Ron DeSantis is the ChatGPT to Donald Trump’s Lizard Brain
by Neil H. Buchanan
With the 2024 Republican presidential field expanding daily (although laughably), it is tempting to fall into the usual media framing of every election in the horse-race mode. What do the latest, meaningless polls say? Who is pulling ahead by a nose? Who is closing some perceived gap? Dreary and predictable, such analyses have the half-life of Polonium-210, and they only remind us that people like Michelle Bachmann and Bruce Babbitt have had "moments" in early presidential fields.
What is interesting at this stage, however, is the Trump/DeSantis dynamic. Even though there have been plenty of times in which the top two candidates early in an election cycle have both gone down to defeat, the similarities and differences between those two candidates tell us a lot about the state of American politics and punditry, no matter who succeeds or fails.
What can one say about Florida's current governor that has not already been said? He had a big splash, followed by a series of embarrassing moments that stalled his campaign. Even so, he did not sink into Haley/Pence territory, continuing to be the only non-Trump candidate who (at least for now) stands out from the crowd. But why?
In part, the explanation is simple: Fox News. In the immediate aftermath of the 2022 midterms, Fox was looking for someone to elevate into a position that would make it unnecessary for the network to support Trump yet again. The pundits were buzzing about DeSantis's "big win" in his reelection bid, and the die was cast. The anti-woke guy was the man of the hour. He even became important enough that, by the time March rolled along, "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" spent an entire episode focused on DeSantis.
As I pointed out in a Dorf on Law column at the time, however,
it is more than a bit worrying that Oliver breezily referred to DeSantis's 'landslide reelection as governor' without further comment -- even though the show later talked about some (but certainly not all) of the voter suppression moves that we have seen in Florida over the last few years, which were a big part of the reason that the election was not close. Oliver also did not bother to point out that the Democratic candidate for governor in 2022 was a recycled former Republican governor who ran a non-campaign that was shocking in its ineptitude, nor that even the terminally uninspiring incumbent US Senator Marco Rubio won his reelection against a much stronger candidate by almost as much (16.4 percent margin versus 19.4 percent margin) as the governor won his.
And even when New York Times pundit Ezra Klein recently acknowledged that the governor's reelection results were underwhelming, he still somehow managed to overstate DeSantis’s supposed strength: "I thought DeSantis was overvalued in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 election, where his victory was no more impressive than those of Mike DeWine in Ohio or Jared Polis in Colorado. But I think he’s being underestimated now. ... He has a proven ability to win tough races."
What? That is simply nonsense. DeSantis has won seven meaningful races: the primary in his first congressional run in 2012, the general elections in 2012, 2014, and 2016, the Republican primary for governor in 2018, and the general elections in 2018 and 2022. Exactly one -- the 2018 gubernatorial election -- was a tough race. Otherwise, he easily won the primary and general election in 2012 as a Tea Party favorite for an open seat in a Republican district, then easily won twice as the incumbent, and his win in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2018 was entirely a matter of receiving Donald Trump's endorsement -- as Trump will never let anyone forget. In no way were those "tough races." The only difficult race DeSantis has won, against Democrat Andrew Gillum in 2018, included DeSantis's infamous "monkey this up" dog whistle and was decided by 0.4 percent of the vote.
So even when a liberal pundit like Klein looks at DeSantis, he somehow invents things that simply are not there. And this is beyond the usual hagiography of presidential hopefuls. My favorite example of that is a biographical piece in The New Yorker a year ago (when it was already obvious that DeSantis was positioning himself for a national run), which included this: "In fact, one of the more funny quotes that I got from one of his former classmates at Yale was that Ron was so smart that we couldn’t plagiarize off of his papers because everyone would know where it came from, because he’s the only one that smart who could have made that argument."
To be clear, this is in reference to DeSantis's undergraduate years at Yale College, not Harvard Law School. Either way, however, the assertion is inane. Apparently, we are to believe that young Ron stood out so much from his peers that every professor would know when she was reading "the DeSantis answer," or something like that. There is simply no course at the college or law school level (or in an Economics graduate program, the other area in which I have experience) that works that way. Professors know when someone is doing well, and we might even become suspicious if a student with a weak record suddenly turns in an excellent answer. But the idea that DeSantis's talented and ambitious classmates at one of the most competitive colleges in the country would be saying, "Ooh, he's just plain smarter than me, and everyone would recognize his brilliance right away, so I'll cheat off of someone else's paper," is the kind of Special Mind fantasy that feeds Ivy League fan-fic like "The Gilmore Girls."
So DeSantis's rise is in large part driven by an almost willful misreading of the evidence, followed by an echo chamber, followed by everyone's observation that that process has turned him into a national name. But the problem is that nothing anyone has seen from DeSantis lives up to the self-reinforcing hype. I am not saying this because I disagree with him about policy (although I clearly do) but because we keep waiting to see something other than habitual belligerence from him -- or what Klein, in one of his better moments, called "that tic of gratuitous cruelty" -- but there is nothing more.
Repeating the word "woke" over and over again, in angrier and angrier ways, is pretty weak stuff.
I am not saying that he could not win, but if he does, it would have to be because his "I'm not Trump but I'm just like Trump" positioning is exactly what his party's voters want. And if he were to win the nomination, the press's hardwired desire not to call extremists extreme could lead him all the way to the White House.
Even so, a few weeks ago, I wrote about DeSantis's use of the term "legacy media," and I then noted parenthetically that "'Legacy media' is his Pepsi to Trump's Coke of 'fake news.'" After publishing the piece, I thought better of it and changed that line to: "'Legacy media' is his RC Cola to Trump's Pepsi of 'fake news.'"
Why the change? It is not as though "fake news" is in any way brilliant, but one might say that it "brands well." Trump vamps in front of his adoring audiences and tries out applause lines, and sometimes he is surprised at what works, such as "drain the swamp" in 2016, which he originally did not even plan to use. But his lizard brain -- "the seat of emotion, addiction, mood, and lots of other mental and emotional processes[,] the part of the brain that is phylogenetically very primitive[,] call[ed] the 'Lizard Brain,' because the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function[,] in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and fornication" -- simplifies things. By contrast, DeSantis manages not only to turn a two-syllable zinger into a six-syllable clunker, but he does so by choosing a word -- "legacy" -- that has positive connotations.
What is going on? As I suggested in the title of this column, DeSantis is not in fact the smartest guy in any room, as much as he might think so. He is instead essentially a human AI-bot, because computer programs like ChatGPT work by collecting words and phrases that are publicly available and assembling them into nominally new strings of words. But there is no originality, and there is no oomph. Taking and changing Trump's terribly original words -- and I do mean terrible there -- is not brilliance, or even thought.
Yelling at reporters (and even high school kids who are standing behind him as props) is empty anti-style. There is nothing good to say about Trump's Pepsi-Cola, but at least it is his own work. His closest competitor struggles to sift and sort what works for Trump, so far with less than impressive results.