that even if Florida Man is mocked by elites, longtime Floridians embrace the moniker and wear it as a badge of honor. There is pride in Florida for Florida Man and his antics, a wildness, that, even pre-pandemic, drew outsiders who were looking to escape the bureaucratic creep and paternalistic liberalism of blue states. Florida was already free, if not a little too free, and so DeSantis has incorporated the classic Florida Man aesthetic into his persona in order to attract the state’s base of red-blooded Americans who are disgusted by the lifeless bureaucracy and anti-Americanism of the Democratic Party.
DeSantis won’t usually be found on an airboat in the Everglades, but he has to appeal to this demographic, which is why he has spent quite a bit of his time during the pandemic hanging out with high schools’ sports teams and their coaches, signaling his allegiance to the Florida Man spirit and lifestyle that is so crucial to the “Florida is a free state” ethos that has made the state a beautiful outpost for those freaks who are a little too American for a country that gets a little less American every day. (RELATED: How The Jock Mindset Can Save America)
DeSantis was in full Florida Man mode recently at the Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach, the largest concert since the beginning of the pandemic. To the crowd of 20,000 sauced up Florida men and women, DeSantis belted “Florida chose freedom over Faucism!” DeSantis, who seems like a more introverted type, isn’t totally at ease in this type of rollicking atmosphere, but that’s not to say that he wasn’t in total control of the crowd. He’s clearly enjoying himself when he goes full Florida Man, because these moments of levity and fun must be balanced by DeSantis the rationalist political operator who is signing bills and shaping Florida in his image.
DeSantis knows, however, that as beloved as Florida Man is, fleeing blue-staters and demure independents might be scared off by him, so he constructed the Refined Florida Man persona to appeal to the prospective newcomers. We have good clean fun here, Refined Florida Man says, but we also pass common sense laws and follow the actual science, as opposed to “the science.” Summer 2020 DeSantis, before he landed on the Refined Florida Man persona, was Trump-lite, down to his hands gestures and mannerisms.
DeSantis, a young politician, was still finding himself, so it made sense that he’d fashion his persona after Trump, but unlike the former president, he lacks the charisma and presence necessary to pull off media takedowns he was attempting. Still, the instincts were there, as DeSantis understood that Trump, long before he made the move to Palm Beach, was a spiritual Florida Man.
He would have to tap into that energy, which is why when DeSantis first appeared on the national scene, he was dubbed as a Trump wannabe. We don’t hear that much anymore, proof that RFM DeSantis has arrived and is here to stay.
All along, DeSantis was far more similar to former President Barack Obama than Trump, which explains why the Trump-lite persona was a dud. DeSantis, of course, is nothing like Obama in terms of ideology, but when it comes to temperament and sensibility, the two are very similar. Obama, like DeSantis, is a well-read intellectual, who, at times, can come off as distant, which is why he developed the persona of a funny, ironic showman — Cool Obama.
The charisma was always there, but one often got the sense watching Obama that he was performing — even more than the average politician — consciously calibrating and fine-tuning his delivery and affect. In a way, this meta-Obama, who would sometimes let the media in on the joke, was the true Obama. Anyone who’s read his books will know that from an early age, as evidenced by his name change, Obama was tweaking and tinkering, not only his persona but his narrative. He was, if nothing else, a brilliantly constructed composite, the first postmodern president.
The Obamaesque meta-performance politics DeSantis is dabbling in were on full display when he visited the Everglades recently for a press conference kicking off the 2021 Python Challenge and was photographed, like a cheeky Florida Man, holding a python. The snake, an invasive species, is decimating the local animal population, so in true Florida form, the state has declared open season on the python. Starting on July 9, Floridians, or anyone who wants to take to the swamp with a hammer or any other blunt object of their choosing, is free to lay waste to as many pythons as they see fit.
To the petrified and panicked blue-stater, this scene — Floridians killing snakes! — is how they picture the savage Florida Man, which is why DeSantis, with that aforementioned cheeky grin, went down to the Everglades in between signing bills into law and was photographed with a massive twenty foot python. This is DeSantis in total control of his image, playing with the concept of Florida Man, simultaneously toying with his haters and thrilling his supporters. Here is a Republican, who, like Obama, understands the level that this game must be played at if one wants to win.
The Republican Party has faced great difficulty finding a candidate that energizes both its blue-collar normie base and the think-tank intelligentsia that so often — to the detriment of the party —chooses who is “best” for the country. This incongruence between the base and the tastemakers led to the rise of first the Tea party and then Trump, but for the first time in recent memory, both factions of the Republican Party are in agreement: DeSantis is the guy.
The liberal media and the Democratic establishment have also realized the singular threat that DeSantis poses to the moribund Biden-Harris administration if he were to decide to run for the presidency. It is deliciously ironic, of course, that the very same media class that elevated DeSantis before his time are now ill-prepared to contend with the formidable political monster they helped create. DeSantis understands how to navigate the different elements of his party’s constituency, unlike Trump, who was only ever really comfortable among his rabid supporters. (RELATED: The Birth Of A Multi-Ethnic, Working-Class Conservatism)
Trump was able to win due to the unprecedented energy and passion he engendered, but now that he’s not in the White House, only a politician who can capture some of that energy while bringing home the “refined” elements turned off by the former president’s antics will win the nomination and the election. Case in point: Trump underperformed with white men in 2020 relative to 2016, a surprise to many. These men, if I had to guess, were not “Florida Men” and were looking for something, dare I say, more refined.
Perhaps they’d outgrown, or simply grown tired, of the circus atmosphere and wanted to check out the political equivalent of a local theater production. These were men who perhaps wanted a little less show and a little more political substance.
DeSantis, at the moment signing bills related to critical race theory, silicon valley overreach and transgender athletes in high school sports, is certainly acting in a fashion that would please the former Trumpers who’d outgrown the show. This is DeSantis in statesman mode, synthesized with beer-drinking Florida Man denouncing “faucism” at a country concert. He is Florida Man. He is Refined Florida Man. He is Ron DeSantis, the future of the Republican Party.
Alex Perez is a Cuban-American writer from Miami, whose work has appeared in Tablet Magazine and Arc Digital, among others. Find him on Twitter @Perez_Writes
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.