There is only one thing better than seeing somebody brought down by their hubris and that’s seeing two people brought down by their shared hubris. That’s what rather predictably happened on Thursday when Ron DeSantis launched his bid to become the next US president via Elon Musk’s Twitter.
There was no good reason why DeSantis should have chosen this unusual kind of launch and there were plenty of reasons why he shouldn’t. An old-school launch would have been a better idea. Launching it in an old school might have even set a tone for the next year of hand-shaking. DeSantis, after all, is big on education. He is currently in a fight with educators in Florida where his censorship of certain books found in school libraries is hugely controversial. Perhaps that’s a reason why he should have avoided using a school. America is not Florida and what works in one place might not work everywhere. Scratch any notion, then, of building a campaign on banning books and invading Disneyland.
But, let’s say, some old-fashioned launch would have served him just as well. A parade down a street somewhere. An appearance on any of the big network chat shows. Even a press conference in the front lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping wouldn’t have been as bad as putting his destiny in the hands of a man whose name has become synonymous with problematic communications technology.
This is where Musk comes in. Twitter failed when Musk needed it the most. Spaces is a place for users to go and listen (occasionally contribute) to debates. It’s audio only (another reason why DeSantis was crazy choosing it) and though it generally works, that can generally be said about Twitter itself. It’s generally fine. And the London Tube is generally reliable. The weather in Manchester is generally not rainy. And Liverpool generally win their football matches.
But only a fool would put their entire future on any one of those generalities.
It took half an hour for the Spaces event to take place, giving network pundits plenty of time to say “I told you this would happen”. Before that, anybody able to access the “space” would have heard Musk mumbling about server loads and some equally odd sounds. But that is also very on-brand for Musk. Interviewed by David Faber of CNBC last week, Musk made headlines by taking an abnormally long pause before answering a question. That’s habitual with him; an eccentricity one might say. One might even say one eccentricity among very many eccentricities and, if one did say that, one should also follow it up by asking why anybody would consider him the ideal second voice at a campaign launch.
By the time it did start, it was all a bit of an anti-climax. Musk spent plenty of time rambling about his visions for Twitter (and how his own popularity was to blame for the Spaces crashing). DeSantis just confirmed what we’ve long known about the Florida Governor. He is a very poor retail politician. If Dickie Pilager, the Chris Cooper character in John Sayles’s 2004 political satire, Silver City, weren’t already based on then-Governor George W. Bush, he could have been based on DeSantis. When on autocue, the Florida Governor plays the moderately convincing candidate. To the casual viewer, he lives up to the hype. Just spend a little longer observing him and you’ll see that he just can’t freestyle. Joe Biden might have a few problems garbling words (and occasionally falling flat on his face) but he knows how to look a person in the eye and crack a joke. He’s a consummate networker and, one-on-one, a man skilled at perhaps the most important skill when it comes to being a successful politician. He makes that person believe in that moment that Biden likes them. DeSantis has none of that.
Instead, we had the Florida Governor talking to the world’s richest man (well, depending on share prices on any given day) and rehearsing many of the lines he’ll be hoping will chime with undecided American voters. Whether his constant railing against the “woke mob” will work for him is really a question for another day (I don’t think it will and I think people are already bored of the culture war) and the subject of previous articles. What was on display last night was not enough to shift anybody’s thinking. His soundbites are pretty obvious (“No excuses – I will get the job done”) but his delivery sounds tight to the point that it begins to sound like it’s generated by AI. It’s unlikely he’ll be in any debate with Trump soon. Mud will be slung from a distance which gives Trump a big edge given his reach and his understanding of mud. And Trump, despite all his legal problems and obsessive need to relitigate the 2020 election, still has the personable touch that DeSantis lacks. Love him or loathe him, Trump is compelling. DeSantis is younger and that’s about it. It’s probably not going to be enough.
Simple things also matter in American politics. Like knowing how to play the media game. When Trump did his CNN Town Hall recently, he started seated. He quite obviously knew it wasn’t working for him (the high stool made him slouch so that his tie hung oddly beneath his jacket). When he returned after the ad break, he chose to stand. It’s that kind of self-awareness that DeSantis lacks. Instead, he trusted his campaign launch to a man who has been struggling (and failing) to decide what “free speech” looks like and tinkering with hugely complicated social media network in ways that make it impossible to decide if it’s on its way to recovery or ruination. And the same can be said about DeSantis’s campaign. Right now, it’s somewhere between recovery and ruination. So perhaps picking Musk made sense after all…
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