Skip to content
Anti-Gay for the Stay
Go to my account

Anti-Gay for the Stay

How far right would President DeSantis be?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors national summit at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown on June 30, 2023. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The two wings of Ron DeSantis’ base are parties to a high-stakes wager that, if elected, he’ll govern the way they prefer and disappoint the other camp.

He spent the first six years of his career in national politics as a conventional small-government Republican. He’s spent the last five (particularly the last three) as an eager-beaver Trumpy populist, having correctly identified illiberalism as the path to national stature in the modern GOP. It’s anyone’s guess who “the real Ron DeSantis” is at this point, if such a thing exists.

His supporters are divided in unusual ways by the figure of Donald Trump. DeSantis’ post-liberal populist admirers see him as more Trump than Trump, a man who as president will make good on the frontrunner’s empty promises to use state power against the right’s enemies. DeSantis’ classically liberal conservative fans, like the staff of National Review, perceive him as less Trump than Trump. Yes, the governor sometimes panders to populists in unsavory ways, but as president he’ll govern more responsibly and much less demagogically than Trump would.

That’s the wager. Someone will lose, in the increasingly unlikely event that DeSantis is elected.

I’m of the opinion that he’s less Trump than Trump in the most important way that a candidate can be, declining to end the American experiment just because his fee-fees were hurt by losing an election. But as the governor turns more stupidly and offensively desperate to outflank Trump with bold illiberal gestures, I wonder if the populist droogs in his base might not be right in believing that as president he’d govern more like them than like the average NRO reader.

If you’re Ready for Ron, what is it you’re ready for, exactly?

A few days ago DeSantis’ rapid response team posted this bit of fan-created nonsense that captured the spirit of the governor’s entire campaign.

A lot going on there.

For starters, it’s another wearisome reminder of how much DeSantis’ shtick circa 2023 owes to Trump. It was Trump who made a habit as a candidate of promoting gonzo social-media memes created by his supporters, a sly way to advertise the populist energy lifting his campaign. He continued the practice occasionally as president. Six years later, a guy who’s frequently derided as a Trump copycat (including by Trump himself) can’t leave well enough alone in his mimicry even on something as trivial as cringey “meme magic.”

The strategy in amplifying the clip is also Very Online, as so much of the DeSantis effort is. Part of the governor’s effort to out-populist Trump includes recruiting right-wing social-media influencers with large followings, igniting a sort of arms race between the two to stockpile the largest arsenal of post-liberal chuds. (With predictable results.) Touting yourself as the Republican candidate who is most hostile to Pride Month makes little sense in a country where gay marriage enjoys 71 percent support but perfect sense if the voters you’re most eager to impress are red-pilled Twitter power users like Elon Musk.

Then there’s the message itself. Candidly, it’s hard not to laugh: Celebrating DeSantis’ tough-guy bravado by juxtaposing images of an oily muscle dude over a club beat is an interesting choice for a gay-baiting ad, as folks like Pete Buttigieg observed. The far-right fetish for masculine strength has always generated a certain tension, let us say, with its anti-gay politics. When Trump admirers create idols of their hero, they can seem a little too admiring.

The imagery in the clip is funny, an unwitting parody of the reactionary preoccupation with all things gay, but the hostility isn’t—especially the soundbite ​​extolling DeSantis for having signed “draconian laws that literally threaten trans existence.” A mortified Tim Miller summarized it so: “The ad’s intended message is that, unlike Trump, DeSantis will not show any humanity to gays and will be significantly more effective at targeting LGBT Americans by advancing the most ‘extreme slate of anti-trans laws in modern history.’”

Would President Ron DeSantis really “threaten trans existence,” whatever that might mean legislatively?

The classically liberal conservative DeSantis voters would say no, of course not. He’s playing a part for the primary. If you want to know the Real Ron, look at his history.

Earlier in his career, as a congressman, Mr. DeSantis did not seem consumed by combating the L.G.B.T.Q. community. At the time, he privately told a counterpart he didn’t care about people’s sexuality.

And when he first ran for governor five years ago, Mr. DeSantis suggested he would take a more moderate approach on some L.G.B.T.Q. rights issues, saying that Republicans needed to move beyond debating which bathrooms transgender people should use. “Getting into bathroom wars, I don’t think that’s a good use of our time,” he said at a Republican candidate forum in 2018.

Once he’s vanquished Trump and has united the GOP behind him, the Real Ron will have room to maneuver ideologically and will revert to form on this and other issues in next year’s general election. That’s how the National Review DeSantis voter is wagering. (Ironically, it’s also how MAGA diehards are wagering, suspicious that the governor’s secret centrist sympathies will reemerge as president.)

But DeSantis’ populist fans have a strong argument the other way. The governor used to be an establishmentarian, they say, but he’s changed since 2016 the way so many other right-wingers have. He now “knows what time it is” and is prepared to act accordingly.

Only a fool would dismiss that possibility. It’s hard psychologically for a person to go along indefinitely with a program they believe is wrong; a person of character will eventually abandon the program, a person of ambition will eventually abandon the beliefs. Ron DeSantis has a powerful professional incentive to convince himself that the right’s new illiberal program is the morally correct one. Who is to say he hasn’t succeeded? 

Even the target of DeSantis’ clip has lately shown greater hostility to LGBT interests. In February Trump rolled out a policy platform that would bar the federal government from promoting gender transition “at any age,” not just for minors, and he promised to sign a law affirming that the United States will recognize only the gender a person was born with. 

For all his faults, the not very socially conservative Trump has never been particularly demagogic toward gays. The fact that he now feels obliged to signal to Republicans that he’ll ramp it up goes to show how illiberalism has an inertia all its own. Having empowered the populist right, the movement’s pied piper suddenly finds them calling the tune on which fronts cultural revanchism should proceed along.

If a man who commands a bona fide personality cult thinks he lacks the political juice to resist his base’s demand for greater antagonism toward gays, there’s no reason to hope that President DeSantis would do better. Especially since his strategy for winning over populists is to compensate for Trump’s advantage in charisma with unmatched aggression on policy toward the right’s enemies.

Could DeSantis, having won the presidency with that strategy, really take his foot off the gas once inaugurated?

Prisoners have an expression to describe straight inmates who form romantic relationships with each other behind bars. “Gay for the stay,” they call it. When you have a need and can’t satisfy it in the way you’d prefer, you adapt.

Watching DeSantis strain to demagogue LGBT issues in hopes of prying reactionary right-wing votes away from Trump leads me to wonder if he’ll be “anti-gay for the stay” in the White House. He may or may not feel sincere anxiety about the public visibility of drag queens, transgender individuals, and rainbow flags; we might even grant him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn’t, that the NRO read on him is basically correct.

But it might not matter given the dynamics of Republican politics in 2023. He has a political need—keeping his base happy—and can’t satisfy it in the way he’d prefer, by blathering about tax cuts or shrinking government or whatever. So he’ll adapt, antagonizing gays as much as he feasibly can without destroying his chances at reelection.

Republican voters may insist upon it. Recently his opponent marveled at how the priorities of the right had changed in just a few years. (Click through to see the video.)

It’s partly the left’s fault. Their campaign to recognize the dignity of trans people and include them in public life predictably led to overreach, turning a plea for tolerance into a demand for validation. Insisting that gender is a purely social construct and that trans women should compete athletically with biological women has led to an equally predictable backlash. Americans agree that trans people should be protected from discrimination, the polling shows, but on basic questions of how gender should be determined, what’s fair in sports, and whether children confused about their sex should receive irreversible biological treatments, they’re right where you’d think they’d be.

Progressive social over-engineering would have made this an attractive issue politically even for the traditional right. For the new right that’s slouching ever further toward illiberalism, it’s irresistible.

If what gets you out of bed in the morning is the thought of undoing left-wing cultural victories, you’re destined to scrap with the gays eventually. The war over abortion has been won (sort of?) and victories in other longstanding disputes are piling up as fast as one can count them. But gay rights remains the white whale of right-wing populism, having been embraced with head-spinning speed by most Americans (younger ones particularly) and gone thoroughly mainstream in the wider culture over the past 20 years. A political movement nostalgic for an America where “we” were in charge won’t easily accommodate itself to seeing Pride Month celebrated in every retail space in the country during June.

Hence the euphoria social conservatives felt when Bud Light sales tanked following Anheuser-Busch’s promotion with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. That was less a meaningful victory for the right than it was proof of concept: The wider cultural tide toward gay visibility and ultimately gay celebration could be stopped with enough consumer effort, it seemed, and maybe reversed. Job one is making trans celebrities radioactive for corporate America, then pressing the advantage until they’re afraid for bottom-line reasons to go near any sexuality that isn’t completely conventional.

It ain’t much of an agenda but it’s something, especially when your side is at odds and frequently incoherent on meatier subjects like how big government should be, whether the U.S. should fund Ukraine, and whether right-wing coups are merely advisable or a necessity. At the end of the day, most Republicans can lay aside their differences and come together in the belief, at least, that there are just too many rainbow flags around, damn it.

If you’re Ron DeSantis, running the campaign you’re running, all of this makes antagonizing gays a no-brainer.

His strategy is to show the MAGA right that he’ll dare to go places politically where even Trump fears to tread. That’s the point of his anti-vax pandering: It’s less about turning Republicans against vaccines root and branch (although it may well have that effect) than showing them that he’s willing to slaughter certain establishment sacred cows that even Trump won’t confront. Choose Ron DeSantis as your nominee, give him power as your president, and he’ll take the fight to all of populism’s enemies, not just the ones a guy born and raised in New York City feels comfortable fighting.

That means the LGBT community, starting with transgender people but certainly not ending there. For all the hype about DeSantis being a “pale imitation” of Trump,” his campaign is predicated on the claim that he’ll paint in bolder colors as president than his rival will. Once elected, he’ll come under intense pressure to prove that that’s true.

And not just from random Republicans. From Trump himself, of course, and from Trump’s many loyal fans. If DeSantis wins the presidency, the former guy will sate his jealousy and resentment by attacking him every time he avoids a posture of maximum hostility to the left on culture-war issues. DeSantis might want to steer toward the center on LGBT subjects in office (doing so would be better for his 2028 campaign), but with Trump and MAGA still a populist force on the right, every gesture of conciliation will be treated as grounds for dubbing the new president a “sellout” and agitating for a primary challenge.

And so I ask again: Whether or not he’s anti-gay by conviction, whether he approves of his spokes-idiots crudely smearing people as “groomers” for objecting to the so-called “don’t say gay law,” is it that hard to believe President DeSantis will feel obliged to be “anti-gay for the stay” in the White House? Given the other moral compromises he’s made in pursuit of power, there’s no obvious reason to think he’ll blanch at that one if he feels it’s required to maintain his popularity among Republicans.

I understand why a traditional conservative finds him preferable as a candidate to Trump. I don’t understand why they’d find him preferable to anyone else in the field. His one neat trick politically is pandering in ever more desperate ways to the new right’s worst, most reactionary elements; there’s seemingly little he won’t condone or look the other way at if doing otherwise would put him crosswise with populists.

Why would any conscientious person want him to lead this party? Why would DeSantis himself want to lead a party that rewards such things?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.