As the 2024 presidential campaign cycle approaches, it appears that the race for the Republican Party nomination will be a two-man race, pitting the former President Donald Trump against the current governor of the state of Florida, Ron DeSantis.
I am, by nature, a political independent, and for years I voted that way. When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, I changed my affiliation so I could vote in the Republican primary, mostly as a way of registering my disaffection for the Republican Party leadership. Though I am grateful for what he did as president—I did not expect much from Donald Trump and was pleasantly surprised by what he did accomplish—I plan to vote for Ron DeSantis this time around.
I should state up front that I don’t hate Donald Trump, and I would vote for him against virtually any Democrat he might run against. His liabilities as a politician, however, are quite obvious: he is nepotistic, egotistical, and something of a huckster (he has always reminded me of the New York version of Edwin Edwards, the longtime Democratic governor of Louisiana). That is part of his charm, but it also means that his interests simply don’t align with social conservatives like myself.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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His response to the brouhaha over the Bud Light campaign featuring a “transgender woman” illustrates this: he opposed the boycott of that corporation, in part, because he had invested money in the company. For the record, I don’t think the boycott is all that important, but it illustrates my point: Trump’s ultimate allegiance is to himself and his family. Wherever his voter’s interests conflict with those, they will get short shrift.
DeSantis is a politician, too, and I am not naive enough to think he will always defer to his voters. But I think there are good reasons to prefer him to Trump. Some of these don’t particularly concern Catholics but are important nonetheless. Trump turned out voters in record numbers in 2020, but one has to wonder how much more he can do at this point.
DeSantis, on the other hand, is a newcomer, even if he already has a reputation as the conservative governor of one of the largest states in the nation. His electoral success speaks for itself: he was reelected by nineteen points and turned a purple state into a solidly red one. DeSantis has a record that indicates he is going to be a competent administrator and likely more adept at choosing personnel than Trump, who was a disaster in that regard.
Ron DeSantis is a practicing Catholic, by all accounts, and that means something in this age of declining religious practice, though DeSantis doesn’t appear to have revealed much about how he practices his faith while in office. I am not aware of what parish he attends or what his personal faith looks like, though he is said to have baptized one of his children with water from the Sea of Galilee, for what that’s worth. (He spoke of it when he announced his wife was battling breast cancer recently.) Whatever his personal convictions, faith certainly has influenced the way he has governed, as is evidenced by the number of hit pieces that have been run by liberals bemoaning that fact.
And for good reason. DeSantis has placed officials in his administration who are associated with the Catholic Medical Association and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and his emphatic defense of the death penalty as well as his restrictionist immigration policies have earned him the wrath of liberal Catholics (and even one of the bishops, it should be noted). Whatever his personal beliefs, Ron DeSantis has governed as a conservative Roman Catholic straight out of central casting, whether you think he plays the hero or the villain.
However satisfying it may be for traditional Catholics to finally have an electable politician to counterbalance the depressing and infuriating number of Catholic politicians—including, of course, the current president—whose Catholicism largely consists in subverting Catholic teaching at every turn in their public lives, that is not the reason why Catholics should support DeSantis.
One reason to support him is that DeSantis is part of a rising generation of GOP figures that are unafraid to use state power to advance the interests of their constituents. The legislative session that just ended in Florida is practically a social conservative’s dream come true: a six-week abortion ban, laws punishing businesses that allow kids at adult shows, and a ban on sex-reassignment surgeries for minors, among other items. The legislature also passed a law banning central bank digital currencies, restricting immigration, eliminating the DEI requirements from universities, and a parental rights law. Whatever one thinks of the individual policies, that is an impressive record of accomplishment.
But perhaps the most important reason Catholics should get behind DeSantis is because he “knows what time it is.” Catholics realize the threat they face from a Left that is now openly using the regulatory state to harass and intimidate its political opponents, including Catholics. Last year, the FBI arrested a Catholic pro-life activist for allegedly assaulting an abortion clinic escort; and a recently leaked memo revealed that agency claimed that traditional Catholics had ties to “white nationalists.”
Of course, the Left has targeted far more people than just conservative Catholics, and this is why it is so urgent that the Right, as a whole, begin to take seriously the threat that they face. Both his running battle with the corporate behemoth that is Disney and his efforts to remake the New College in Sarasota, Florida, by turning over its Board of Trustees make clear he understand the stakes involved in this fight. And his actions show that he at least has a plan for how to push back against these tactics.
In my opinion, DeSantis is a better bet than Donald Trump to carry out such an agenda. DeSantis, by all accounts, appears to be the more competent administrator. And despite his record on social issues, he can plausibly present himself to the general electorate as a centrist on issue like the environment, where his record is likely to appeal to independent and moderate voters. DeSantis is not the charismatic figure that Trump is, but he can do something in a general election that Trump cannot: project an air of competence and stability, two things sorely lacking in the current occupant of the White House.
Conservative voters, and pious Catholics in particular, tend to be very loyal to their politicians, perhaps because they themselves value loyalty. This is an admirable quality; but it can be a detriment when it comes to politics. I know many good, decent people think Trump is the only person who can somehow “save the country”—that his wealth and charisma are the only thing standing between us and elites who despise us.
This trust in charismatic leaders is a problem because no politician—including DeSantis—is going to turn back the tide that threatens us. For that, we need to plan long term, to begin building institutions both political and cultural, and to be better organized politically at all levels of government and society. Much of this the Right will have to do themselves—not wait for a Savior Politician to swoop in and do it for them. But they will need competent leaders who are willing to use state power to protect their communities from leftist activists and their depredations. The most likely candidate to do that on the national stage at this point is Ron DeSantis.
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