Thursday, March 23, 2023

Janan Ganesh points out one upside of a cult of personality

A couple of days ago, I wrote the following as part of a post on the increasingly nasty fight for the GOP nomination. It's a point we've been making for a while, but recent events have made it more important.

DeSantis, on the other hand, has a personal hold on almost no one. His support comes all but entirely from the combination of far-right positions, perceived viability, and a protected spot in the political hothouse, and the last two of those are quite fragile. When the fighting began in earnest, it was obvious he was going to lose that right-out-of-the-box shine quickly.

Janan Ganesh writing for the Financial Times hit on a similar idea and delved much deeper into the implications

There was always one benign feature of the Trump personality cult. Because millions of voters are unconditionally faithful to the 45th president, he doesn’t need to say or do anything in particular. His flock is there if he builds a wall against Mexico, and there if he doesn’t. It is there when he flatters the dictator of North Korea, and there when he threatens to crush him. It is there as he promises an infrastructure splurge, and there as his successor Joe Biden does much more to bring one about. It is even there when he recommends vaccines against Covid-19.

Trump doesn’t live or die by his policies. That is the point of a personality cult. He has no incentive to become ever more extreme (though also no incentive not to). I suspect he could turn into a pro-trade liberal and China dove and keep the greater share of his following.

DeSantis has no such license. What makes him so deceptively risky is that he must keep earning and retaining the trust of populist voters through his actions. His conventional Ivy League résumé, his photo-op with Biden during Hurricane Ian, even his personal stiffness: moderate Republicans hope that these are the marks of a pliable company man.

But these are also liabilities that he will have to counteract in a primary contest. So, expect more gestures in the vein of his Ukraine statement, or his call for a grand jury to look into vaccines, or his rolling war on woke. No US politician in recent years has been more resourceful in finding causes to fight. That owes something to imagination. It owes even more to insecurity about his place in his party.



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