Florida and the Orbán model – How the Democrats constantly misread DeSantis

Former Weekly Standard publisher and current Bulwark Editor-at-large, Bill Kristol nailed it in this Saturday tweet.

The subject at hand is the controversy over free speech and the University of Florida. For those who haven’t paid attention the past few days, the long and short of it is the University under apparent pressure from the DeSantis administration is blocking three professors from testifying on voting rights. These same professors and, in fact several others at state universities have in the past testified in lawsuits against the state.

The narrative this weekend in the circles I reside in, has been that professors were allowed to testify and supplement their incomes as outside experts when Rick Scott was Governor, but that policy changed under DeSantis. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think that is entirely accurate. As far as I can tell, Governor DeSantis continued the Scott policy of hands-off non-interference in professors outside work for at least a year or two, but now as with so many other things in 2021, the Governor sees he’s now the most visible Republican in the country and has shifted into authoritarian model*. So unlike Scott, he’s going to use his power to stifle “dissent” on University campuses and further furnish his anti-elite credentials (This is of course based on the assumption UF’s decision was based on pressure from DeSantis – that is my assumption but again is an assumption not something we can document).

With this in mind, let’s discuss what the Governor is basing his decisions on and how the Democrats don’t seem to know what has hit them.

Orbán not Trump is really DeSantis’ model

As we discussed in August, DeSantis is compared to Donald Trump by lazy national pundits and Democrats who don’t really think deeply about things. But the real comparison is with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Bill Kristol, who of course I understand most liberals detest me quoting regularly, does understand foreign policy and the sort of messaging that comes from dictators abroad better than the vast majority of American political pundits.

Much like DeSantis, Orbán has combined cultural conservatism with economic populism which includes anti-corporatism and a grievance-based nationalism ( Orbán also has a strong homophobic and antisemitic streak but I don’t see DeSantis really going there, at least not yet). Orbán’s success in remaking Hungary in his image is exactly what DeSantis strives for.

Orbán’s attacks on the European Union and his tact in terms of asserting Hungary’s “independence” from the EU is EXACTLY like how DeSantis is playing his attacks on federal power here and promoting Florida as an alternative to “Blue America.”

In fact, Orbán represents the model for populists everywhere, which much like what DeSantis is doing in Florida leaves plenty of room to his left, but also some room on his right as well. Trump on the other hand, may show the way how to rhetorically gain favor and win elections to populists, but his failed attempt at governance renders his playbook far less useful than that of Orbán.

The Democrats misinterpretations

These days most Democrats who have influence over the party’s messaging like to see things in black and white. Putin and Trump are bad while any force opposing them is good. They haven’t really gotten their heads around what DeSantis is building – a populist movement that appeals to working class voters, hits out at elites (which includes curtailing the activities of university professors) and is tightly-wound around the idea of identity – as Floridians or Americans. They are correct in identifying that like Trump’s movement, anti-intellectualism is at the heart of the identity, but haven’t quite grasped what DeSantis is creating or building.

As a proud Floridian, I don’t want DeSantis to define what being from Florida is about (though since he actually grew up here unlike Jeb Bush and Rick Scott he does have some cred that they lacked IMO to discuss it). But DeSantis is defining that for the nation – he’s making Florida a repository for those associated with anti-intellectualism and the anti-elite grievance.

Meanwhile, many prominent Democrats I speak to continue to view DeSantis as simply a Trump acolyte (“Baby Trump” is the favorite put down these folks use) or some sort of clownish buffoon, which I can assure he is not. Every word that comes out of his mouth has a purpose – and it’s working.

For example, when DeSantis appears to misspeak on vaccines or allows surrogates like the Surgeon General to question vaccines he knows what he is doing – he’s not only appealing to his base, but to working class voters of color who might be displeased with President Biden’s vaccine mandates.

Vaccines, as many Democrats have been slow to recognize has become more of a class-based issue than the political noise machine would lead you to believe. So if the Democrats lose any working class voters of color due to this issue, they better darn well pick up some college-educated vaccinated suburban voters to offset these loses – and that clearly is NOT happening based on the latest polling data.

DeSantis constant harping on immigration and the border is very much in the Orbán playbook and I’d argue rhetorically the way DeSantis approaches is it, is more Orbán and less Trump. So DeSantis can thread a needle where he simultaneously embraces immigrant groups that are already here, while rejecting new immigrants and harping on “the border.” Trump was unable to thread this needle, though it must be noted he did remarkably well for a Republican among Mexican-Americans in Texas, particularly in counties near the border.

Where to go from here?

What is interesting in Hungary is recently all the anti-Orbán forces, be they hard left, centrist or hard right have come together under a single banner to contest the upcoming elections – a remarkable feat of coalition building, but also a recognition on all sides of the political spectrum that they are facing down the barrel of a gun versus an Autocrat. But it is unlikely the Democrats could put together such a coalition – heck as the recent battles on Capitol Hill demonstrate, Democrats have a hard time holding even a narrow majority together.

The Democrats need to talk about democracy and autocracy and build a coalition including ANYONE of any ideology that’s opposed to what DeSantis is building in Florida. But this is easier said than done, especially given the reactive tone of some of the leading Democratic candidates for Governor. When you are constantly playing defense, don’t know actually what drives the opposition and have fragile, crumbling infrastructure on the ground, it’s hard to go on offense.

But in the coming days and weeks, we’ll have more suggestions for Florida’s Democrats and other opponents of DeSantis in terms of how the debate must be framed going forward.


* I will double-check on whether DeSantis allowed expert witnesses and outside work for University professors this week, but I am fairly certain he did. But UF’s reversal now indicates DeSantis has changed tacts.

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