Is Twitter DeSantis’ Problem?
A columnist argues his failed launch was emblematic of a larger problem.
In his Atlantic column, “DeSantis Is Making the Same Mistake Democrats Did in 2020,” Yair Rosenberg makes an interesting but ultimately unpersuasive case. He begins with his take on a question I answered differently this morning: Why would a Florida governor launch his Presidential campaign on Twitter?
DeSantis’s choice of venue makes sense in context: It is the latest in a series of appeals to his party’s most online activists, who idolize individuals such as Musk and monopolize Twitter, the social-media site that Musk owns.
Before launching into his central argument:
Cultivating the base and wealthy donors is smart politics, and DeSantis is a better politician than both his progressive and pro-Trump critics admit. But as the Twitter-launch fiasco demonstrated, his obsession with the online could seriously hamper his prospects offline. Campaigns that mistake social-media virality for electoral reality tend to end poorly.
One of the many misguided lessons that politicians learned from Donald Trump’s 2016 success was that Twitter wins elections. But in fact, Trump’s first victory owed little to social media and more to traditional media. His candidacy capitalized on a decades-old reputation for business acumen that he had built through reality TV and the tabloids. The telegenic Trump then overwhelmed his Republican primary opponents by garnering ample media coverage, with cable news channels racing to air his raucous rallies live.
By contrast, one of the few things that even Trump’s own supporters repeatedly told pollsters that they didn’t like about him was … his tweets. This shouldn’t surprise. Social-media sites—and Twitter in particular—are rife with conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and niche jargon that have little resonance in the real world.
By and large, I think that’s right. Indeed, even Trump’s tweets largely served to infuriate the mainstream media reporters who practically lived on the platform into covering said tweets on their much wider-reaching platforms.
But Rosenberg extends this too far:
This is why when politicians start talking like Twitter feeds, they start losing voters—which is exactly what happened to many Democrats in 2020.
Consider the case of “Defund the police.” That mantra, alongside its more radical cousin “Abolish the police,” emerged as a rallying cry during the 2020 protests after the killing of George Floyd, momentarily turning a previously marginal approach to policing into a mainstream one. Channeling righteous anger into a radical proposal, “Defund”quickly became an online litmus test, and many progressive politicians racked up retweets by embracing it. Judging by its online impact, the slogan was a smashing success.
It’s also not how anyone in the Democratic Party talks today. “I think allowing this moniker, ‘defund the police,’ to ever get out there, was not a good thing,” Keith Ellison, the progressive Minnesota attorney general, told the Washington Post reporter David Weigel in November 2021. “We should all agree that the answer is not to defund the police,” said President Joe Biden in his first State of the Union address, to a bipartisan standing ovation. “It’s to fund the police—fund them!” In late 2021, New York City elected Mayor Eric Adams, a Black former cop who promised to invest more in law enforcement, not less. This month, Philadelphia’s Democratic primary voters picked Cherelle Parker, a Black city-council member with an uncompromising tough-on-crime platform, to be the city’s likely next mayor. Meanwhile, Brandon Johnson, the newly elected mayor of Chicago, backed away from his previous “defund” position to secure his victory.
I’m just not sold. It was mostly politicians on the right, not those on the left, who seized on “Defund the Police” —using it as a cudgel against their Democratic opponents. Those Progressive Dems who embraced it at the time presumably did so because it played well with their constituencies. Those who elected The Squad to the House didn’t cast them out in 2020 in outrage over Defund; if anything, they were mad that it was a mere slogan rather than a policy.
What happened? It turned out that although defundingwas popular among the activists who disproportionately drive online progressive discourse, it was deeply unpopular with voters. Polls found that most Americans, including Black voters, overwhelmingly rejected defunding the police, and the slogan proved to be a millstone around the neck of many candidates, even in relatively progressive regions. The Democratic lawmakers and donors who echoed this rhetoric neglected one basic truth: Twitter is real life for the people who are on it, but most people are not on Twitter. According to the Pew Research Center, just 23 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter, and of those, “the most active 25% … produced 97% of all tweets.” Simply put, almost all tweets come from less than 6 percent of American adults—far from a representative slice of the broader public.
So, again, I’m in agreement with the larger point—that aiming for cheers from the Twitterati are, with relatively rare exceptions, missing the boat on the larger pulse of American politics—it’s just not the case that there was a widespread embrace of “Defund” from major national and statewide candidates.
But one Democrat didn’t fall into the Twitter trap. Not coincidentally, Joe Biden is now the president. In the 2020 Democratic primary, while his rivals competed to cater to the latest enthusiasms of the online left, the former vice president consolidated the party’s more moderate mainstream. In the general election, Biden’s aggressively offline campaign helped Democrats avoid the worst consequences of their 2020 Twitter excesses, as he was not implicated in them, and tended to treat social media as a place to be managed by staffers, not mirrored by the candidate. Trump, on the other hand, dove down every internet rabbit hole, ranting during speeches and debates about obscure bit players in online conspiracy theories at a time when a pandemic was ravaging the country. He lost by 7 million votes.
Joe Biden was also a former two-term Vice President of the United States who began the race as the heavy frontrunner, a position he maintained essentially throughout the campaign. The only mildly serious contenders to unseat him were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom staked out solidly progessive positions on the issues before Twitter became a dominant player in the political discourse.
Trump, meanwhile, was a wildly unpopular and ineffective President who only got elected to begin with because of the vagaries of our electoral system. He lost in 2016 by some 3 million votes to the most polarizing major party nominee in American history not named Donald Trump. His defeat in 2020, while hardly assured given the binary nature of our electoral system, was nonetheless overdetermined.
No politician can or should ignore social media, which still drives a lot of public discourse and engages many activists. The sweet spot is rather to be aware of the internet but not consumed by it. My colleague Derek Thompson refers to this as being “optimally online.” And for a while, it looked like Ron DeSantis had mastered this maneuver. He hired an army of pugilistic spokespeople, most notably his former press secretary Christina Pushaw, who reveled in trolling reporters and liberals on Twitter, including labeling Democratic politicians “groomers.” By delegating this operation to staff, DeSantis was able to appeal to his party’s most rabid Twitterati while maintaining distance and deniability from their actions, preserving his appeal to everyday voters even as he provided virtual red meat to the online base.
Now, however, it’s starting to look like this was not a strategy but just the first stage of internet poisoning that threatens to overwhelm DeSantis’s presidential campaign. In recent months, the governor has sounded less like a populist politician and more like an instantiation of his party’s worst Twitter talkers. Take DeSantis’s hard turn against transgender rights. “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” declared The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles, who has nearly 1 million followers on Twitter, in March. His colleague Matt Walsh regularly dubs transition care for minors “abuse” and “mutilation” to his 1.8 million followers. But what excites reactionary Twitter doesn’t move voters: Most Americans oppose discrimination against transgender people, even as they express apprehension about medical transition for minors or the participation of trans athletes in women’s sports. And yet, earlier this month, DeSantis signed and celebrated a bill that, in his words, “permanently outlawed the mutilation of minors.”
In other words, the ill-fated launch event with Musk wasn’t a one-off miscalculation. It was the latest instance of DeSantis losing sight of the electorate in favor of online obsessions. Tellingly, in his 67-minute appearance last night, the governor repeatedly derided the “woke” left but never mentioned Trump—the candidate DeSantis must dethrone if he is to claim the nomination.
But where’s the evidence that any of this is driven by Twitter or any other social media platform? Indeed, until his recent firing by Fox News, Tucker Carlson was pushing this sort of nonsense to the base on a weeknightly basis.
I haven’t the foggiest idea whatDeSantis’ actual beliefs or policy preferences are. He’s a well-educated man with significant life experience for his relatively young age, so I’m skeptical he’s as radical on some of these issues as his verbiage would indicate. But I strongly suspect he’s positioning himself where he and his team think they need to in order to beat Trump for the Republican nomination. I’ve given up predicting what Republican primary voters will do but it seems like a reasonable bet that he’s right.
That’s not to say that I think he’ll win. His star has fallen considerably just in the few short months since his November re-election. But I suspect he’s got a decent sense of the pulse of the nominating electorate.
DeSantis seems good at political strategy and theater. What he lacks is retail political skills – his voice, his looks, his onscreen presence. I think that dooms him. I don’t think Twitter means much either way.
But he can do lots of damage in the name of political theater on the way.
It doesn’t matter. He is as radical as he feels necessary to be. Consequentially, there is nothing to suggest he has a gram of moral or ethical fiber. Or that there are things he just won’t do to mitigate any risk to his maintenance of power. Willing to weaponize his state’s justice department to punish those that disagree or interfere with his money support base? Sure! Mismanage insurance regulation to screw houseowners? No problem! Hire a quack doctor to run your health department to shore up the MAGA base? Absolutely, what are a few more dead people?
Those who think DeSantis can’t be as bad or as radical as he has consistently demonstrated are like those who thought Trump would mature once he became President. When a person behaves like a sociopath and governs like a sociopath, then why would anyone rational think that person isn’t a sociopath?
Same shitty policies as Trump. Same willingness to shout baldfaced lies. Same inability to articulate actual, workable fiscal policies or positions on international relations. Same willingness to only employ those who agree with him. I don’t fracking understand why those Republicans that were appalled or at least uncomfortable with Trump want to flock to DeSantis. Unless all you want are more tax cuts for the wealthy or to ‘own the libs’ at your own expense. Because those are the only certain things we would get from him as a President.
@Argon: . It seems to me that DeSantis not only says what he believes but he has also acted in congruence with those words. Until actions taken are to the contrary, then you have to believe him at face value.
@Jay L Gischer:
Well, you got two out of three. Maybe two and a half if we are considering height. Perhaps that matters in a televised debate. I’ve not seen any data beyond basically a list of previous President with height attached.
But even the dude who says DeSantis watched him being tortured recalled being struck by the young lawyer’s eyes and handsomeness.
But I agree about the other two. His speaking skills have improved since he first won the gubernatorial race, but he still isn’t particularly impressive. Your comment is interesting, because if I recall correctly, you pushed back a bit when I opined that he doesn’t sound good.
I read somewhere that while he was in the US House, he didn’t engage with colleagues. He pretty much just walked around with earbuds all the time. I think the same article I read claimed his behavior is not much different at fundraisers.
That doesn’t bode well for his prospects when he travels around to meet potential voters. Probably a bigger problem in the general.
Oh, yeah. You mentioned his voice. Not great. But people willingly listen to Ben Shapiro and The Nanny lasted long enough to release 146 episodes.
@Kurtz: Meh. He may be good looking, but to me he doesn’t look like a president. Height matters, I think. It can be hid and worked around a lot, though. But maybe one shot of another candidate – say Trump – towering over him is going to hurt a lot.
@Jay L Gischer:
I’ve read that before Carter beat Ford in 1976, the taller candidate always won in presidential elections.
The thing about all of the anti-woke groomer stuff is that if you were a pedophile who wished to groom kids, your best is to go to Bible college, move to Florida, start a church and a homeschooling program designed to protect kids against wokeness, and then molest the living shit out of these kids for as long as you like. Trump got this from day 1 about the GOP. He understands how they work and what their fears mean. DeSantis is one of the faithful, a member of the flock, and he is simply a rat in a maze, really no different than Elon Musk trying to make a ‘joke’.
I don’t think DeSantis can be counted out. But his problem isn’t twitter. It’s that he’s a yes man who doesn’t know he’s a yes man and his supporters are the same. Because he was rich at birth, Trump is not a yes man.
@Argon: I think more tax cuts for the wealthy and some sort of deregulation and/or border policy along with the promise that he will appear more “normal” (without being so, I would add) are the elements driving Republicans shying way from Trump toward DeSantis (and Youngman, Haley, and whoever else for that matter).
@Modulo Myself: I wish you weren’t right about the “if you were a pedophile…” thing, but before I left for Korea, there were something like 5 cases in 5 years of teachers being arrested for pedo- and ephebo- crimes involving their students in the metro area in which I was living and all but one happened at a school hosted by an evangelical church.
It’s like everything the right bangs on: trans kids, cops, religion. It’s obvious that the police are trash and not reformable, trans kids are fine, and fundie white evangelicism is at worst a vehicle for brainwashing and abuse and at best simply pointless and barely Christian. Conservatism has devoted itself to being completely untenable for humans in exchange for never being criticized, which also, oddly enough, is untenable. Some teachers think about ways to protect their students from their fucked-up bigoted parents and it’s a national issue that teachers are trying to deal with reality like adults.
They are just terrible in all which ways. And I think it’s only someone like Trump who can squeeze through the contradictions.
We become what we pretend to be.
If he wasn’t a monster when he was overseeing the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo, if he was “just following orders”, the process was corroding his soul.
He’s a man who learned that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and he’s going to keep breaking eggs until an omelet appears.
Does he hate gays and trans folks or his he just willing to abuse, persecute and criminalize them? Either he’s a complete sociopath, or he has bought into his own lies as a justification for why he’s a good person despite what he is doing.
He’s a monster. The only question in my mind is whether he’s a special breed of broken human that literally cannot care about anyone else, or whether he’s the monster that we could all become if we followed our very worst impulses.
To quote Elvis Costello, from his song “Miss Macbeth”
People respond to courage, not talking points. There is something he seems to think he can avoid but he can not.
@Jay L Gischer: @CSK:
I’m with you, DeSantis doesn’t look or sound like a President. But he didn’t look or sound like a big state governor in 2018, either. He barely won, but he still did. Trump didn’t sound or act like a President in 2016, either. He barely won, but he still did.
There is a wider world than our views. And for almost the whole electorate, the one thing that matters one of two letters, not two or three digits and two punctuation marks that so many people transpose.
I know that it has been asserted that the taller of the two candidates normally wins. But the sample size is tiny. Even then, it’s not necessarily correct anyway. McGovern was taller than Nixon. GWB lost the popular vote to Gore, who is ~1.5 in taller. But then he defeated Kerry who towered over W by more than four inches. Biden is shorter than Trump.
Here is a color-coded table.
He’s no more of a monster than someone who joined the Nazi party or owned slaves. He’s just incredibly ordinary with an ordinary man’s limited explanation for things. Which is the following: what exists is due to the natural forces of order rather than social convention. He’s no different than a society lady in 1890 refusing to pay a visit to a woman who has been divorced.
But then DeSantis won the governorship of Florida by 13 points over Christ in 2022. So he had acquired some appeal to voters since 2018.
@Gustopher: I’m inclined to disbelieve that there are any special breeds of people, most of us, more simply, are just the people who, as Luddite puts it “didn’t become the [people they] could have been.” But I’m a little on the jaundiced side.
DeSatanis’ big problem is the lump of organic matter inside his cranium.
I’m inclined to disbelieve that there are any special breeds of people, most of us, more simply, are just the people who, as Luddite puts it “didn’t become the [people they] could have been.” But I’m a little on the jaundiced side.
I mean, the guy had no problem doing what he was told regarding violating human rights and torture, but he would have had issues with calling his fellow torturers by their preferred pronouns if ordered by the military. We are all vulnerable to the same weaknesses, but there’s a degree of darkness in the GOP’s version of weakness that is both a) comic and b) unrelatable.
At the same time, maybe being unrelatable to each other is the human struggle of the 21th century.
@just nutha: There are literal sociopaths and people who cannot see other people as people. They are few and far between, but it happens.
The far more common scenario is a choice.
@Modulo Myself: We all contain the seeds of a monster. We are generally repulsed by it, sometimes to the point of denial.
Am I fundamentally different from my brother who has slipped into QAnon, and who has shifted from trolling to performative assholery? Not as different as I would like to think. I’m queer and I lived in NYC, both of which opened my eyes a bit and forced me to think of others, but it’s a straight-lifestyle-compatible version of queer (bi/pan/whatever… not big into labels) and NYC was as much of an accident as anything.
I could just as easily become him. (Or my brother obsessed with the Clovis people, but utterly uneducated about the Clovis people.)
Also, most of your examples are less worse than DeSantis. He’s pioneering new ways to express bigotry, not just following conventions at the time in his social circle — the latter can be explained by weakness and a lack of curiosity about the world outside their circle.
Slaveholders know slaveholders and grew up in families of slaveholders and had their wealth in slaves. Sure, there have been abolitionists for about as long and slavers, but they don’t mix socially.
Most people who joined the Nazi party did so to follow rather than lead. I don’t excuse them, but there are degrees of awfulness.
DeSantis is a man who realized that he has the ability to change the world — his corner of the world, at the very least — and this is the change he wants to see.
@Modulo Myself: I still lean more toward “nothing new under the sun.” The GOP is particularly dark at this moment–or maybe only more obviously so, who knows–but they’re still not unique in the annals of man’s inhumanity toward man.
Woke Derangement Syndrome and 6-week abortion bans have limited appeal to a national electorate. So DeSaster has the same problem as Trump: this isn’t 2016 anymore, and MAGA extremism is not terribly popular in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Nevada.
What you said. (In lieu of thumb’s up.)
Twitter’s value to Trump lay not so much in the direct audience (although he did have tens of millions of followers) as in the media’s willingness to make his tweets the day’s main news story. His outlandish insults and complaints were amplified by journalists happy to have their day’s work presented to them when they opened their phones in the morning, to the exclusion of so many other stories which could have been written about the corruption and incompetence in the administration. Trump turned the Mueller investigation into an asset by his unprecedented attacks on the investigators, which were dutifully made front page stories every time he did it.
Neither Biden, DeSantis nor any other candidate can use Twitter this way. For many, it would repel the kind of swing voter they want to attract. For Republicans, it would leave them open to the perception of being ‘Trump-lite’ – why bother when the original is still available?
Interestingly, the removal of the discipline imposed by the old 140-character tweet limit has seen Trump resort to increasingly long, incoherent and often plain unhinged rants on Truth Social. As a result, they are no longer very newsworthy. The novelty has worn off. Consequently we’re likely to see the coming campaigns waged more in traditional media than DeSantis apparently anticipates.
In the same way that Rudy G became known as “noun verb 9/11”, DeSantis is quickly becoming “noun verb woke”. His words are so targeted at a way-too-online audience that it would be funny if he wasn’t so blatantly fascistic.
Ultimately I think his wild lack of charisma [negative charisma, really] will mean that even with all the elite backing, he’ll still get smoked in the primary.